Spotlight on Geopolitics

Is the eurozone shrinking ?

Over the next few days, EU political leaders have to decide what to do about the Greek debt crisis. Leading economists and quite a number of EU politicians are deeply divided when it comes to putting together another large financial rescue package. Economists like Professor Hans-Werner Sinn and Professor Kenneth Rogoff argue for a shrinking of the eurozone in order to save the common currency. Romanian-born French professor Florin Aftalion was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding the euro crisis and the possible shrinking of the eurozone.

Author of The French Revolution: An Economic Interpretation (Cambridge University Press), Mr. Aftalion is Professor of Finance at ESSEC (L’École supérieure des sciences économiques et commerciales), and has taught finance at New York, Northwestern and Tel-Aviv Universities.

Q: In an article published in May this year, “Let’s Save the Furniture”, you have advanced the solution of saving the euro by suspending countries like Greece, Portugal or Italy from membership in the eurozone. Why do you think that both southern European countries and the eurozone’s core countries, France and Germany, would benefit from adopting such a solution?

Prof. Florin Aftalion: – Given that with insufficient growth its debt can only inflate, whatever “help” Greece gets, at the end of the day it will have to leave the euro, restructure its debt and devalue its currency. This being the inevitable outcome, it would be less costly for everyone concerned to have it happen sooner rather than later.

Q: The qualifying criteria for membership, as outlined at Maastricht, have been ignored when countries like Italy or Greece were admitted in the euro-club. Italy’s public debt, for example, was from the start far above 60 percent of GDP, and apparently so was Greece’s.

Was this a case of sound economics being overridden by political considerations?

F.A: – Remember that the whole “single currency” project was essentially political. When, in 1998, it came to be decided which countries were ready to join the euro, if I remember well, only Finland should have been admitted. All the other countries used creative accounting in order to satisfy the Maastricht criteria. When even that wasn’t enough to qualify a country, it became sufficient for that country to have criteria tending towards the Maastricht norms.

However, in 1998 the case of Greece was beyond any possible compromise and this country was allowed to join the euro only in 2001. It is not that its economic situation had changed radically in the meantime, but more “sophisticated” accounting techniques have been used. Everybody should have known that Greece was cheating.

Q: Forking out hundreds of billions of euros in order to try to avoid the risk of country default for Greece and possibly Ireland, Portugal and Italy, seems like a losing strategy. For how long do you think EU politicians can prolong the moral hazard situation that is touching a raw nerve with German, Dutch or Finnish taxpayers?

F.A.: – Two outcomes are possible. Either Greece decides to leave the euro (and at the same time restructures its debt and devalues its new currency) because it doesn’t get all the “help” necessary for remaining solvent, or Germany and the other “Nordic” countries decide to restrict the euro zone to solvent economies like their own.

Q: In the long run, do you believe that a truly solid European monetary union could be viable in the absence of some form of fiscal policy convergence among member countries?

F.A.: – Even financial centralization wouldn’t be enough to keep the eurozone together. That’s because it wouldn’t solve the problems of inflation differentials and heterogeneous labor legislations (among other problems).

Q: According to professor Hans-Werner Sinn of Munich University, the interest rate convergence which followed the introduction of the euro has saved Italy some 6 percent of its GDP for the last decade, owing to reduced interest payments on the country’s public debt. It was calculated that if the windfall had been used to pay Italy’s national debt, this would have been reduced by about two thirds by now. In your opinion, who is responsible for not enforcing the fiscal discipline among the eurozone member countries?

F.A.: – At the time nobody seemed to care about enforcing the Maastricht criteria. France and Germany for instance ran “excessive deficits”, didn’t pay any penalties and nobody objected.

Q: Coming back to your May article, you have decried the fact that the politicians of the day at the time the euro was introduced have ignored the warnings of many economists who considered the initial group of countries as too heterogeneous to make the common currency be viable in the long run.

In your experience on both continents, how big a challenge is it for economists to contribute constructively in shaping policy, given that many politicians seem to misunderstand macroeconomic theory ?

F.A.: – Politicians use political means in order to attain political objectives. Given that economists never agree among themselves, politicians will always find some professor who will approve their positions and claim against all evidence that the euro zone is an optimal currency area.

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