The July 13 deal offering more financing for Greece has been billed as a last-minute step back from the brink, but the threat of a “temporary exit” from the euro proposed by a German coalition government has shaken the foundation of the euro in a far more fundamental way than meets the eye.
It has undermined what little Franco-German cooperation was left in economic affairs; it has made the single currency as it stands politically indefensible in France; and it has substantially increased the risk of euro exit across the monetary union. In short, the prospect of Grexit today has made a French, or even German, exit tomorrow far more likely.
By imposing a further socially regressive fiscal adjustment, the recent agreement confirmed fears on the left that the European Union could choose to impose a particular brand of neoliberal conservatism by any means necessary. [...]
Through its actions, Germany has made a broader political point about the governance of the euro. It has confirmed its belief that federalism by exception — the complete annihilation of a member state’s sovereignty and national democracy — is in order whenever a eurozone member is perceived to challenge the rules-based functioning of the monetary union. In essence, Germany established that some democracies are more equal than others. By doing so, the agreement has sought to remove politics and discretion from the functioning of the monetary union, an idea that has long been very dear to the French.
The negotiations leading to the Greek agreement also destroyed the constructive ambiguity created by the Maastricht Treaty by making it absolutely clear that Germany is prepared to amputate and obliterate one of its members rather than make concessions. Germany appears to believe that the single currency ought to be a fixed exchange-rate regime or not exist at all in its current form, even if this means abandoning the underlying project of political integration that it was always meant to serve.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Germany signaled to France that it was prepared to go ahead alone and take a clear contradictory stand on a critical political issue.
This forceful attitude and the several taboos it broke reveal that the currency union that Germany wants is probably fundamentally incompatible with the one that the French elite can sell and the French public can subscribe to. The choice will soon be whether Germany can build the euro it wants with France or whether the common currency falls apart.
Germany could undoubtedly build a very successful monetary union with the Baltic countries, the Netherlands and a few other nations, but it must understand that it will never build an economically successful and politically stable monetary union with France and the rest of Europe on these terms.
Over the long run, France, Italy and Spain, to name just a few, would not take part in such a union, not because they can’t, but because they wouldn’t want to. The collective G.D.P. and population of these countries is twice that of Germany; eventually, a confrontation is inevitable.
This sorry state of affairs is not of Germany’s making alone. It began largely because of France’s romantic and somewhat naïve view of the monetary union; it deepened due to France’s political absence from European affairs since the beginning of the crisis; and it was compounded by the traumatic shock caused by financial stress on French banks and government bonds during the summer of 2011, which laid bare the economic enfeeblement that continues to undermine France’s self-confidence.
Meanwhile, Germany has built a politically and morally coherent narrative that obscures an economically deceptive vision based on the idea that abiding by the rules alone can create prosperity and stability for the European Union as a whole. This narrative has wide support across the German political spectrum and the clear backing of the German public.
France has still not completely overcome its inclination to put French sovereignty and decision-making first and has failed to articulate its own post-Maastricht vision of a prosperous monetary union, backed by a federal budget, governed by a real European executive power and legitimized by the European Parliament.
Despite the recent call by President François Hollande to address these issues, progress is unlikely. That’s because French elites are now unable to convince the public of the merits of the Union’s current economic policies in general — and toward Greece in particular. They are also too divided to propose a new shared vision, too disoriented to challenge the German narrative, and too afraid to start building alliances with like-minded countries such as Italy and Spain.
This unhappy marriage could last for years, but it will substantially increase the chances of anti-establishment parties coming to power across Europe, because mainstream leaders can no longer disprove the assertion that the euro as it stands has become both economically and politically destructive.
This will force all parties, including pro-European ones, to engage in a discussion about the potential merits of leaving the currency union and it will encourage political posturing, especially in France, where there is an undercurrent of Germanophobia that is easy to rekindle.
Regardless of what happens in Greece now, the July 13 agreement has made the prospect of a future euro breakup far more likely. The question is whether it will take the form of an orderly departure by Germany or a prolonged and economically more destructive exit by France and the south of Europe.
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