Euro crisis: The latest temporary fix

The problems of the eurozone, rooted in the clash of national interests and the rivalries of capitalist leaders, remain as intractable as ever.

Mario Draghi’s announcement that the European Central Bank will embark on the unlimited buying of eurozone bonds to support debtor governments like Spain and Italy aroused a new wave of europhoria. There was also relief that Germany’s constitutional court rejected a move to block Germany’s participation in the European Stability Mechanism, the permanent bailout fund. In reality, however, the ECB’s intervention is another temporary fix that will, at best, buy some more time. The problems of the eurozone, rooted in the clash of national interests and the rivalries of capitalist leaders, remain as intractable as ever. Strikes in Greece with preparations for a 24-hour general strike on 24 September and massive demonstrations in Portugal and Spain (15 September), are some of the signs of a stormy autumn. LYNN WALSH reports.

MARIO DRAGHI HAS been hailed by eurozone leaders as ‘Super-Mario’, saviour of the eurozone. At the end of July, he promised that the ECB would “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro as a stable currency”. This implied that it would buy the bonds of floundering governments, particularly Spain and Italy, in order to reduce their borrowing costs. Spanish and Italian bonds had risen above 7%, to levels considered ‘unsustainable’. The high interest rates reflect a premium to cover ‘convertibility risk’, financial jargon for exit from the euro.

This article was first published in Socialism Today, no 162

It has taken Draghi several months to work out a package and overcome internal opposition within the ECB, particularly from the German representative, and win the support of chancellor Angela Merkel, who fears an electoral backlash within Germany. In the event, Draghi’s measures were approved by the ECB board with only Jens Weidmann, head of the Bundesbank, in opposition.

According to Draghi, the ECB is now committed to give “unlimited support” to governments like Spain and Italy which are finding it very difficult to raise loans on financial markets, except at punitive interest rates. In reality, however, the new measures are quite limited. The ECB will buy Spanish and Italian bonds on the secondary bond market (it is prohibited by its constitution from buying bonds directly from eurozone governments). Moreover, the ECB will buy only short-term bonds with maturities of three years or less. This means that governments will be on a short rein.

An even more onerous restriction is the ECB’s insistence that it will extend support only if the governments concerned apply for assistance to the troika – the ECB, European Commission and International Monetary Fund – which means that they will be subjected to inspection and bail-out conditions imposed by the troika.

The conditions will be “strict and effective”, according to Draghi. This may prove politically difficult for the governments concerned. In Spain, prime minister Mariano Rajoy previously gained support from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) to stabilise Spanish banks, without accepting strict conditions (though this latitude is being challenged by some eurozone governments). At the moment, he is avoiding any suggestion that his government will apply to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), designed to take over from the EFSF and now approved by the German constitutional court, for support on that basis.

Strict conditions will inevitably mean further austerity packages. Spain and Italy are already in recession (the whole eurozone is stagnant) and further austerity measures could push some of these economies into another deep slump – which would result in a slump in government revenues and an increase in deficits (despite spending cuts).

Protest in Spain, 15 September 2012

Draghi’s promise of ‘unlimited support’ for vulnerable governments rapidly resulted in a decline in bond rates. Spanish ten-year bonds, for instance, dropped from 7.6% to 5.7% (still much higher than the 1.5% that Germany pays on ten-year bonds). However, the ECB package is far from being a permanent solution. It is yet another temporary eurozone fix. The Financial Times describes the move as “an audacious gamble”, with no guarantee of success.

Draghi’s measures will operate in conjunction with the new permanent rescue agency, the ESM, which will have €500bn capital. (Most of the EFSF funds have been already used to bail out Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and to fund the recapitalisation of Spanish banks – it has only around €120bn left.) It will still be difficult, if not impossible, for the ECB to act as a ‘lender of last resort’, a fully-blown central bank comparable with the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England. The ECB cannot assist to governments through buying their bonds directly. At the same time, the ESM will almost certainly be barred by the objections of the German constitutional court from borrowing money on the basis of its capital in order to support eurozone governments. Any ESM bail-out packages will, as with the EFSF, have to come from its own funds and be dispersed on the basis of more and more austerity.

German court ruling

GERMANY’S CONSTITUTIONAL court rejected (12 September) an application for an injunction to prevent the German government ratifying the ESM. This legal move was supported by around 37,000 petitioners and, according to opinion polls, backed by 53% of Germans. A legal veto on Germany’s support for the ESM would have detonated a major crisis for the eurozone, in spite of the recent moves by the ECB.

Judges of the German constitutional court

The constitutional court, however, made a very conditional ruling. It limits Germany’s participation in the ESM to the current €190bn (approximately a third share of the funding). The government is barred from making any further contributions without the support of both houses of parliament. The fine print of the ruling, moreover, raises questions about the future role of the ESM. It questions whether it would be constitutional for the German government to support the ESM raising loans on the basis of its €500bn capital in order to buy bonds directly from eurozone governments. The court warns against the German government undertaking any open-ended commitment to support debtor countries.

These legal caveats show that Merkel’s victory on this point is yet another temporary fix. The court refused a temporary injunction but will be considering the full case in the coming months. While it seems unlikely that it will completely veto the ESM, the constitutional court, on the basis of its interpretation of Germany’s basic law, may impose further restrictions – which could severely limit the role of the ESM. Many of the eurozone leaders, as well as sections of big business, are hoping that the ESM can, at least partially, play the role of a ‘lender of last resort’ – supplying capital to shaky governments on the basis of the mutualisation of their debts.

This idea, however, is bitterly opposed by some sections of Merkel’s own party, as well as by the right-wing, business press. They see it as an unwanted burden on German capitalism, and potentially a slippery slope to hyper-inflation. Faced with this opposition, Merkel has to move very cautiously, approving just enough intervention to avoid a collapse of the eurozone, but never acting decisively enough to resolve the fundamental problems. George Soros, a strong supporter of the euro, recently challenged Merkel: “lead” (that is, underwrite the fiscal integration of the eurozone), or “leave” (and let the others proceed). A German exit, however, would mean the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the euro.

Convergence or divergence?

THE DEVELOPMENT OF the euro was intended to accelerate the convergence of the states making up the European Union, with a single market and a borderless financial system. Instead, the euro has become a vehicle of crisis, bringing divergence and disintegration rather than convergence.

When the euro was introduced, borrowing costs for eurozone members were more or less equalised. In 2009, the Greek government had to pay only about two percentage points more than the German government. The difference is now over 20 percentage points. Low-cost borrowing was at the root of many of the current problems. Cheap credit was used to fuel property booms in countries like Spain and Ireland, and in Greece allowed for a massive increase in public expenditure while the corrupt tax system failed to produce sufficient revenue to cover spending. This opened up a massive divergence between creditor countries (dominated by Germany, the most powerful eurozone state) and debtor countries.

During the boom before 2007-08, the banks were the most globalised sector of capitalism. Now they have retrenched behind national borders. For instance, there has been a sharp fall in cross-border lending in the interbank market (from 60% to 40% of total lending). This has created a severe credit squeeze which, in addition to austerity measures, is pushing most of the eurozone economies into recession.

Private capital flows have been replaced by cash from the ECB in one form or another. For instance, banks in Greece and other countries have been forced to go to their national central banks under the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) programme. Many are buying their government’s bonds to keep them afloat. Under the ELA, the national central banks are able to go to the ECB for loans. This is, in fact, a backdoor way of the ECB financing government borrowing. It is estimated that the Spanish banks have benefitted from €400bn loans from the ECB, while Italy has €360bn. The overall net flow of private and public funds from Germany to other eurozone countries, mainly in the south, is around €700bn.

Instead of speeding up unification of the eurozone, the actual operation of the euro has increased financial fragmentation, widened social and economic differences, and stimulated growing opposition to the EU and the eurozone. Merkel and other leaders of the creditor countries have stridently opposed the idea of massive financial transfers to the weaker, ‘peripheral’ countries. Yet transfers have actually taken place on a massive scale. Lombard Street Research estimates that cash supports for the budgets of Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy will amount to at least €1.25 trillion during 2012-15, and could even be as high as €2.4 trillion.

In public, eurozone leaders proclaim that the EU will continue marching towards ‘ever closer union’. The euro is ‘irreversible’, and they will go to the end to defend it. But the continued economic crisis is fuelling popular opposition, inflaming nationalistic trends and strengthening separatist movements, as in Catalonia, for instance.

Barcelona, 11 September 2012

In June, at the EU summit meeting, eurozone leaders raised grandiose plans for advance towards greater unity (while, as usual, making very limited progress on the current crisis). However, moves towards greater unity, especially the establishment of a fiscal union which would have decisive control over the budgets of member governments, would require protracted negotiations, and approval by the majority of EU/eurozone governments. In some countries, it would require referendums to approve new treaties. Given the clash of national interests and the massive public opposition to further integration, this is a utopian project.

Immediately following Draghi’s announcement that the ECB was ready to buy ‘unlimited’ eurozone government bonds and the German constitutional court ruling, the EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, called for the EU to evolve into a “federation of nation states”. The problem of ‘sharing sovereignty’ between the national states, however, was highlighted by the reaction to Barroso’s announcement of plans for an EU banking union. This would mean the ECB assuming supervisory and regulatory powers over Europe’s 6,000 banks. Merkel responded by saying that Germany supports supervision only over major banks and would not accept the inclusion of small and medium banks. The British government, on the other hand, calls for all banks great and small to be included, but only those in the eurozone!

Spain’s deepening crisis

THE ECB’S OFFER of support poses a dilemma for Rajoy in Spain. The ECB will only support Spanish government bonds if the government applies for a rescue package – which would mean strict conditions, inspections by the troika or the IMF alone, and new austerity measures.

Since the landslide victory of the Popular Party, the government’s popularity has slumped. There has been a continuous wave of mass demonstrations and strikes against Rajoy’s €65bn package of cuts and new taxes. Moreover, Rajoy faces ever rising demands for increased autonomy from Spain’s semi-autonomous regions, particularly Catalonia. At the same time, they are demanding additional rescue packages from the central government (between €10-18bn). The strongest demand comes from Catalonia: there was a massive demonstration of up to two million on 11 September demanding ‘fiscal sovereignty’ as a step towards independence. The Catalan nationalist leaders want to form a new state within the EU, but the movement for separation will undoubtedly provoke a crisis for the Spanish ruling class.

Rajoy faces regional elections in Galicia and the Basque country, and may try to postpone any decision on ECB funding until after they are over. Meanwhile, the economy is sliding deeper into recession, with unemployment above 25%. In the first half of this year around €220bn flowed out of Spain’s banks, equivalent of about a fifth of GDP. Even with support for the banks from the EFSF funds (up to €100bn) the Spanish government may face a funding crisis in the next few months.

In fact, while support was agreed in principle, several eurozone governments (including Germany) are now raising objections. This support, they say, has to be part of the establishment of an EU banking union – but there is already a conflict over this. As so often in the eurozone, lifeboats launched with a fanfare of trumpets run aground even before they can leave the harbour.

In Portugal, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets (15 September) in the country’s biggest ever anti-austerity protest. This upsurge of activity was triggered by a move to increase workers’ social security contributions – while cutting the bosses’ by the same amount.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Portugal, 15 September 2012

Preparing for a Greek exit

MERKEL HAS RECENTLY launched a ‘charm offensive’ in an effort to repair relations with Greece, sending one of her junior ministers, Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, as an emissary. His message was that the German government empathised with the plight of the Greek people. Moreover, the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, was invited to Berlin, where Merkel proclaimed that she wanted Greece to stay in the euro: “We will do what it takes to solve the problem in Greece”. At the same time, however, the parliamentary leader of Merkel’s party, the CDU, Volker Kauder, proclaimed that a Greek exit “would not be a problem for the euro” because sufficient measures were in place to prevent contagion spreading to other weak economies in the eurozone. (International Herald Tribune, 25 August) Moreover, there is no relaxation of Germany’s demand for further, savage austerity measures (currently, the troika are demanding another €13.5bn of cuts as the price for the €173bn bail-out package).

In any case, the Greek people are hardly fooled by German government propaganda. When Fuchtel landed in Greece he was confronted with posters reading: ‘Fuchtel, you’re not wanted – No subjugation’. A passer-by commented: “I don’t see how this is different from the Nazi occupation and the lackey Greek government”. (International Herald Tribune, 10 September)

While Merkel proclaims that Greece will stay in the euro, big-business leaders are not convinced. Many companies are drawing up detailed contingency plans to deal with the possible exit. “Bank of America Merrill Lynch has looked into filling trucks with cash and sending them over the Greek border so that clients can continue to pay local employees and suppliers in the event that money is unobtainable”. (Nelson Schwartz, Planning For Greece’s Euro Exit, Just In Case, International Herald Tribune, 4 September) Some companies have reprogrammed their computers so that they will be ready to handle a new Greek currency. JP Morgan Chase “has already created new accounts for a handful of corporate giants that are reserved for a new drachma in Greece, or whatever currency might succeed the euro in other countries”.

Transnational companies and their advisers are trying to work out what to do in the event of a prolonged bank holiday (during which the banks could be shut for some time) and in the event of capital controls which limited the movement of cash in and out of the country. An executive of Bank of America Merrill Lynch said: “Now… contingency planning is focussed on three primary scenarios – a single-country exit, a multi-country exit and a breakup of the eurozone in its entirety”. The same article also reports that central banks, as well as the German finance ministry, have been planning for the possibility of a Greek exit, but under conditions of complete secrecy.

Even without further general strikes, mass demonstrations and other forms of mass protest, the troika’s neo-liberal programme for Greece would not work. Austerity measures have already provoked a deep slump in the economy, and yet more savage measures will accelerate the disintegration of Greek society. The level of debt repayment being forced on the country will prove unsustainable. In reality, the resistance of the Greek working class will continue. While the coalition government’s leaders were drawing up yet another (€11.5bn) cuts package (11 September), there was a public-sector strike involving teachers, hospital doctors, and local government workers, and there are plans for a 24-hour general strike on 24 September.

A Greek exit is inevitable, only the timing is in doubt. Moreover, although accounting for only about 2% of eurozone GDP, the departure of Greece would almost certainly trigger a wider fragmentation of the eurozone. The financier George Soros recognises that the eurozone crisis is endangering the EU (and, we can say, the whole world economy): “If [the euro] falls apart, Europe will be worse off than before it started”. (Financial Times, 10 September)

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