The Maastricht Treaty was fundamentally flawed, demonstrating the fallibility of the authorities. Its main weakness was well known to its architects: it established a monetary union without a political union. The architects believed however, that when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.
But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and which are not fully understood even today. First of all it failed to take into account the fallibility of the architects: there is neither an enforcement mechanism nor an exit mechanism and member countries cannot resort to printing money. This put the weaker members into the position of a third world country that became over-indebted in a hard currency.
The Maastricht Treaty also assumed that only the public sector is capable of producing unacceptable imbalances; the market was expected to correct its own excesses. And the Maastricht Treaty was supposed to have established adequate safeguards against public sector imbalances. Consequently, when the European Central Bank started operated it treated government bonds as riskless assets that
banks could hold without allocating any capital reserves against them. This encouraged commercial banks to accumulate the bonds of the weaker countries in order to earn a few extra basis points. This caused interest rates to converge which, contrary to expectations, led to divergences in economic performance. Germany, struggling with the burdens of reunification, undertook structural reforms and
became more competitive. Other countries enjoyed a housing boom that made them less competitive. Yet others had to bail out their banks after the crash of 2008. This created conditions that were far removed from those prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty with totally unexpected consequences. Government bonds which had been considered riskless turned out to carry significant credit risks.
Unfortunately the European authorities had little understanding of what hit them. They were prepared to deal with fiscal problems but only Greece qualified as a fiscal crisis; the rest of Europe suffered from a banking crisis and the divergence in competitiveness also gave rise to a balance of payments crisis. The authorities did not even understand the nature of the problem, let alone see a solution. So they tried to buy time.
Usually that works. Financial panics subside and the authorities realize a profit on their intervention. But not this time because the financial problems were reinforced by a process of political and social disintegration. While the European Union was being created, the leadership was in the forefront of further integration; but after the outbreak of the financial crisis the authorities became wedded to
preserving the status quo. This has forced all those who consider the status quo unsustainable or intolerable into an anti-European posture. That is the political dynamic that makes the disintegration of the European Union just as self- reinforcing as its creation has been. At the onset of the crisis a breakup of the euro was inconceivable: the assets and liabilities denominated in a common currency were so intermingled that a breakup would have led to an uncontrollable meltdown. But as the crisis progressed the financial system has been progressively reoriented along national lines. This trend gathered momentum in recent months. The LTRO enabled Spanish and Italian banks to engage in a very profitable and low risk arbitrage in the bonds of their own countries. And the preferential treatment received by the ECB on its Greek bonds will discourage other investors from holding sovereign debt. If this continued for a few more years a break-up of the euro would become possible without a meltdown – the omelet could be unscrambled – but it would leave the central banks of the creditor countries with large claims against the central banks of the debtor countries which would be difficult to collect.
The Bundesbank has become aware of the danger. It is now engaged in a campaign against the indefinite expansion of the money supply and it has started taking measures to limit the losses it would sustain in case of a breakup. This is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the Bundesbank
starts guarding against a breakup everybody will have to do the same. Markets are beginning to reflect this.
The Bundesbank is also tightening credit at home. This would be the right policy if Germany was a freestanding country but the heavily indebted member countries badly need stronger demand from Germany to avoid recessions. Without it, the eurozone’s “fiscal compact,” agreed last
December, cannot possibly work. The heavily indebted countries will either fail to implement the necessary measures, or, if they do, they will fail to meet their targets because of collapsing demand. Either way, debt ratios will rise, and the competitiveness gap with Germany will widen.
Whether or not the euro endures, Europe is facing a long period of economic stagnation or worse. Other countries have gone through similar experiences. Latin American countries suffered a lost decade after 1982, and Japan has been stagnating for a quarter-century; both have survived. But the European Union is not a country, and it is unlikely to survive. The deflationary debt trap is threatening to destroy a still-incomplete political union.