The Ticking Euro Bomb: How a Good Idea Became a Tragedy

Part 2: The Greeks Jump at the Opportunity

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In Greece, the euro fueled hopes of a better future. In October 1993, socialist Andreas Papandreou was reelected as prime minister. Then-Finance Minister Yiannos Papantoniou recalls today that the cabinet of Papandreou's new administration quickly became convinced that Greece's accession to the monetary union was the only chance to solve the country's financial problems.

Greece was already well over its head in debt at the time. The country's liabilities exceeded its real economic strength, with the national debt amounting to 114 percent of the gross domestic product. Athens was battling more than 14 percent inflation and the economy was shrinking.

Any economist could have recognized that the Greek economy was not competitive, and that the country, without outside impulses, seemed incapable of fundamentally changing its situation. The euro and its regime were to forcibly bring about necessary reforms, and in particular make it easier to obtain credit. Gaining accession to the euro zone became Finance Minister Papantoniou's mission.

He used every opportunity to remind people of Greece's claim. When the EU finance ministers met in Brussels in April 1997 to discuss what the new money would look like, Papantoniou proposed that the coins be embossed with both Latin and Greek letters. Then-German Finance Minister Theo Waigel curtly rejected the idea.

Greece was not in a position to make demands, he said. And then, turning to Papantoniou, he added: "You are not part of this, and you will not be part of this."

When the two finance ministers spoke later on, Papantoniou proposed a bet to Waigel, namely that Greece would get the euro. Indeed, it would only take a few years for Papantoniou to win his bet.

Waigel, who recently described Greece's acceptance into the euro zone as a "mortal sin" in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, eventually became a fan of Greece, says Papantoniou. "It was Waigel who brought us into the euro," he says. "It is absolutely untrue that he was opposed to our accession to the euro."

The former Greek finance minister dismisses the charge that his country used falsified figures to cheat its way into the euro zone. "We didn't do anything differently from all the other countries," he says.

The Trickery of Euro Candidates

In his book "Herausforderung Euro" ("The Euro Challenge"), Hans Tietmeyer, the then-president of Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, confirms that "questionable cosmetic surgery" was performed in some countries to make data on inflation rates, government debt and price trends conform to the euro zone's requirements.

Italy's government debt of 115 percent of GDP was dramatically higher than the 60 percent debt limit agreed to in the Maastricht Treaty. Belgium was also massively in violation of treaty provisions.

At the time, then-Bundesbank President Tietmeyer noted with concern that, in 1998, the Europeans, inspired by the sheer magnitude of their project, had eliminated the final test of whether enough countries even satisfied the requirements for the euro, from their roadmap for switching to the new currency. They were determined that the euro would be introduced on Jan. 1, 2002.

In a German government meeting that was supposed to make a decision on the currency, Tietmeyer raised his objections against certain euro candidates -- to no avail. In fact, the outcome of the meeting had already been determined in advance, and it had even been stated in writing.

Then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a thoroughly committed European who belonged to the school of thought that there should never again be a war in Europe, wanted the historic decision. As Tietmeyer recalls, the chancellor said solemnly: "May we look back at the euro in 50 years' time as positively as we do today with the deutsche mark."

Numbers and data were constantly being thrown around at the time, in the late 1990s. The gathering of data was left up to each EU country, and Europeans trusted one another. But there was one question that hadn't been clarified: When the figures came together in Luxembourg, what would happen if Eurostat, the organization tasked with assembling the data, discovered mistakes or violations of the rules? What authority or body would implement sanctions, and at what level?

Schröder and Eichel Inherit the Euro

Germany was still preoccupied with other issues. After 16 years under Kohl, a coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party won the German national election in 1998. In Germany, it felt like the beginning of a new era, but there was little enthusiasm for the European project. For the new Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the euro was no longer a question of war and peace. Schröder flippantly referred to the new currency as a "sickly premature baby."

But the euro was also a consistently political currency, says Eichel. Spain, Portugal and Greece were all former military dictatorships that had only found their way back to democracy in the mid-1970s. The strong connection to Europe, says Eichel, was also seen as a means of strengthening democracy.

Greece's democracy received the validation it desired in 2000, when the European Commission and the European Central Bank concluded that the country had made great strides in the previous two years. The ECB warned against Greece's high debt levels, and yet the Commission recommended that Athens be admitted to the common currency. "Greece has completed a successful convergence process after a long and difficult path," then-Finance Minister Eichel told the German parliament, the Bundestag.

Then-Greek Finance Minister Papantoniou had reached his goal, winning his bet with Theo Waigel. Greece became a member of the euro zone.

But that meant that the European treaties weren't worth the paper they were printed on. Greece's public debt wasn't at 60 percent of GDP, the required maximum, but at over 100 percent. And even back then, there were already doubts about the numbers that Athens was officially reporting.

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