Open Europe Blog

In today’s Telegraph, Mats Persson seeks to answer this simple – and yet brutally complex – question: is the eurozone crisis over?

‘We are in the middle of the beginning of the end. The crisis has really hit its peak”, former French economy minister and current IMF chief Christine Lagarde told a broadcaster when asked about the eurozone crisis. The only problem: that was in July 2010. Time and again, EU leaders have declared the crisis over – and been proven wrong. So with markets remaining cautiously optimistic about the euro, is the worst finally behind us?

There are well-rehearsed reasons to be cheerful. Borrowing costs are down for all crisis-stricken countries, exports are picking up in some and EU leaders have actually agreed on a forward-looking measure by turning the ECB into a single supervisor for eurozone banks. Just as eurozone leaders have celebrated prematurely, Anglo-Saxon analysts have consistently tended to overstate the immediate risk of a eurozone break-up. Famously, one major US bank last year assigned an 80pc-90pc risk of Greece leaving the euro – an assessment that Open Europe cautioned strongly against. In Europe, the safest money is always on another fudge. Germany and the ECB were likely to take a political decision to keep Greece inside the eurozone for now, given the fragile situation elsewhere.

But the news last week that the eurozone economy shrunk by 0.6pc in the last quarter of 2012 illustrated what was always the bloc’s greatest challenge: reversing chronic economic malaise. Most fundamentally, reconciling a supranational currency with 17 national democracies remains a challenge. The eurozone’s basic austerity-for-cash prescription continues to fuel tension within individual countries and between the hawkish north and the austerity-fatigued south, testing voters’ patience. The forthcoming Italian elections are turning into a bit of a referendum on EU-mandated austerity, just like the Greek elections last year. Five of the seven main political parties – together polling at around 50pc – have vowed to end cuts. Two parties, Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement, the latter led by comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo, even want a referendum on whether the country should remain in the eurozone. The everlasting Silvio Berlusconi is making last-minute gains, in part thanks to a promise to kill what he calls “austerity imposed by Europe”. Against all known principles of common sense, the man still could win. Thankfully, a broadly pro-reform, centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani is the most likely outcome, but even then the hope of sweeping economic reforms will be tempered, not least due to those parties’ strong links to the unions.

The Italian elections show how the north and Club Med in many ways are locked into a Catch-22: one wants cash (“solidarity”) first, supervision or discipline second, the other the exact opposite. That dynamic is again evident in the ongoing difficulties in agreeing a bail-out for Cyprus: Germany is unwilling to put in cash for fear of rewarding the bloated Cypriot financial sector. Cyprus resists far-reaching privatisations or significant write-downs of its banking or sovereign debt. This north-south stalemate could become further entrenched if French president Francois Hollande continues to slide towards the Mediterranean bloc, both in terms of political temperament and growth rates (France registered zero growth in 2012). This would weaken the Franco-German axis.

And beyond politics, has the eurozone’s triple crisis – fiscal, banking and competitiveness – really been addressed in any fundamental way? Many eurozone countries are on the path to running a primary surplus – meaning income exceeds outgoings, excluding the cost of servicing a country’s debt. But the eurozone’s overall debt still stands at 90pc of GDP, compared to 70pc in early 2010. Greece, Italy, Portugal and soon probably Cyprus, have debt levels exceeding 120pc of GDP – double what is meant to be allowed under eurozone rules.

The banking sector, too, remains fragile. Thankfully, ECB action helped avoid a massive bank funding crisis last year, but there is a price: eurozone banks have become alarmingly reliant on artificial life support. Liquidity from the ECB to banks now tops €1 trillion (£860bn) – up €140bn on 2009. Even though some banks have started to pay back the cash they owed the ECB early, the eurozone is a long way off a back-stop to allow for wind-downs of bust banks or disentangling of bank and government debt. Overnight interbank lending – a key indicator of banks confidence in the system – remains only half of what it was in 2009 and a third of its peak in 2007. If the crisis were solved, this would surely not be the case.

Finally, by almost every indicator, the single currency is absolutely riddled with economic imbalances, but with no fiscal facility to compensate for them. Encouragingly, Spain, Portugal and in particular Ireland have cut unit labour costs relative to Germany – a key measure of competitiveness – but Italy and France are actually becoming less competitive in relative terms. And imbalances go far beyond labour cost. This year, Greece is expected to contract by over 4pc, Spain by 1.5pc and Cyprus by almost 2pc – while Germany, Finland and others are set for growth. Then there is unemployment. Shockingly, Greek unemployment hit 27pc towards the end of last year, with youth unemployment close to 62pc. Spain is not much better at 26pc and 55pc respectively – and all the scheduled reforms and cuts haven’t even been implemented yet. In Germany, meanwhile, unemployment is at record lows.

In a best-case scenario, the Mediterranean countries will follow the Irish example and continue to squeeze wages and cut costs at home. But in light of domestic political resistance, these imbalances could well continue to test the eurozone’s one-size-fits-all model for a very long time.

So, we have an election fought over EU austerity, political stalemate, a bail-out which no one wants to pay for, abysmal growth forecasts and massive unemployment. There may come a day when the eurozone bounces back and puts us all to shame. But to celebrate now the “end of the crisis” seems to be setting the bar exceptionally low.

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