Throughout the euro crisis, observers have been asking if the euro zone will disintegrate — as if it is a decision that will be made by its leaders at some point in the future. This holds out the prospect of a great historic choice: Europeans can choose to properly unite and overcome their crisis or they can choose dissolution. We wait with bated breath for the next summit or the latest “most crucial month in the euro’s history,” which now seems to come several times a year.
But, this may be the wrong way of looking at the euro crisis. Integration and disintegration are not just the products of deliberate decisions. They are both processes, set in motion by actions regardless of the stated intentions of leaders. Once underway, each process takes several election cycles — probably a decade or so — to reach completion. Only one will prevail in the end, but it is possible that in the early stages these two processes can coexist even as each vies for supremacy.
Looked at this way, the euro zone is in serious trouble. The events of the past six months are consistent with a process of disintegration, while the process of integration has steadily weakened. The question is no longer, “Will Europe unravel?” We should be asking, “Can European disintegration be reversed?”
The trigger that brought integration to a halt and set disintegration in motion is surprising. In July 2012, the European Central Bank chief, Mario Draghi, declared that he would do whatever it takes to save the euro, and in August he kept his promise by introducing a program of Outright Monetary Transactions to finance troubled member states, thus bringing down the price of sovereign debt. The temporary lull led José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, to confidently declare that “the existential threat against the euro has essentially been overcome.”
But Barroso could not have been more mistaken. The E.C.B.’s actions, while welcome, had a major unintended consequence. European governments became complacent and stopped pushing the policies needed to save the euro. The German government now believes that a quantum leap toward deeper fiscal and political integration through treaty change (the only way it could be done) is no longer necessary. At the December summit meeting, it was taken off the table. Instead, the Germans will push for incremental steps to increase coordination. Banking union has been watered down to the point where it is grossly insufficient. The euro zone is proposing a common supervisory mechanism, but banking debt will remain primarily a national concern.
The optimists say that the small steps the euro zone has taken are the first in a long journey, but this assumes that it will be easier to accomplish extraordinarily difficult goals later. Unfortunately, European politics are becoming polarized in a way that makes further progress unlikely. The core member states have run out of patience with the periphery and do not want to take on new commitments, such as a real banking union. Voters in the periphery are turning toward politicians who will say no to German austerity, as Italians recently demonstrated.
As integration stalled, the euro zone experienced its first major act of disintegration. The spectacularly botched rescue of Cyprus formally created a two-tier euro zone. Deposits are safer in Germany than in the periphery and this has enormous implications. We should expect large-scale capital flight if markets fear that other states will need a bailout. With capital controls in place, Cyprus itself is half in and half out of the single currency.
The next decisive moment may be when a member state on the periphery elects a government with a cast iron mandate to say no to a German government that has a cast iron mandate not to buckle. This almost happened in Greece in June of 2012, and it may yet happen in Italy in a couple of months. This could cause a withdrawal of E.C.B. support and an escalation that will lead to new acts of disintegration.
Winston Churchill once said: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.” All European leaders should have this advice engraved onto a plaque and then affix it to their desks. Throughout the euro crisis, they have sought credit for good intentions and effort. They continually point out that the euro zone has moved far further and faster than anyone could have imagined before the crisis.
They are right, but it is completely irrelevant.
There are other forces at work and at the moment they are prevailing. Europe’s leaders need to be honest about the steps necessary to reverse a long spiral of disintegration. If they can’t do that, they need to ask how they can manage the process in the least damaging way possible.
Thomas Wright is a fellow in the Managing Global Order project at the Brookings Institution, Washington.