January 15, 2012
Standard & Poor’s decision this week to downgrade the country ratings of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, not only aggravates the sovereign debt crisis, but it actually divides the EU in two.
The most affected group is made up of the Latin countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their interest bills are going to rise to levels that, in some cases, will make it prohibitive to finance their budget deficits and therefore to continue to provide quality public goods and services to citizens. To make matters worse, this group of countries has to swallow the bitter German pill of budget austerity at a time when long-term economic recession and possibly even stagflation look increasingly likely.
The second group of countries, headed by Germany, has kept their AAA credit rating. It includes Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK, for example. Switzerland and Norway also belong to this group, although they are as yet unaffiliated to the EU. The main preoccupation of Germany and its like-minded northern European partners is fighting inflation, not unemployment. This is in sharp contrast with the economic philosophy of the Latin group of countries, which are quite tolerant of higher levels of inflation and budget deficits, provided these are used to significantly bring down unemployment.
Whilst a two-speed Europe might not be in the cards, in a not too distant future we might be faced with the prospect of two separate European unions, built out of the ashes of the current one. Thus, as Angela Merkel herself threatened in 2008, the Germans might be more interested in building a Baltic union, which could conceivably attract Russia as an associate, whereas the Latin countries might wish to explore further a separate Union for the Mediterranean that could potentially integrate Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Algeria.
As far-fetched as this sounds, such an outcome might, however, prove to be the only solution to having a too-large and dysfunctional union, in which national interests prevail at the expense of the greater good of all existing members. In truth, the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty, the austerity packages and the German insistence on having an European Central Bank solely dedicated to fighting inflation do not work in practice for a majority of EU members, and especially for the first group of countries mentioned above. At this point in time, all good ideas aimed at solving the EU’s woes — such as fiscal union, the emission of eurobonds, a central bank dedicated to fostering employment, a common defence and security policy that works — have been discarded by Germany and some of its closest allies. In these conditions, no expert or responsible politician could be blamed if alternatives to the current union arrangements are actively being considered by them.Florian Pantazi