What went wrong with the euro in 2010?

Euro coins

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bob Moon: It's going to be a nervous New Year across the Atlantic. Europe's wobbly economies need to raise more than $2 trillion to avoid further financial troubles. Question is, will there be any takers for Europe's debt on the global money markets? Greece needed to be bailed out in May, and Ireland followed with hat in hand this month. Now, anxiety lingers among the nations that share the euro as a common currency.

Marketplace's Stephen Beard joins us from London to review a troubling year for the euro. Hi, Stephen.

Stephen Beard: Hello Bob.

Moon: The euro was 10 years old at the beginning of 2010. It had been widely hailed as a big success; some even said it was a haven of stability during the banking crisis and the recession. What went wrong in 2010?

Beard: Right, they were speaking a little too soon. What happened in 2010 was the penny dropped, the truth finally dawned. When they created this project more than a decade ago, they thought they could have one currency, one central bank, one set of interest rates, for 16 very different economies without at the same time having one fiscal system -- that is one system of raising taxes and spending public money. You can't, it doesn't work very well and I think 2010 proved it.

Moon: I think it was more than a penny that dropped. Why doesn't it work? What was the problem?

Beard: Well, if you take the example of Greece -- runs up huge debts, can't pay its weight. Who helps it out? If it was part of this one system of taxing and spending -- apart from the fact Greece might not have gotten into this mess in the first place -- the money would flow automatically from the stronger to the weaker parts of the union. Without that, what happened: You get a lot of friction and ill feeling about who picks up the tab, who bails out Greece. Especially in Germany, since Germany paid the lion's share of the bailouts.

Moon: Now you've hit on what I think perhaps is the biggest threat to the survival of the euro: Does it come from Germany?

Beard: Yes it does, I think so. The German people feel betrayed. I mean, they very much resented having to bailout Greece and Ireland. They don't want a fiscal union. They were told, actually, at the time the euro was launched, there was more likely to be famine in Bavaria than a bailout. The phrase that the Germans very often use is "a transfer union," or a transfer society, as in transferring money from their pockets into the pockets of their -- as they see it -- feckless neighbors.

Here's German economist and former member of the European Investment Bank Horst Feuerstein.

Horst Feuerstein: We don't want to open the floodgates and have a transfer society that the Germans will transfer to these economies forever. And that is not in the interest of the Germans and it's not in the interest of the people who get the transfers.

Moon: OK, if we see the German public opposed to this transfer union or this fiscal union, doesn't that mean the euro is doomed? as we like to say in here American, "United we stand, divided we fall," that sort of thing.

Beard: No, not necessarily. It means the euro certainly could collapse, especially if big countries like Spain or, heaven forbid, Italy get into trouble and have to be bailed out. It's much more likely that the euro will stagger on and muddle through, because there are things to bear in mind here. German banks have lent hundreds and billions of euros to these weaker eurozone countries, like Spain, Ireland and so on. If the euro broke up, that debt would become unpayable, largely, and that would mean big bankruptcies in Germany. There's another point too: There would be huge technical problems if the currency broke up. Think of all those vending machines that would have to be scrapped, all those computers that would have to be reprogrammed. If European Monetary Union -- EMU as it's called -- fell apart. Andrew Hilton is head of the CSFI think tank.

Andrew Hilton: There would be enormous problems, logistical problems, in dismantling EMU. EMU was specifically set up with no-exit mechanism, and inevitably, if it broke up, there would be chaos in the markets for a while.

Beard: But he adds these things do happen nevertheless and big cross-border currency unions, which include independent countries rarely last for very long.

Moon: Well, a very happy and prosperous New Year to you. Marketplace's Stephen Beard in London.

Beard: Thank you Bob, and the same to you.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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