Opinion: Another Greek tragedy? Time for Europhiles to admit the dream is over

In case you wouldn’t have noticed, another crisis has come on top of the big one.

For those who understand French, read carefully this article in the March 5 edition of French daily “Le Monde” . A former German finance vice-minister buries the euro as it is now and advises all Southern-Europe economies (including France) to get out of the Eurozone if they don’t clean up their act, behave more like Germany and adopt many unacceptable social measures. Some German backbenchers have suggested these might include selling off some islands (who would buy these? You guess).

That doesn’t yet represent the whole German opinion, but a majority for sure. Angela Merkel on the same day just paid lip service and said that the Greeks didn’t need financial aid. Surely the Germans are not 100 per cent wrong, not least about Greece’s profligacy and number-fudging.
Those are signs of the times. And of more turbulent times ahead.

It seems that from the Greek crisis, only three scenarios might occur. And all of them qualify as “worst case”:

A sharply devalued currency across the Eurozone
The Germans would probably hate this. And as they are the ones effectively in control. Note that helping or not helping Greece with a stopgap would certainly not diminish the risk of an attack against another “PIG” (or Club Med state, to be more polite). On the contrary. Speculators, armed with hedge funding, CDS and other sophisticated weaponry are lying in wait.

Split the euro into two currencies
Could we have two euro currencies – a weaker and a stronger one? Let’s name them EuroFranc and EuroMark. Not plausible? It’s just what the German minister recommends. The French President’s words on the day after, “If we created the euro, we cannot let a country fall that is in the eurozone. Otherwise, there was no point in creating the euro”, might hint at that scenario.

The breakup of the euro and Eurozone and the return of national currencies
This would favour some economies but not all. And exit barriers are high, as it is would require reprinting coins and notes. Who knows about historical precedents here – but wasn’t the euro a precedent too?

There is one other scenario – keep the euro, and eurozone, as they are now, with further political integration and socially unacceptable “adjustment” policies in a majority of the zone countries as the price to be paid. That seems to me so unlikely that I haven’t considered it, leading as it must to deeper political unification process and greatly increased German domination. All attempts in history to achieve that have never worked – at least peacefully. Think of Charlemagne, Charles V, Napoleon and… Hitler. And imagine the Barroso-Van Rompuy-Trichet trio (how impressive) trying it.

Whatever the outlook, all scenarios will show a failure of Brussels bureaucracy. As Paul Krugman summed it three weeks ago in the New York Times: “Europe is in trouble because policy elites pushed the Continent into adopting a single currency before it was ready.” Speculation comes into play and is also giving a helping (though not helpful) hand.

But it is not the major cause or explanatory factor. Imagine what the situation would be had the UK joined the euro-fray a few years ago.

Those who, like me, have stood among supporters of the EU should admit that a more eurosceptic approach is now the right one.

Between the Lisbon treaty ratification, the violation of Irish democracy (if Iceland was a EU member they would probably be “invited” to vote again about repayment) and the awkward appointment of an EU “president” it should perhaps have already been clear, even without these latest difficulties.

But it’s never too late to change: “When the facts change, I change my mind,” said Keynes. Greece is another wake-up call. It’s hard to admit for some, including the Liberal Democrats, but the little enthusiasm shared by Thatcherites and pre-Blairists about ever more integrated European union is proving to be right these days and further down the road.

The European dream is gone. It’s time to think of a looser pattern and other ways to live, work and trade together. Is it bad? Not necessarily.

Mike Guillaume is an economist and financial analyst. He is the author of “The Seven Deadly Sins of Capitalism” (excerpts available on www.mikeconomics.net). His main office is in London and he shares his time and work between other international cities. He is a partisan of the Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Jungliberaler 9th Mar '10 - 1:46pm

    What we see right now is that the UK was right not establishing the Euro in their country.
    the economic systems are obviously too different and different systems having the same currency – that was a mistake. But people didn’t think rational and we discussed in Germany years ago the idea of expanding the EU and integrating Turkey.

