Angela Merkel, austerity, bailouts, debt, EU Stability and Growth Pact, euro, European Central Bank, European Union, Eurozone, Following Up, France, Francois Hollande, Germany, Greece, International Monetary Fund, Russia, Syriza
Every new fact emerging from Greece and its plight seems weirder and weirder. Today, the day of the country’s referendum on its creditors’ proposals to handle its financial crisis, the Greek government started issuing “official projections” of the final results. Not that Greece covers multiple time-zones like the United States, but I’m sure glad Washington isn’t in that possibly elections-altering business.
As of this writing, the only (apparent) certainty about the Greece mess is that its population has rejected the latest bailout-for-austerity deal offered by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Even Europe’s most important national leader, Germany’s Angela Merkel, doesn’t seem to know what comes next; before the polls closed, she announced that she’ll meet tomorrow with French President Francois Hollande for a “joint assessment of the situation.”
Europe’s immediate challenge is deciding what a “No” vote by Greece means for the future of the European Union and of the eurozone – since Greece appears to have decided to break the rules of these rules-based institutions. (Here it’s important to note that Greece has by no means been the first rule-breaker, and that two of the biggest outlaws – when it comes to the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact – have been Germany and France.) How the continent handles the Greek challenge will surely influence how other economically hurting, debt-strapped – and larger – members of its defining organizations will react. Specifically, will Portugal and Spain and ultimately even Italy more actively wonder whether they are better off remaining within such arrangements or leaving?
In turn, these decisions have huge national security and geopolitical implications. However flawed they have or haven’t been, pan-European institutions have been major pillars of the free world’s strategy for turning the continent into a zone of peace following centuries of calamitous wars. In a nuclear age, for the entire world’s sake, these conflicts simply could not be allowed to continue. It’s eminently arguable that these institutions were insufficiently democratic or badly structured from an economic standpoint, or simply that they sought too much too soon (or too little too late, depending on your viewpoint). But if they fall apart, recreating them will be excruciatingly difficult, and Europe will surely become a more, not less, combustible place.
Worse, this new instability would emerge just at a time of rising tensions between America and its European allies on the one hand, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia on the other. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Greece’s Syriza party leaders are betting on precisely these dangers to produce greater flexibility by their creditors.
But as important as these threats are, it’s tough to imagine any of them being solved or even headed off for very long if Greece’s fundamental economic problems aren’t solved, and what’s painfully clear to me is that no one in charge anywhere has a realistic plan.
As I suggested last week, Greece lacks a viable national economy. And no bail-out programs or austerity policies, much less further can-kicking, do anything to change its fundamental predicament. It doesn’t produce enough goods and services at affordable prices to meet its own current (first world-level) desires. It doesn’t produce enough of anything that the rest of the world is willing to purchase from it that’s needed to fill the gap. And I haven’t seen any evidence that any Greek leaders or European leaders are even thinking in detail about these issues – which matter crucially these days because the world economy is growing so sluggishly.
The closest I’ve seen to any micro-economic and structural thinking about Greece’s future is the idea that the country could ride a tourism boom back to respectable growth if either (a) the Germans and other wealthier Europeans would simply spend more of their incomes on Greek vacations; or (b) a currency devaluation following an exit from the euro made Greek vacations an irresistible bargain for the entire world.
Leaving aside the lunacy of believing that tourism and the overwhelmingly lousy jobs it creates can sustain Europe-style living standards, how many Europeans and others are likely to flock to Greece for the foreseeable future? By all accounts, many of its neighbors’ populations are thoroughly fed up with Greece’s perceived insolence, and its likely near-term future of economic turbulence doesn’t look like a formula for filling hotel rooms.
So I see no reason to change my view that most of Greece is headed for at least years of third world living standards no matter how the next few weeks and months turn out. It’s true that no one “owes Greece a living,” especially given the spendthrift choices made by its leaders and accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by so many of its people. Similarly, it’s true that no one forced the Greeks to borrow all the money that private sector European lenders foolishly provided. But it’s also true that both European financiers and the pensioners and other clients whose funds they invested in Greece, have gotten off pretty easy for their reckless choices, with the continent’s taxpayers and the governments they underwrite absorbing many of these losses.
As a result, maybe at least some of the intertwined political and emotional obstacles to genuinely constructive Greece policies could be cleared away with two measures. First, European authorities in particular should offer Greece some honesty. Second, that country’s financial enablers should be required to help fund purely humanitarian programs aimed at helping those Greeks who are suffering through no fault of their own.