A Third Way Out of the European Crisis

Jasper Doomen, J.D

M.A. in Philosophy (Leiden University, 2003); J.D. (Utrecht University, 2005)

Lecturer in law at Leiden University 

The European Monetary Union has been muddling on for a few years now, having to face serious problems and the solutions to which have been insufficiently incorporated into the initial agreements, perhaps from too optimistic a perspective. This has, in the wake of the debt crisis, meant – since far-reaching measures to remedy this defect are difficult to implement afterwards (requiring, after all, financial – and other – sacrifices) – that piecemeal steps have been taken. These have proven ineffective and in some cases even counterproductive. The latest such short-time response to the economic problems the European countries face consists in directly aiding banks that are in trouble; dissent has already emerged with regard to the details. The time has come to propose an alternative that is effective, workable and sustainable.

Hitherto the financial support was provided at the national level, which was hardly a successful approach, as one can now (with the benefit of hindsight) ascertain. Bypassing the national governments through a bank recapitalization is certainly a different but not necessarily a superior approach. Of course, banks will be supervised. Yet considering what is at stake, this outcome is downright disappointing (though not for everyone: Prime Minister Rajoy could barely hide his contentment – see http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrg15x_spain-s-pm-rajoy-bank-rescue-deal-is-victory-for-euro_news). No structural solutions have been presented, or even a view towards accomplishing them.

More important, however, is the fact that the pressure on countries to implement reforms in order to combat the budget deficits has been reduced. That this is the outcome of the negotiations is not surprising. Discussing a solution with Spain and Italy resembles negotiating with someone who threatens to jump down a cliff while being chained to the other negotiators. His suicide or damage will have serious consequences for everyone else as well. These countries don’t want to go ‘bankrupt’ but they know their downfall will gravely affect the relatively strong countries, and they seem to have become experts in exploiting their stranglehold over them. This negotiation pattern is similar (if not virtually identical) to Greece’s strategy, and in the bleakest scenario, countries such as France will resort to it as well, especially with the current French president in place.

The dilemma is clear: the southern European countries have to economize while a large part of the population already faces grave financial problems. An additional problem for (northern) politicians is their credibility, which erodes with each concession they make. Hitherto Chancellor Merkel has stood her ground as a veritable contemporary Iron Lady, but this position will be difficult to maintain if enough countries are able to profit from Europe’s weaknesses (which are, ironically, the outcome of a desire to make Europe as a whole a strong organization; it seems, pace Lincoln, that a house divided against itself can stand, albeit unsteadily – incidentally, the comparison of north against south comes to mind).

How to resolve this impasse? Are there only two positions (either a United States of Europe or the road towards more sovereignty than is now the case, i.e., a return to the European Economic Community), or is a third option available? It has been proposed to grant countries loans only if they should provide some security, which has been ridiculed by some. It is unclear, however, why this could not be a workable procedure. The basic idea is that the countries that provide financial aid should receive control over state properties to the amount they have lent if the borrowers do not pay the money back. (I will not bother here with the details of how to calculate this or how this control should work if an invasion is considered undesirable.)

This control means that the lenders may use the profits that ensue from these properties (which may range from museum fees to gas revenues). Such profits are (fully or partly) paid to the borrowers if they sin no more and do what is demanded of them. In time, when their affairs are in order, they will be able to buy back the control of these properties. This means, effectively, a state of wardship. If this sounds harsh, consider that the alternative is that such states can continue imposing their will on the others until they will all share the same fate, waiting for China to take over the entire continent and sell it for scraps.

A general issue that must be addressed here is that of state sovereignty. The proposed solution seems to interfere inappositely with the room states have to deal with these matters. Yet clinging inflexibly to such a position means that states that do not keep their promises may simply use this as a shield, even if becomes too heavy for them to bear. Perhaps using a pliable concept of sovereignty, or something like the mitigated sovereignty that is applied in the U.S.A. (the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution specifies that the individual states have sovereign power over matters they have not delegated to the United States) would be desirable. Whether the European Union should, in time, be the equivalent of the U.S.A. is a controversial issue, even within countries (political parties defending very diverse views). An important difference in this regard between Europe and the U.S.A. is, in my view, the fact that the various European have long histories and cultures, a situation that was absent at the foundation of the U.S.A. They have, accordingly, potentially relatively much to lose if they should give up part of their sovereignty. I do not mean to estimate whether a further integration is desirable or not, but merely point out that one must make a choice. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too (and eating someone else’s cake without recompense is disagreeable).

In any event, the new situation of additional control means that the power relationship is reversed, thus nullifying the ‘suicide’ threat. To use another simile: it is as if all countries share a boat together that continues to show new leaks which the southern countries are unwilling to mend, knowing that the northern countries have far more to gain from it than they do. This means, in the long run, that the boat (the European Monetary Union) may continue to exist but in a seriously weakened condition, which may still be considered preferable to the southern countries (in the short term, in any event) to carrying out the demands made by the northern countries, for the simple reason that all countries are in it together, so to speak. The solution amounts to dividing the boat in two (without resorting to dividing the Euro itself into two (or even more than two) currencies, which may be an – albeit costly – option in the worst scenario), so that it is in the benefit of the southern countries themselves to start working on making the necessary repairs, lest they wind up with nothing more than driftwood. The solution is, by the way, not without benefits for the countries in trouble themselves. Future loans can be granted relatively easily (because the lenders will have more security than is now the case), which means that the borrowers face fewer negative economic effects and can more easily ‘sell’ the new policy to their own populations.

The greatest problem remains that of enforceability. A ‘moral’ appeal on the borrowers to show solidarity with the lenders is equally nonsensical as one made to lenders to provide means in the first place, since this solidarity is as artificial as it gets (and thus meaningless). The alternative is to convince the politicians of the borrowers that a solid policy for the long-term is the only viable approach. In a democracy, with new elections constantly looming, such an appeal may fall on deaf ears, but the prospects of the erection of a statue in compensation for their great deeds may sufficiently appeal to their vanity.

In general, one must ask oneself whether a monetary union that wants to take itself seriously can afford to fail to propose clear and enforceable measures such as those suggested above.