    Now we think about “breakup of the euro and Eurozone and the return of national currencies” ?

    Thats a very crazy development. But I think/hope we have the power to keep the euro, and eurozone.

  • Excellent analysis, Mr Guillaume.

    The faultlines within the single currency were there for all to see prior to this crisis, as indeed was the large democratic deficit within the EU itself. Both have been tested and found wanting.

    Will the LibDem leadership now revise its previously uncritical cheerleading?

  • Iceland is going through a pretty big fiscal, economic and currency crisis. Perhaps they too should “disband”. After all, they never used to have this kind of trouble back in the good old days when the island was just a collection of fishing villages.

    I’m sure the pound would be doing a lot better too if we decided to chuck out certain underperforming regions. There are bigger differences in prosperity between London and Solihull than between Germany and Greece.

    Blaming the current situation on the Euro smacks of kneejerk populism, which may sound good in the short term, but the reason villages (long ago), regions (less long ago) and more recently some countries decide to band together is because they believe that in the long term the benefits to all concerned will far outweigh the costs. The groupings that truly fail are not those that go through difficult periods occasionally (and usually emerge stronger), but those that give in to headless chicken syndrome at the first sign of trouble.

    Oh, and “violation of Irish democracy” ?! Maybe you should spend some time in countries where your democratic rights really are violated before throwing around glib phrases like that. Nobody forced the Irish to vote yes.

  • paul barker 9th Mar '10 - 2:52pm

    After the Greek story broke, The Euro plummetted from 1.37 dollars to err, 1.35. And then back up to 1.36 – run for the hills !

  • I am in favour of the EU, I am certainly not in favour of the single currency…

    The reason is this. Countries with different financial realities, be they levels of personal debt, financial travesties etc. need the ability to set an interest that is right for their fiscal reality, with the common currency unable to take into account the differences in economic situations it can’t be right for every country all of the time, and as such I would be against taking on the common currency despite the benefits it may bring in the good times… I am sure that Vince Cable would hold a similar position to my own?

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Mar '10 - 4:07pm

    For those of us who have a very limited grasp of French, what’s this all about? I see a lot of commentary and no facts.

  • A question: Would Iceland fare better if they were EU and euro members?

    Compared to how fantastically well they’re performing outside the EU/euro? In the long term, yes they would. And in the long term (or more likely the medium term), they probably will join. Or are you predicting Iceland will stay out?

    You can always find reasons to scrap things based on short term costs and problems. If these kind of arguments won the day, the entrepreneurs that drive our economy would all run for the hills at the sight of their first-year deficits. Fortunately, enough people have the ability to look further ahead and see the potential returns on the investment.

    “Nobody forced the Irish to vote yes.” Frankly, do you really believe this? There are not many examples in the history of democracies of a people saying “No” asked to vote a second time to get a “Yes”. Or is your surname Ashton?

    I was working in France at the time of the Non vote on the EU constitution and my boss was wavering about which way to vote. Eventually he decided to vote no, explaining that he supported the EU and indeed the broad thrust of the treaty, but was unhappy with various bits (he was very left-leaning and disliked the free market emphasis). He didn’t expect the vote to result in the rejection of the treaty outright, but rather that it would be re-negotiated and, in his own words, “on revotera apres”.

    To fail to give the people another chance to vote on any issue, especially if circumstances have changed, would be a real violation of democracy. The first Irish referendum was hastily done, many people said the government hadn’t explained properly what they were voting about, others were concerned about military neutrality, other worried about the implications for abortion. For the second referendum, a neutrality clause was added, undertakings were given that Irish laws on abortion would be respected and the government put much more effort into campaigning for a Yes vote rather than just taking it for granted like they did the first time around.

    Furthermore, the economic situation focussed people’s minds on the issue they were voting on – the EU – as opposed to just giving their unpopular prime minister a good kicking. So, big surprise, they gave a different result. If you equate this with being “forced” to vote yes, then maybe you just preferred the original result and didn’t want to allow the Irish people a chance to change their minds?

