Life, but not as we know it

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

It’s a scene that is becoming very familiar to people across Europe: A newly elected leader addresses his nation and blames the previous government for its “total irresponsibility” which has left a “terrible legacy” of seriously compromised public finances, which are in an “even worse state than we thought” and which will require “painful” but absolutely necessary cuts. Earlier this year, it was George Papandreou delivering this stark message — British Prime Minister David Cameron reprised the role this week.

A few days earlier, the scene had been repeated in Hungary, which, like Greece, has borrowed money from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The claims by government officials in Budapest that the previous administration had disguised the poor state of the local economy and that the public deficit would be bigger than expected, sent the type of shockwaves across the continent and international financial markets that only Athens had been capable of until recently, as concerns about a Hungarian default stoked another round of fear about the future of the euro and the EU.

Apart from Greece, Britain and Hungary, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France and Italy have all had to take steps – albeit less austere than the Greek ones – to rescue their public finances. Even Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse and the metronome for stability within the Union, announced this week that it’s seeking to make more than 80 billion euros in cuts over the next few years. Until now, there has been unease about European countries being too disparate in economic terms but, ironically, the current debt crisis has suddenly given them common points of reference. It’s causing people across the continent to ask two key questions: “Why are we in this position?” and “How do we get out of it?”

There are two aspects to why so many European countries find themselves in a mess: the economic and the political. In terms of the economic failings, the EU simply found itself unprepared for the consequences of the financial crisis that began in the United States two years ago. A failure to reduce debt when European economies were booming meant that the onset of recession — which also coincided with the use of public money to prop up the private sector, especially banks — has saddled many countries with unprecedented debt and exposed an Achilles’ heel that speculators can exploit.

“The banking crisis has mutated into a sovereign debt crisis; the weakest members of the eurozone are targeted because the euro is a comparatively new currency lacking sufficiently strong institutional foundations, and because markets doubt the ability of the weaker countries to manage their debt problems,” the editorial director or the European Council on Foreign Relations, Thomas Klau, told Athens Plus.

This implies that the real roots of the crisis lie in the political arena. Just as governments across Europe have tried to mask the real size of the problem, often leaving it for the next administration to deal with, so for a number of years, the politicians of various ideological persuasions that held power found it easier to go with the flow rather than develop a long-term plan. Instead of making hay while the sun shone, they simply sat back and soaked up the rays. What happened in Greece, more than anywhere else, has driven this point home. “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility or whose governments pretend that difficult decisions can somehow be avoided,” Cameron said this week.

There are few who would argue with him. “I think that the political inadequacies are most pronounced in the Greek case and to a lesser extent in Portugal,” Professor Iain Begg of the European Institute at the London School of Economics told Athens Plus. “In the other cases, it is more that – as with banks like Northern Rock or Lehman Brothers – the business model is no longer as viable as it used to be and that has fueled market scepticism. Let’s not forget that Spain actually scored pretty well in relation to the fiscal rules, even if, with hindsight, we can now say that it ought to have been running a budget surplus.”

These inadequacies, which an unnamed German official described to the International Herald Tribune’s John Vinocur as “a decade wasted through a lack of frankness and realism,” have left many European countries, the single currency and millions of people at the mercy of markets, which have now become the sole judges of economic policy. The response to this situation, therefore, must be one that is deeply political and carries serious conviction. “Because EU members were caught misrepresenting their finances with the passive acceptance of France and Germany for a decade, no response or solution that is based on a statement of intention rather than a legally binding undertaking is likely to lead the markets away from their hair-trigger surveillance of the euro and Europe’s solidity,” wrote Vinocur in the IHT this week.

The political solution to this problem must first come at an individual state level. “In the UK, the problem, I suspect will prove to be reasonably easy to manage but in Greece, the whole approach to the public sector needs radical change,” says Begg. “In Spain and Italy, labor market and welfare reforms will require political courage and leadership.”

This decisiveness then has to be replicated on a collective level as well. The IMF said as much in its report on the European debt crisis this week. “Crisis management is not an alternative to corrective policy actions and fundamental reforms needed to reinforce the foundation of the European Monetary Union,” the Washington-based fund said in the wake of European finance ministers agreeing to commit 440 billion euros to a rescue fund for debt-ridden EU members, which the IMF will also participate in.

In practical terms, it means that common policies and instruments must be devised along with checks that it is in everyone’s interest to adhere to. “What this crisis has shown is that the euro countries must accept a much stronger degree of shared sovereignty over their public finances and economic policy to ensure the long-term survival of their currency,” says Klau. “A monetary union needs a political union, as the Bundesbank wrote 20 years ago.”

Instilling this level of togetherness is going to be a massive challenge. If controling their debt in the midst of a recession appears an elusive goal for EU countries, then getting them to work in harmony toward this will seem like trying to pin down a greased greyhound during a torrential rainstorm. Already this week, Britain has rejected the notion of presenting its national budget to Brussels before submitting it to its own Parliament. The newness of the debt crisis means that political leadership and consensus will take some time to emerge but recent history indicates our futures depend on it eventually shining through.

“The decisions we make will affect every single person in our country, and the effects of these decisions will stay with us for years and decades to come,” Cameron told his audience this week as his government began reviewing its planned spending cuts. “How we deal with these things will affect our economy, our society, indeed our whole way of life,” he added. The Conservative Party leader will probably never utter more accurate words during his premiership. In fact, our way of life is already being transformed. What it changes into will depend on the political decisions taken over the next few months.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and appeared in Athens Plus on June 11.

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