The Four Horsemen of the Acropolis: An Old Battlefront Returns in War on Euro
In 1998, four renegade German professors tried to stop the introduction of the euro with a legal challenge in Germany's highest court. Now, 12 years later, they are fighting against a German bailout for Greece -- and this time around, people are listening to them.
Wilhelm Hankel is sitting on the stage at a meeting of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. He is beaming with joy. The 81-year-old professor has just explained why the euro has always been a monstrosity, and why it will and must fail. Although the current plans to "get a living corpse to walk" are touching, he scoffed, one thing is already clear: The euro bailout package will only save the banks.
Surprisingly enough, his presentation was met with long and enthusiastic applause from his audience of economists. For Hankel, it was about time. The recalcitrant professor has been waiting for what has seemed like an eternity for this recognition. Since Jan. 12, 1998, to be precise.
It was on that day Hankel drove to Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany, together with constitutional law expert Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider and economists Joachim Starbatty and Wilhelm Nölling. At the German Federal Constitutional Court, which is located in Karlsruhe, the four professors dropped off a 352-page brief that would change their lives. It was a complaint against the introduction of the euro. They didn't want this new currency. They wanted to keep their old Federal Republic of Germany, as post-war Germany is officially known, and its German mark.
Nothing was the same again after that. Suddenly they stopped getting invited to conferences. Newspapers were reluctant to print their opinion pieces. Political allies distanced themselves from the four men. "We were the Antichrists," says Hankel, describing the mood at the time.
'Idiot Savants with No Sense of History'
With the exception of a small group of people, hardly anyone agreed with them. The four men argued that the euro could not remain stable, because the economies of the participating countries were too disparate and the control mechanisms too lax. This would jeopardize German price stability and affluence. Besides, they argued, a political union had to precede a monetary union.
When the court in Karlsruhe dismissed their suit, they became the objects of malicious insults. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), called them "idiot savants with no sense of history." It was an insult Hankel would never forget. After all, Hankel himself was a former close colleague of the legendary German Economics Minister Karl Schiller, who also belonged to the SPD, as well as being the former head of the Landesbank in the state of Hesse. He had also taught at Harvard and Georgetown University, among other institutions.
"For 10 years I was practically barred from writing articles," Hankel complains. He was so marginalized that only right-wing publications like the controversial weekly magazine Junge Freiheit would publish his writing, a circumstance he characterizes today as an act of self-defense.
The four professors, already viewed with suspicion by the public, were marginalized even further by such lapses, so much so that they came to be associated with German nationalism.
Suddenly in Demand
Although their views haven't changed, the world around them has. Now that the European single currency is in fact crumbling, the opinions of these opponents of the euro are in demand once again. And quietly enjoying their victory isn't in the nature of these four men.
The contrary professors got together again, and Schachtschneider, the legal expert, spent two weeks drafting a new complaint. This time it was directed against the bailout package for Greece. Then the four elderly gentlemen made another trip to Karlsruhe. On May 7, after the German parliament, the Bundestag, had passed legislation to approve the financial bailout plan, they submitted their constitutional complaint, together with a request for a temporary court injunction that would prevent then-German President Horst Köhler from signing the aid bill into law before the Constitutional Court could consider their complaint.
A few days later, an ad appeared in the respected center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was paid for by Dieter Spethmann, the former CEO of the giant German industrial conglomerate Thyssen, who had since joined the group. The copy read: "As was once the case before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Europe's politicians have now lost any sense for the rights, concerns and expectations of their citizens."
It was a call for mutiny, the goal being to encourage citizens to fight back against politicians who had knowingly violated the "no bailout" clause in the Maastricht Treaty, which prohibits an EU member state from financially assisting another member state. The professors argued that violating this clause would turn the monetary union into a bailout and debt community.
The fact that the major euro emergency rescue package was approved in a mad rush in the night of May 10, at the Brussels crisis summit, only reinforced their arguments. Starbatty calls it an "outrageous" rush job. "Even a rabbit-breeding club has to submit its agenda items two weeks before a meeting, so that the members can be prepared," he says.
- Part 1: An Old Battlefront Returns in War on Euro
- Part 2: Railing against Brussels
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