    If a man shows up in a dirty t-shirt with bad breath and asks a woman out and she says no, should he just assume she isn’t interested and never will be? It far more likely that if he had a shower, took a breath mint, dressed in a suit and turned up on her doorstep with a bunch of roses, she would probably give a different answer. If she still said no, then he could at least be sure that she really meant it.

  • David Allen 9th Mar '10 - 6:25pm


    What’s so democratic about holding a vote in one small corner of Europe (Ireland), and saying that if that small corner says no, then the whole of Europe should be bound by the result? Whereas you hold a vote in another small corner of Europe (Spain), that small corner says yes, and that result just gets completely ignored by everybody?

    What sort of system is it if you need to hold a vote in 27 constituencies, and win it in all 27 of them, in order to get progress made? A system tailor-made to gerrymander for the eurosceptics!

    There should have been one single referendum, all across Europe, yes or no.

  • I used to favour the UK joining the Euro, but I never favoured Greece doing so. If your internal inflationary pressures are higher than the core of a currency union, you are pretty much destined to fail. The Euro will not collapse, but the Greek economy will unless they leave a currency union they should not have joined in the first place. Loans from Europe, or Europe underwriting Greek debt is irrelevant – if Greek wages rise more quickly than elsewhere, Greek business is in trouble.

    In the interwar era, France stayed on the Gold Standard much longer, and suffered relative to Britain, which came off more quickly. Having a currency at a radically wrong rate is not compatible with economic success. That is the reality, whichever party you are in.

    (And yes, I claim to be an economist!)

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 9th Mar '10 - 9:33pm

    No-one would suggest abolishing the US dollar when one state of the union (and some are very poor relative to others) falls into serious fiscal problems.

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Mar '10 - 10:25pm

    “There should have been one single referendum, all across Europe, yes or no.”

    You can’t be serious, David! Nothing would be surer to hasten the exit of the UK (and probably a few others) from the EU than such a blatant sweeping away of national independence. Even the USA has a seriously high bar to making any constitutional amendment – not all 50 states admittedly, but 75% of them need to sign up. And the USA has and has always had a much more coherent sense of nationhood than anything that could be said to exist across the EU.

    This last point is also (part of) the answer to Antony’s argument:
    “No-one would suggest abolishing the US dollar when one state of the union (and some are very poor relative to others) falls into serious fiscal problems.”
    The two cases simply aren’t the same, as the EU “government” has even less legitimacy – and far less economic clout – than the Federal government of the USA. Though having said that the situations are different, it’s worth noting that some states of the US are persistently lagging behind the rest in economic terms, and suffer from the lack of ability to run an independent economic policy. All that keeps them afloat is constant cross-subsidy from the more successful states: precisely what Europe is nowhere near being politically capable of providing, as the German reaction to Greece’s difficulties shows.

  • David Allen 9th Mar '10 - 11:03pm

    Oh yes I can Malcolm! To clarify, a Europe-wide referendum should have been counted nation by nation, and then added up to produce the result. Which, as you point out, should also have had (say) a 60% threshold in votes to approve a constitutional change.

    Then, if Ruritania had voted no while the whole of Europe had voted yes, what should have happened? The answer must be, whatever the Ruritanians decided they should do about it. You wouldn’t want Europe to dictate to them on that would you? The Ruritanians, or the British, or whoever, should have made up their own minds whether to grin and bear it, to negotiate for some sort of consequential change, or to vote again (on their own this time!) to decide whether or not to leave Europe.

    I don’t think that would have meant “sweeping away of national independence”.

    Next time Europe faces a similar constitutional question, what alternative do you think would work better? Not sticking to the way it was done this time, I hope!

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Mar '10 - 8:40am

    Ah, okay. Apologies, David: I read you too simplistically.

