Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Angela's dilemmas and the nightmare scenario


The FT has a nice piece today about the loneliness of Angela Merkel, torn between seeing the Eurozone fall apart and taking decisions that would rescue the periphery but provoke a furious backlash at home. It is indeed easy to criticize Merkel for her cagey approach, which given the fear in the markets seems almost designed to make the costs of rescue as high as they could possibly be. I agree completely with these criticisms, but what people like Martin Wolf and Paul Krugman often miss - focused as they are on debating the stupid austerian policies advocated by many economists - is that this is a political process.

Merkel is not doing what is necessary, but the reason may not be just that she doesn't know what she's doing. First, she is a government leader in a consensus-oriented democracy, with coalition government and federal institutions, and like any other party leader she faces the constant threat of dissent from within her own party. Juggling these various threats to her position are probably her main concern, regardless of how much she understands about the nature of the Euro crisis. It could well turn out that a plan for economic recovery, involving massive bailouts, permanent ceding of German fiscal autonomy, and the collapse of the Euro's monetary conservatism, would cost her her job.

Second, even if Merkel understood what Krugman and Wolf eloquently argue day after day, and had the political authority to convince the German political class and electorate of what needed to be done, she would run into another problem - the European-level joint decision trap, Fritz Scharpf's well known conceptualization of the restraints on policymaking in federal states like Germany and intergovernmental organizations like the European Union. What if the European Commission, the ECB and the other Northern Euro member states said no? Merkel would have blown her political clout in Germany for nothing. Getting anything through the European institutions is complicated and time-consuming. Add the permanent subsidizing of the hapless 'Club Med' nations by the virtuous Weberians of Northern Europe, and you get a recipe for the worst kind of Euro-paralysis.

Finally, we get to a further dimension to the politics of crisis that has been widely ignored, even by the smartest commentators - democracy and the people (easy to forget about, I know). Even if all the dilemmas outlined above could be resolved, there is no way a solution to the Euro mess can be sustainable if it doesn't have popular support. So far, this point has been made most obviously in the struggling periphery, where elections have wiped out the governments responsible for crisis and austerity in Ireland, Spain and Greece, whilst Berlusconi has been forced out in Italy. Yet the same problem could easily arise in the North, as Geert Wilders' recent departure from the Dutch governing majority shows. If Merkel signs up for a Eurozone welfare state, there's every chance that an electoral earthquake could shake the German party system just as it already has in Greece.

Which brings me to my nightmare scenario. I still believe that politicians will blink before allowing the Eurozone to implode, wreaking havoc all around. The reason for this is that I think most policymakers are sufficiently aware of what the consequences could be, and are rightly terrified. But democratic elections are a cruder instrument for making decisions. Greek and German voters, exercising the democratic right to express their outrage, could place Europe in an impasse which would lead inevitably to the catastrophe we all fear. Popular pressure for intransigence in the North, to match popular pressure against austerity in the South, could place Europe's leaders in a chicken game that will end badly for everybody.

The only way out is leadership. Come out, explain to people what is going on, and hope for the best. But that has never been the way European integration works.