A principled Europe would not leave Greece to bleed
Unless it is one rule for the big and powerful and another for the small, the EU must stand behind Athens' new leadership
Greece has been condemned by European officialdom for its huge deficits. "No government or state can expect from us any special treatment," comes the warning from Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank. But Trichet failed to note that there had long been a double standard – in effect two Maastricht treaties, one for the large and powerful countries, another for the smaller and less powerful. When France broke the EU edict not to let debt exceed 3% of GDP, there were strong words, but little else.
Of course, Trichet may claim there is a difference between what Greece and the many other countries that have broken the limits have done. There is a difference of size. But there is also a difference in culpability and consequences. Greece's large deficit has implications for the future of the citizens of Greece, but not for the stability of the euro – unlike a similarly large deficit on the part of one of the larger countries.
A large part of Greece's deficit is the result of the global recession, whose impact was felt acutely by many countries who were not responsible for causing it. However, the global crisis did reveal the deep-rooted structural problems of the Greek economy, which had deteriorated further during the last six years under the previous government. Unfortunately, European leaders have compounded Greece's problems. Their statements have sent the interest rates it has to pay soaring, making it all the more difficult for Greece to tame its deficits.
Instead, they should have welcomed the efforts of Greece's new government. At least it has come clean about the dishonest accounting of its predecessors. Like America's banks, it could have tried to keep up with a system of dishonest accounting, hoping that it would not be caught out. But Greece's new prime minister, George Papandreou, has always stood for honest and transparent government. Europe should be coming to the assistance of this kind of leader, not making his life more difficult.
Greece is among the poorest of the European family. Part of the basis of the success of the European project is a sense of social solidarity, which entails coming to the assistance of those who are less fortunate. When the euro was created, many economists worried about the lack of stability-solidarity funds. If Europe had developed a better solidarity and stabilisation framework, then the deficits in the periphery of Europe might have been smaller and they would have been more able to manage them.
Economic downturns often affect those in the periphery much worse – they are the victims of their neighbours' failures. It is common wisdom that when the US sneezes, Mexico catches a cold. But more recently, this aphorism has mutated: Mexico now catches pneumonia, as its fall in GDP last year showed.
Part of the reason for the success of America's "single market" is that there is this sense of social cohesiveness, and a large federal budget to support it: when one part of the country has difficulties, federal spending can be diverted to help those parts that are in need.
While Europe may not yet have an overall budgetary framework that can fully address weaknesses in one part or the other of the EU, it should at least adopt the principle of "do no harm". For the ECB to announce that it will not accept Greek bonds as collateral would be counterproductive. For the ECB to delegate judgments about the credit-worthiness of Greek bonds to the rating agencies would be more than just irresponsible; it would be reprehensible. Delegation of effective regulatory responsibility to the rating agencies is partly what got the world into the present mess; and the rating agencies' judgments have proven to be deeply flawed – underrating the risk of mortgage backed securities, but consistently overrating the risk of certain sovereign debts.
With Europe's economy still weak, an excessively rapid tightening of its budget deficit would risk throwing Greece into a deep recession. Adjustments always take time, and are always painful. Europe should reframe the short-run budgetary targets it sets for Greece in terms of the structural deficit – what the deficit would have been had the country been able to achieve full employment. In recent years, even the IMF has reframed most countries' budgetary targets in terms of the primary deficit – net of interest payments, recognizing that volatile financial markets mean that interest payments are not really within a country's control.
The EU could and should show support for the honesty and integrity of Greece's government and its efforts not only to bring the budget under control, but to increase transparency of the entire budgetary framework and to reduce corruption. The EU can go further: institutions like the European Investment Bank should undertake countercyclical investments in the country, to offset the deflationary impacts of the budget cuts. Europe should show that it will stand behind Greece, much as the IMF provides support funds for developing countries. The provision of such support might lower interest rates, and make it easier for the country to reach budgetary balance. The EU, the euro, and the premise of European solidarity is being tested again. The measure of Europe will not be in the harshness of its actions, but in the spirit of solidarity that it shows in assisting its neighbour.
America too has unprecedented deficits, as do many countries around the world. Like Obama, Papandreou inherited an economic situation that was not of his making. Both of their predecessors had made mistakes of colossal proportions. Both of their predecessors had engaged in dishonest bookkeeping – but Bush's pale in comparison to that of Papandreou's predecessor. Both were elected on a platform that promised change, and both brought new standards of honesty and transparency to government. Both had their original vision compromised by the exigencies of the economic situation they confronted.
For the sake of European solidarity and democracy, Europe should support Papandreou's efforts in every way they can, not turn their back on the people of Greece who must be convinced that supporting the government's austerity measures is in everyone's best interest.
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