    Even so, I think any such model would need to have provision for a strong majority of states to approve the change, so that several smaller states aren’t in effect presented with an ultimatum by a handful of the largest countries that amounts to “do it our way or sod off”. 75% seems like a minimum – even then, I’m not sure that politically the EU could justify going ahead with significant constitutional change that six of its members had rejected in a vote; though as you say, it could be up to each country to decide what to do then.

    To be honest, though, I’m beginning to think I might outlive the EU; and I’m not sure I’m that bothered if I do. It’s horribly undemocratic and incorrigibly remote; it may be the best defence we have against the power of international capital, but I’m ever less convinced either that that’s true or that it’s worth the price. And part of the very problem is the constant evolution of “ever closer union”, which means that everyone’s joining a pig in a poke, so to speak.

  • More europhobic jumping and pointing – but to a mirage. Should the eurozone have included Greece? Probably not, but at the time it was hard to judge since the Greeks lied about their national accounts. Was Greece better off in the eurozone? Yes, certainly – they benefitted from the cheap borrowing that allowed their boom.

    Has it made a massive cost liable by other euromembers? Not really, and the currency depreciation is probably what the eurozone needs. The analysis leaves out another brlliant alternative, outlined in the Economist about a ‘Europena Monetary Fund’ to deal with problem states.

    It’s a huff about nothing. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems, especially to do with fiscal federalism, to be sure. But you can’t cite German whinging as evidence that they’re right. They also whinge along with the French about an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy – is that true?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hoopk 10th Mar '10 - 3:07pm

    A few years ago California had a serious structural deficit to the point where the lights were going off. I’m not aware of a federal bail out taking place?

    Mike wrote:

    “The US were a State from the outset, had a single currency right from the start and American citizens (bar some Southerners and a few others) define themselves as American. Germans, French, Swedes et al. will always remain what they are. The very notion of a political union is a chimera.”

    For some years after independence the 13 colonies / new states existed under the Articles of Confederation which were arguably looser ties than EU state have today, had existed for almost 2 centuries before that as distinct social and political entities. The eventual ratification of the US Constituion was highly controversial. In some states like New York, ratification was doubtful. The “Federalist Papers” are pamphlets written for swing voters in NY to persuade them to join the US.

    There also plenty of other states that had long term poltical and economic existance prior to joining the US- Texas, Louisiana, and Hawaii which only joined about 50 years ago.

    So I’m not sure that “US were not a state from the outset”.

    Creating the US dollar was also controversial and when it started it had a fixed exchange rate with the pound. Spanish currency was also legal tender in the US until 1857 and several of the states issued currency (there was a New York Pound, a New Jersey Pound) from independence in 1776 until 1792.

    Regarding “American citizens (bar some Southerners and a few others) define themselves as American”

    I know New Yorkers who identify themselves as such.

    Isn’t the point that identity is not one or the other but several-fold- I’m Kentish, English, British and European, not to mention a professional identity, an identity as a liberal, and others.

    “Germans, French, Swedes et al. will always remain what they are”

    Will they? Germany didn’t exist until 1870. Norway was once part of Sweden. France did not always have a single national identity, nor did Spain or the Swiss. Italy did not exist until 1871. Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia at one time looked like permanent nations. Belguim did not exist until the late 1800s and might not exist by the end of this century.

    The idea of “Britain” as a single entity at one time seemed ridiculous as Linda Colley explores in her classic “The Forging of the Nation”. It was basically an invented identity.

    My feeling is that as history goes on more people will feel more European.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Mar '10 - 3:47pm

    You can’t reasonably equate the differences between the original American states – a collection of mostly Anglophone, British-ruled colonies with a common (short) history of settlement in a foreign land – to the deep differences between European states, which not only have several centuries of distinct and often mutually hostile history behind them but have major language differences and very different legal and political traditions. You don’t need to believe in some drecky ideas of mystical national identity to see that we lack anything like a common European political culture. There is, as somebody somewhere has said, no European “demos”: this is why there are no genuine European political parties, no body of government that can possibly be considered to be democratically accountable at a European level, and elections are fought – and votes cast – entirely on the basis of voters’ attitudes to membership of the European Union and to their national governments (rather than on what policies they think the European Parliament or Commission, much less the European Council, should adopt).

