THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Europe’s monetary union appears saved. For now.
Although relief prevailed after Monday’s Greek bailout announcement, key questions remain about whether the euro currency will remain sustainable in the long-term — and even whether the European Union itself remains a viable project.
The weekend’s marathon negotiations over Greece’s third multi-billion euro bailout in five years put Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on notice that if he does not push through deeply unpopular economic reforms, his country could still be cut off from aid and face the risk of a painful exit from the euro. It was not clear whether Greeks would play along with the painful measures, and tussles between Germany and France over the terms of the bailout also showed key divisions between the engines of European unity.
The upshot of the saga: Europe is still heading into a prolonged period of uncertainty.
Some, however, saw the tough terms of the bailout agreement breathing new life into the euro itself, shared by 19 countries in the 28-strong European Union. Zsolt Darvas of the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels said a more stable and stronger currency could emerge from the drama of the past week.
Caving to Greek demands for leniency, he argued, would have been the worst outcome for the future of a united Europe: “An alternative decision … giving major concessions to Greece after very inefficient and unproductive negotiations, would have likely fueled populist movements in other euro area countries, which would have increased political instability and thereby economic and financial instability.”
The crisis may also serve as a wake-up call about far greater trouble that will lie ahead if bigger EU economies, like Spain or Italy, flout budgetary rules and find themselves in a new financial morass. Greece accounts for just 2 per cent of the total wealth of the Eurozone.
“Greece was maybe a piece of cake compared to what bigger countries might provoke in terms of problems,” said Adriaan Schout, senior research fellow and co-ordinator of the Europe program at Hague-based think-tank Clingendael.
Now that the immediate Greek bankruptcy crisis is seen to be receding, a crisis of confidence over the European project may be taking its place.
The nucleus of the current-day European Union was forged in the ashes of World War II — a plan hatched in 1951 to pool six countries’ coal and steel industries. The goal back then wasn’t so much economic prosperity and unity, as it was stopping long-simmering enmities between neighbours on the continent again boiling over into global conflict.
On that foundation, leaders have built a pan-European edifice that now numbers 28 countries with more than 500 million inhabitants. As the bloc grew over the years, so did its ambition, leading in 1999 to the euro single currency intended to turn the union into a global market force.
Yet today, Greece has exposed these goals of ever-closer union to be a possible chimera.
The current Greek drama “shows us the dilemma we have always had with Europe: Our ambitions are running ahead of our ideas of how to run actually an economic and monetary union,” said Schout. “Even a small country can make a lot of waves.”
Strength in numbers was one of the underpinning ideas behind economic and political union in Europe. But the flip side is that economic disparities across the continent also breed divisions and distrust. Why, many in wealthy nations like the Netherlands ask, should I stump up more cash to help a country like Greece that sometimes does not appear to want my help?
Then there are also lingering questions about the merits of imposing austerity on debt-stricken nations. Even in bailed-out countries touted as success stories, clambering out of the economic abyss has taken its toll — with unemployment sky-high and living standards falling.
In Portugal, which got a 78 billion bailout in 2011, the economy grew 0.9 per cent last year after three straight years of recession. But government debt is still 130 per cent of gross domestic product and the three main ratings agencies keep junk ratings on Portuguese bonds. Living standards and public services are significantly lower than before the bailout, and some 400,000 people have left the country to find work since 2011.
But throughout the financial crises that have roiled southern Europe, the euro has endured. The Greek compromise means that the currency has at least survived intact to fight another day.
In Britain — a European Union member that decided against joining the euro — treasury chief George Osborne responded to the deal brokered on Greece with “a cautious welcome that the Eurozone has stepped back from the brink.”
Associated Press writers John-Thor Dahlburg and Raf Casert in Brussels, Angela Charlton in Paris, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed.