Greek Crisis

Dr Schäuble’s Plan for Europe: Do Europeans approve?

Off the keyboard of Yanis Varoufakis

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Published on Yanis Varoufakis Blog on July 17, 2015

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The reason five months of negotiations between Greece and Europe led to impasse is that Dr Schäuble was determined that they would.

By the time I attended my first Brussels meetings in early February, a powerful majority within the Eurogroup had already formed. Revolving around the earnest figure of Germany’s Minister of Finance, its mission was to block any deal building on the common ground between our freshly elected government and the rest of the Eurozone.[1]

Thus five months of intense negotiations never had a chance. Condemned to lead to impasse, their purpose was to pave the ground for what Dr Schäuble had decided was ‘optimal’ well before our government was even elected: That Greece should be eased out of the Eurozone in order to discipline member-states resisting his very specific plan for re-structuring the Eurozone. This is no theory of mine. How do I know Grexit is an important part of Dr Schäuble’s plan for Europe? Because he told me so!

I am writing this not as a Greek politician critical of the German press’ denigration of our sensible proposals, of Berlin’s refusal seriously to consider our moderate debt re-profiling plan, of the European Central Bank’s highly political decision to asphyxiate our government, of the Eurogroup’s decision to give the ECB the green light to shut down our banks. I am writing this as a European observing the unfolding of a particular Plan for Europe – Dr Schäuble’s Plan. And I am asking a simple question of Die Zeit’s informed readers:

Is this a Plan that you approve of? Is this Plan good for Europe?

Dr Schäuble’s Plan for the Eurozone

The avalanche of toxic bailouts that followed the Eurozone’s first financial crisis offers ample proof that the non-credible ‘no bailout clause’ was a terrible substitute for political union. Wolfgang Schäuble knows this and has made clear his plan to forge a closer union. “Ideally, Europe would be a political union”, he wrote in a joint article with Karl Lamers, the CDU’s former foreign affairs chief (Financial Times, 1st September 2014).

Dr Schäuble is right to advocate institutional changes that might provide the Eurozone with its missing political mechanisms. Not only because it is impossible otherwise to address the Eurozone’s current crisis but also for the purpose of preparing our monetary union for the next crisis. The question is: Is his specific plan a good one? Is it one that Europeans should want? How do its authors propose that it be implemented?

The Schäuble-Lamers Plan rests on two ideas: “Why not have a European budget commissioner” asked Schäuble and Lamers “with powers to reject national budgets if they do not correspond to the rules we jointly agreed?” “We also favour”, they added “a ‘Eurozone parliament’ comprising the MEPs of Eurozone countries to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of decisions affecting the single currency bloc.”

The first point to raise about the Schäuble-Lamers Plan is that it is at odds with any notion of democratic federalism. A federal democracy, like Germany, the United States or Australia, is founded on the sovereignty of its citizens as reflected in the positive power of their representatives to legislate what must be done on the sovereign people’s behalf.

In sharp contrast, the Schäuble-Lamers Plan envisages only negative powers: A Eurozonal budget overlord (possibly a glorified version of the Eurogroup’s President) equipped solely with negative, or veto, powers over national Parliaments. The problem with this is twofold. First, it would not help sufficiently to safeguard the Eurozone’s macro-economy. Secondly, it would violate basic principles of Western liberal democracy.

Consider events both prior to the eruption of the euro crisis, in 2010, and afterwards. Before the crisis, had Dr Schäuble’s fiscal overlord existed, she or he might have been able to veto the Greek government’s profligacy but would be in no position to do anything regarding the tsunami of loans flowing from the private banks of Frankfurt and Paris to the Periphery’s private banks.[2] Those capital outflows underpinned unsustainable debt that, unavoidably, got transferred back onto the public’s shoulders the moment financial markets imploded. Post-crisis, Dr Schäuble’s budget Leviathan would also be powerless, in the face of potential insolvency of several states caused by their bailing out (directly or indirectly) the private banks.

In short, the new high office envisioned by the Schäuble-Lamers Plan would have been impotent to prevent the causes of the crisis and to deal with its repercussions. Moreover, every time it did act, by vetoing a national budget, the new high office would be annulling the sovereignty of a European people without having replaced it by a higher-order sovereignty at a federal or supra-national level.

Dr Schäuble has been impressively consistent in his espousal of a political union that runs contrary to the basic principles of a democratic federation. In an article in Die Welt published on 15th June 1995, he dismissed the “academic debate” over whether Europe should be “…a federation or an alliance of states”. Was he right that there is no difference between a federation and an ‘alliance of states’? I submit that a failure to distinguish between the two constitutes a major threat to European democracy.

Forgotten prerequisites for a liberal democratic, multinational political union

One often forgotten fact about liberal democracies is that the legitimacy of its laws and constitution is determined not by its legal content but by politics. To claim, as Dr Schäuble did in 1995, and implied again in 2014, that it makes no difference whether the Eurozone is an alliance of sovereign states or a federal state is purposely to ignore that the latter can create political authority whereas the former cannot.

An ‘alliance of states’ can, of course, come to mutually beneficial arrangements against a common aggressor (e.g. in the context of a defensive military alliance), or in agreeing to common industry standards, or even effect a free trade zone. But, such an alliance of sovereign states can never legitimately create an overlord with the right to strike down a states’ sovereignty, since there is no collective, alliance-wide sovereignty from which to draw the necessary political authority to do so.

This is why the difference between a federation and an ‘alliance of states’ matters hugely. For while a federation replaces the sovereignty forfeited at the national or state level with a new-fangled sovereignty at the unitary, federal level, centralising power within an ‘alliance of states’ is, by definition, illegitimate, and lacks any sovereign body politic that can anoint it. Nor can any Euro Chamber of the European Parliament, itself lacking the power to legislate at will, legitimise the Budget Commissioner’s veto power over national Parliaments.

To put it slightly differently, small sovereign nations, e.g. Iceland, have choices to make within the broader constraints created for them by nature and by the rest of humanity. However limited these choices, Iceland’s body politic retains absolute authority to hold their elected officials accountable for the decisions they have reached within the nation’s exogenous constraints and to strike down every piece of legislation that it has decided upon in the past. In juxtaposition, the Eurozone’s finance ministers often return from Eurogroup meetings decrying the decisions that they have just signed up to, using the standard excuse that “it was the best we could negotiate within the Eurogroup”.

The euro crisis has expanded this lacuna at the centre of Europe hideously. An informal body, the Eurogroup, that keeps no minutes, abides by no written rules, and is answerable to precisely no one, is running the world’s largest macro-economy, with a Central Bank struggling to stay within vague rules that it creates as it goes along, and no body politic to provide the necessary bedrock of political legitimacy on which fiscal and monetary decisions may rest.

Will Dr Schäuble’s Plan remedy this indefensible system of governance? If anything, it would dress up the Eurogroup’s present ineffective macro-governance and political authoritarianism in a cloak of pseudo-legitimacy. The malignancies of the present ‘Alliance of States’ would be cast in stone and the dream of a democratic European federation would be pushed further into an uncertain future.

Dr Schäuble’s perilous strategy for implementing the Schäuble-Lamers Plan

Back in May, in the sidelines of yet another Eurogroup meeting, I had had the privilege of a fascinating conversation with Dr Schäuble. We talked extensively both about Greece and regarding the future of the Eurozone. Later on that day, the Eurogroup meeting’s agenda included an item on future institutional changes to bolster the Eurozone. In that conversation, it was abundantly clear that Dr Schäuble’s Plan was the axis around which the majority of finance ministers were revolving.

Though Grexit was not referred to directly in that Eurogroup meeting of nineteen ministers, plus the institutions’ leaders, veiled references were most certainly made to it. I heard a colleague say that member-states that cannot meet their commitments should not count on the Eurozone’s indivisibility, since reinforced discipline was of the essence. Some mentioned the importance of bestowing upon a permanent Eurogroup President the power to veto national budgets. Others discussed the need to convene a Euro Chamber of Parliamentarians to legitimise her or his authority. Echoes of Dr Schäuble’s Plan reverberated throughout the room.

Judging from that Eurogroup conversation, and from my discussions with Germany’s Finance Minister, Grexit features in Dr Schäuble’s Plan as a crucial move that would kickstart the process of its implementation. A controlled escalation of the long suffering Greeks’ pains, intensified by shut banks while ameliorated by some humanitarian aid, was foreshadowed as the harbinger of the New Eurozone. On the one hand, the fate of the prodigal Greeks would act as a morality tale for governments toying with the idea of challenging the existing ‘rules’ (e.g. Italy), or of resisting the transfer of national sovereignty over budgets to the Eurogroup (e.g. France). On the other hand, the prospect of (limited) fiscal transfers (e.g. a closer banking union and a common unemployment benefit pool) would offer the requisite carrot (that smaller nations craved).

Setting aside any moral or philosophical objections to the idea of forging a better union through controlled boosts in the suffering of a constituent member-state, several broader questions pose themselves urgently:

  • Are the means fit for the ends?
  • Is the abrogation of the Eurozone’s constitutional indivisibility a safe means of securing its future as a realm of shared prosperity?
  • Will the ritual sacrifice of a member-state help bring Europeans closer together?
  • Does the argument that elections cannot change anything in indebted member-states inspire trust in Europe’s institutions?
  • Or might it have the precise opposite effect, as fear and loathing become established parts of Europe’s intercourse?

Conclusion: Europe at a crossroads

The Eurozone’s faulty foundations revealed themselves first in Greece, before the crisis spread elsewhere. Five years later, Greece is again in the limelight as Germany’s sole surviving statesman from the era that forged the euro, Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, has a plan to refurbish Europe’s monetary union that involves jettisoning Greece on the excuse that the Greek government has no ‘credible’ reforms on offer.

The reality is that a Eurogroup sold to Dr Schäuble’s Plan, and strategy, never had any serious intention to strike a New Deal with Greece reflecting the common interests of creditors and of a nation whose income had been crushed, and whose society was fragmented, as a result of a terribly designed ‘Program’. Official Europe’s insistence that this failed ‘Program’ be adopted by our new government ‘or else’ was nothing but the trigger for the implementation of Dr Schäuble’s Plan.

It is quite telling that, the moment negotiations collapsed, our government’s argument that Greece’s debt had to be restructured as part of any viable agreement was, belatedly, acknowledged. The International Monetary Fund was the first institution to do so. Remarkably Dr Schäuble himself also acknowledged that debt relief was needed but hastened to add that it was politically “impossible”. What I am sure he really meant was that it was undesirable, to him, because his aim is to justify a Grexit that triggers the implementation of his Plan for Europe.

Perhaps it is true that, as a Greek and a protagonist in the past five months of negotiations, my assessment of the Schäuble-Lamers Plan, and of their chosen means, is too biased to matter in Germany.

Germany has been a loyal European ‘citizen’ and the German people, to their credit, have always yearned to embed their nation-state, to lose themselves in an important sense, within a united Europe. So, setting aside my views on the matter, the question is this:

What do you, dear reader, think of it? Is Dr Schäuble’s Plan consistent with your dream of a democratic Europe? Or will its implementation, beginning with the treatment of Greece as something between a pariah state and a sacrificial lamb, spark off a never-ending feedback between economic instability and the authoritarianism that feeds off it?

[1] “Elections can change nothing” and “It is the MoU or nothing”, were typical of the utterances that he greeted my first intervention at the Eurogroup with.

[2] Moreover, if the Greek state had been barred from borrowing by Dr Schäuble’s budget commissioner, Greek debt would still have piled up via the private banks – as it did in Ireland and Spain.

Greece Votes NO – Let The Chaos Begin…

Off the keyboard of Michael Snyder

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Published on The Economic Collapse on July 5, 2015

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The result of the referendum in Greece is a great victory for freedom, but it is also threatens to unleash unprecedented economic chaos all across Europe.  With almost all of the votes counted, it is being reported that approximately 61 percent of Greeks have voted “no” and only about 39 percent of Greeks have voted “yes”.  This is a much larger margin of victory for the “no” side than almost everyone was anticipating, and it represents a stunning rejection of European austerity.  Massive celebrations have erupted on the streets of Athens and other major Greek cities, but the euphoria may not last long.  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is promising that Greece will be able to stay in the euro, but that gives EU bureaucrats and the IMF a tremendous amount of power, because at this point the Greek government is flat broke.  Without more money from the EU and the IMF, the Greek government will not be able to pay its bills and virtually all Greek banks will inevitably collapse.  Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is about to experience a tremendous amount of pain as financial markets respond to the results of this referendum.  The euro is already plummeting, and most analysts expect European bond yields to soar and European stocks to drop substantially when trading opens on Monday morning.

Personally, I love the fact that the Greek people decided not to buckle under the pressure being imposed on them by the EU and the IMF.  But amidst all of the celebration, the cold, hard reality of the matter is that your options are extremely limited when you are out of money.

How is the Greek government going to pay its bills without any money?

How are the insolvent Greek banks going to operate without any money?

How is the Greek economy going to function without any money?

Now that the Greek people have overwhelmingly rejected the demands of the creditors, it will be very interesting to see what the EU and the IMF do.  Prior to the referendum, European leaders were insisting that a “no” vote would put an end to negotiations and would force Greece to leave the euro.

Now that the results are in, are they going to change their tune?  Because the ball is definitely in their court

“This does two things: it legitimises the stance of the Greek government and it leaves the ball in Europe’s court,” ANZ Bank analysts said in a note.

Europe either folds or Greece goes bankrupt; over to you Merkel.”

So would they actually let Greece go bankrupt?

