The Ticking Euro Bomb: How a Good Idea Became a Tragedy
Part 3: The Critics of the Euro
There were opposing voices in society, particularly in Germany, where the deutsche mark was not just a means of payment but also a psychologically important symbol of Germany's postwar reconstruction and economic miracle. The 1990s were a decade of squabbles over the euro.
In 1992, for example, 62 German professors issued a joint warning against introducing the euro. They feared that the monetary union, the way it was structured, would "expose Western Europe to strong economic fluctuations, which, in the foreseeable future, could lead to a political acid test."
In the end, the political will prevailed over the economic objections. In April 1998, the two houses of the German parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, which represents the interests of Germany's 16 states, cleared the way for the last step toward monetary union.
After that, whenever a government official spoke out against the euro, it would set off an enormous commotion throughout Europe. Hans Reckers, the president of the central bank in the German state of Hesse, learned that when he dared to voice his concerns publicly.
Reckers was a member of the Bundesbank executive board at the time. In April 2000, near the end of a speech to a handful of financial journalists in the conference room of the state central bank, he cleared his throat and said: "In my view, Greece is by no means ready for the monetary union. Its accession must be postponed by at least a year."
It took about 20 minutes for the first news agency reports to be sent, and another five minutes for prices to begin plunging on the Athens stock exchange, prompting Greece's central bank to buy up drachma to prevent it from declining in value. Eichel, the finance minister, called then-Bundesbank President Ernst Welteke, and Welteke called Reckers, who was promptly muzzled. But today Reckers claims that all 15 of the bankers on the Bundesbank executive board felt that the Greece accession was a mistake.
A mistake, some said, that could be absorbed because Greece is such a small country.
A dramatic mistake, others said, warning against underestimating the power of the financial markets.
The true problems were not addressed in the wake of the Jan. 1, 2002 introduction of the euro. Despite all the declarations of intent in Maastricht, the 12 new euro countries drove up their debt by more than 600 billion in the five years of preparations for the introduction of the euro. By the end of 2002, they had a combined debt of 4.9 trillion, with Italy's debt alone amounting to 1.3 trillion.
The Skepticism of the Americans
Across the Atlantic, American economists were busy examining Europe's plans, which they felt were half-baked and "oversized," in the words of financial economist Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard professor and adviser to US presidents and governments around the world. His office is in the Littauer Building on the edge of Harvard's manicured campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When the euro became a real currency, Rogoff had just taken the position of chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and he was teaching at Princeton when the euro began to take shape in the 1990s. He agreed with his fellow US economists' view that the euro was conceived "on too grand a scale."
Rogoff observed that a trans-Atlantic rift was developing between two groups of economists. The Americans and the Western Europeans, who usually more or less agreed on key macroeconomic issues, were suddenly arguing to the point of insult. The Europeans accused their overseas colleagues of failing to recognize the historic processes, the grand vision and Europe's great leap forward. The Americans, dry and pragmatic, accused their European counterparts of downplaying the risks. Once again, they felt that Old Europe was being overly romantic and blind to reality.
Rogoff did find some good ideas in the work of the EU and the architects of the euro. The Maastricht debt criterion, for example, remains a brilliant and valid idea to this day, says Rogoff. He is still convinced that setting an upper limit for the ratio of government debt to GDP at 60 percent proved to be a great success.
"It was something new at the time," says Rogoff. "It was a great insight."
The only problem, as soon became apparent, was that the Europeans had a tendency to betray their own ideals.
REPORTED BY FERRY BATZOGLOU, MANFRED ERTEL, ULLRICH FICHTNER, HAUKE GOOS, RALF HOPPE, THOMAS HÜETLIN, GUIDO MINGELS, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, CORDT SCHNIBBEN, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, THOMAS SCHULZ AND ALEXANDER SMOLTCZYK
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