    The answer to this is apparently (and Anthony is by no means unusual in saying this):

    “My feeling is that as history goes on more people will feel more European.”

    Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t. Why should people who don’t currently feel more European than, for example, British, French, Polish or Ruritanian, be shoehorned into an unwanted and remote political union just because you or I might believe that they ought to “feel European” and that perhaps there children or grandchildren will eventually (give up and) feel it?

    To be clear: I’m not a nationalist. I’m utterly uninterested in mystical notions of nationhood, and deeply suspicious of anyone who makes a lot of noise about preserving or ‘protecting’ cultures or bangs on about ‘identity’ or ‘values’ as if these were magically transmitted through the bloodline and define the nature of the people born within one more-or-less-arbitrary set of borders rather than another. It’s all tosh. What I am bothered about is that people, and communities (the real ones that we actually live in) should have, and feel that they have, the maximum possible control over their own lives and their public spaces. This is just about tenable in a nation-state, where (thanks to quite arbitrary historical outcomes) most people understand themselves to be talking the same language (literally or metaphorically) about the same issues, and accept that there are common bonds and obligations between them all. We’re a long long way from any such sense of ourselves as a European entity, which is why the EU is perceived as an alien organisation without democratic legitimacy, whose attempts to push the population in directions they don’t generally want to go are therefore resented and resisted.

    I do dislike threads like this. I start out feeling broadly, though sceptically, pro-European and by the end I’ve almost convinced myself we should be campaigning to pull out altogether. So it goes.

  • David Allen 10th Mar '10 - 4:34pm

    Why not just despair?

    Why not give up on Copenhagen, since it’s a mess? If nobody else is going to bother giving our grandchildren a decent chance of dying in their beds, why should we?

    Why not give up on Europe, since it’s such a mess, and it’s so much easier to empathise with only the people who speak your own language? Well, look at Copenhagen. Europe got ignored, big time, because we are small fractious individual nations who cannot hang together. Very well, let us hang separately. Perhaps in another century, we shall all be colonies of India?

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Mar '10 - 5:39pm

    So if we don’t enthusiastically endorse the EU and ever closer integration, we obviously don’t care about “giving our grandchildren a decent chance of dying in their beds”? That’s rubbish, David, and unworthy of you: a real case of ‘my way or the high way’.

    As for your other points:
    There’s a world of difference between “only empathising with people who speak your own language” and my actual claim, which was about having a shared political culture – in which a common language certainly is a significant factor (look at Belgium’s tribulations, for pity’s sake!) but not the only one. The point is that within an established ‘demos’ such as exists here, we can argue about the way forward and switch our vote between parties that are more or less trying to represent the nation, on the basis of different philosophies and policies, and different ideas about what is in our common interest; attempt that on a larger scale, without a political commonality, and you either get the domination of the biggest/most powerful group, or rule by a detached elite with plenty in common with one another but little with any of the people they’re supposed to represent. Better at that point – though undoubtedly slower and more difficult for decision-making – to proceed by agreement between each polity acting as a single unit.

    What about Copenhagen? Well, it’s all very well to suggest we’d have got a ‘better’ outcome there if only Europe had been united; but even if it’s true that a united EU could have overcome US and Chinese reluctance, the idea that that’s desirable in general is presumably based on either (1) Europe is generally going to be right about the best way forward for everyone (anyone for cultural superiority?) or (2) It’s a dog-eat-dog world, we’d better look out for ourselves against those swine out there, and we can do that better if we’re part of a big gang (which doesn’t sound like the Europhiles I know and love – though given your closing “colonies of India” remark, perhaps it’s what you meant). If what’s important is doing what’s right then a plurality of voices is a good thing, though terribly untidy.