It is going to be fascinating to watch what happens over the next few days.  Right now, Greek banks are on life support.  If the European Central Bank decides to pull the plug, they would essentially destroy the entire Greek banking system.  The only thing that can keep Greek banks alive and kicking is more intervention from the ECB.  The following comes from the New York Times

Now that Greek voters have said no to the economic demands of its international creditors, the fate of the country’s struggling banks is in the hands of the European Central Bank.

Greece’s banks, closed since last Monday because they are perilously low on cash, have been kept alive in recent weeks by emergency loans from the European Central Bank. On Monday, the central bank’s policy makers plan to convene to determine how much longer they are willing to prop up the Greek banks, now that the country has essentially said no to the unpopular dictates of the other eurozone countries.

Of much greater concern to the rest of the world is how financial markets are going to respond to all of this.  As I write this article, things already appear to be unraveling.  The following comes from CNBC

Germany’s Dax is indicated sharply lower from Friday’s close at around 4 percent, while the euro was down 2 percent against the yen as the news emerged. U.S. stocks are expected to open around 1 percent lower Monday, according to recent stock futures data.

What could be most important for those worried about contagion from the Greek crisis is how Portuguese, Spanish and Italian government bonds perform in Monday morning trade.

If these peripheral euro zone countries, often lumped in with Greece, suffer a sharp spike in yields, this could cause alarm about whether Greece leaving the currency might cause further contagion to other weaker euro zone economies.

This could potentially become a “trigger event” that unleashes a wave of financial panic all over Europe.  And once financial panic begins, it is very difficult to end.

If the EU and the IMF want to avoid a crisis, they could just give in to the new Greek government.  But that would be politically risky for certain high profile European leaders.  For instance, Angela Merkel would face a huge backlash back home if she conceded to the new Greek government now.  And other German leaders are already calling the referendum result a “disaster”

German politicians branded the result a ‘disaster’, with the country’s economy minister Sigmar Gabriel Sigmar accusing Tsipras of ‘tearing down the last bridges on which Greece and Europe could have moved towards a compromise’.

He added: ‘Tsipras and his government are leading the Greek people on a path of bitter abandonment and hopelessness.’

And the president of the European Parliament, a German, told a German radio station over the weekend that a “no” vote would almost certainly mean that the Greeks will be forced out of the euro

If after the referendum, the majority is a ‘no,’ they will have to introduce another currency because the euro will no longer be available for a means of payment,” Martin Schulz, European Parliament president, said on German radio.

That is pretty strong language, eh?

Here is yet another quote from Schulz

Without new money, salaries won’t be paid, the health system will stop functioning, the power network and public transport will break down, and they won’t be able to import vital goods because nobody can pay,” he said.

So at this point it is all up to the EU and the IMF, and in particular the focus will be on the Germans.

What will they decide to do?

Will they give in, or will they force the Greeks to leave the euro?

If the Greeks do transition from the euro to a new currency, it will be a process that takes months (if not longer).  You just can’t change ATMs, computer systems, cash registers, etc. overnight.  So a move to the drachma  would not be as simple as many are suggesting…

British firms like De La Rue, which prints 150 currencies worldwide, are believed to have been contacted with a view to providing such services.

It’s done in great secrecy to prevent currency speculation. The other big problem is the logistical challenges of switching a currency. All ATMs, computers and other machinery of commerce that bears the euro symbol will have to be adjusted. It could, and would, take months.

And if Greece does leave, it will be a massive shock for global financial markets.  Faith in the European project will be shattered, the euro will drop like a rock, bond yields all over the continent will rise to unsustainable levels and major banks all over Europe will fail.

I think that the following quote from Romano Prodi sums things up quite well

Romano Prodi, former chief of the European Commission and Italy’s ex-premier, said it is the EU’s own survival that is now at stake as the botched handling of the Greek crisis escalates into a catastrophe. “If the EU cannot resolve a small problem the size of Greece, what is the point of Europe?

Meanwhile, we should all keep in mind that a financial crisis has already erupted over in Asia as well.  Chinese stocks have lost 30 percent of their value in just the last three weeks.  In fact, the amount of “paper wealth” wiped out in China over the past three weeks is approximately equivalent to “10 times Greece’s gross domestic product”

A dizzying three-week plunge in Chinese equities has wiped out $2.36 trillion in market value — equivalent to about 10 times Greece’s gross domestic product last year.

The great financial collapse of 2015 is well underway, and it should be a very interesting week for global markets.

But no matter what happens this week, we all need to keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

A “perfect storm” is on the way, and we all need to get prepared for it while we still can.

 

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