The Euro Zone Won't Fail

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Euro Zone Won't Fail

Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International

Byline: Stefan Theil

Why crisis will only make it stronger.

Speculators have begun betting on an early euro-zone exit by Greece, a politically corrupt, basket-case country that has long cooked its government-debt figures and now faces years of stagnation--if not deflation and depression--as it slashes public deficits and shrinks wages in an attempt to regain competitiveness. In a confidential paper leaked last month, the European Commission warned that "imbalances" between stronger and weaker euro states risk the very existence of the euro itself.

They are wrong. Currency unions don't collapse because weaker members leave them. Were Greece to start printing new drachmas, they would immediately plummet in value against the euro. A super-weak drachma would make Greek wines and vacations very cheap for foreigners, but that gain for Greek competitiveness would be more than offset by bank runs, rampant inflation, and the burden of having to pay back old euro-denominated debts and mortgages with a newly worthless currency. Even if Greece's inept political class decides to take the risk--not unthinkable, since it might be a way to shift blame to outsiders--it would not break the euro zone. The euro would hardly be less stable without Greece, or even without Spain and Portugal. (Together, the three make up only 18 percent of euro-zone GDP.) On the contrary, a euro centered on Germany, France, and a few of the more advanced Central European economies like Poland would make the union stronger, not weaker. The risk of this is not so much the result but the financial and political upheavals in getting there.

The euro zone would break up not when weaker members leave, but when stronger ones no longer see gains from the arrangement. Today, that cornerstone is Germany. Europe's largest economy has emerged from the crisis bruised but with comparatively healthy public finances and an economic model unquestioned by its people. With the German political class so thoroughly invested in the common currency--and German companies dominating Europe more than ever--that scenario seems highly unrealistic.

On the contrary, Germany is working hard to impose its monetary and fiscal discipline on the rest of Europe. At home, it already has a new constitutional amendment prohibiting deficits starting in 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel vetoed EU bailouts of weaker economies, forcing countries like Latvia and Hungary to seek the tough love of the IMF.

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