  • David Allen 10th Mar '10 - 6:05pm


    In my rant against despair I should have been a little more careful. Despair and hence inaction over the environment is to betray our future. Despair over Europe cannot automatically be taken to have equally dire consequences (the point does need to be argued!) and I’m sorry if I gave that impression.

    As to Europe getting ignored and marginalised in world affairs (Copenhagen being only one example): No I don’t believe we are culturally superior, yes I do believe it is very often a dog eats dog world. An untidy plurality of voices working slowly towards possibly getting things right is a lovely liberal idea, but if meanwhile the rest of the world is going to steamroller its way over you, perhaps you have to wise up and compete.

    Let’s face it, the Bush/Blair strategy for the future is that the world is going to run out of resources and the West is going to make sure it is everyone else who starves first. Obama/Brown may have softened the rhetoric but they haven’t really changed the policy. If we as liberals are going to oppose neocolonialism, we need to find practical ways to do so. A strong Europe has some chance of success in that regard, a weak Europe will just get pushed aside.

  • Mike- pointing out that the emf would achieve things not possible without doesn’t to me seem like a strong criticism…

    As a geberal point, it’s all very well saying we should allow people tio have control over their lives, and the EU is seen as foreign, therefore we should oppose it. Actually, surely that is a reason for defending it? for showing that the only way we can tackle issues such as fishing, internation crime, immigration, climate change, mobile raoming charges or whatever people feel is important, that in any way imcorporates other countries around us (which is most issues); the only way to help grow the economy and allow firms access to the best talent, and people to be able to work in other countries, and access to markets for our firms; to ensure peace and stability in europe; and to project european (and thereby British) intrerests in the world, such that we are taken seriously and not some dusty irrelvant old colonial power – we need the right sort of EU.

    Malcolm – your choices gloss over the fact that europe *was* the region putting forward the most radical proposals at Copenhagen. I don’t know if you meant it, but saying that acknoledging this is cultural supremacy, seems bizarre. The Americans, the Chinese, will have no scruples. Indeed all I got here in China at around Copenhagen was how brilliantly the Chinese handled it, the most responsible country there. David Allen is sadly right that the rest of the world may well steamroller Europe (and thereby Britain – the idea that we would be stronger alone is absurd)

  • David Allen 11th Mar '10 - 5:47pm

    “Some smaller economies have demonstrated economic performance and social welfare without being or aiming to be big.”

    Yes, those which pay third-world wages but have begun to offer first-world capabilities have done pretty well. Good for them, but we can’t match what they are doing, unless we want to start with a massive reduction in our standard of living!

    Otherwise, well, people used to cite Japan as a nation which was doing great things in terms of economy and technology without being big. The technology still works, the economy has languished. Being on your own can make you do some desperate things with your economy, look at Iceland!

    I’m not emotionally attracted to the grandeur of the big superpower idea. I would be much happier living in this romantic idyll of a small liberal nation-state with a vibrant democracy, thrving culture, no wars or terrorists, money growing on all the trees. But fantasy is no basis for political action!

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Mar '10 - 5:58pm

    David: Holland; Sweden; Norway; Canada — could you tell us which you consider these to be: countries that pay third-world wages or fantasy states?

  • Malcolm, Mike,

    You mention 4 European countries which, as EU members or associates, have gained from the trading strength of the EU – but for how much longer, if the EU loses momentum, I wonder? You mention Canada, which is very closely linked to the US e.g via NAFTA. You mention Singapore which has a lower wage economy, if not as low as some others.

    You did have the decency not to mention tax havens like Lichtenstein, finance “kings” like Switzerland or the Emirates, or front-line states like Israel who fight surrogate wars for US hegemony. All these can get away with some sort of splendid isolation in political terms, but only because of the overriding strength of their global alliances in financial or military terms.

    The real loner countries are the likes of Japan and Iceland, and they are losers. Let’s make sure we don’t join them.

    Yes, this sort of thinking is what we liberals tend to leave to the Right. More fools us. If we can’t be bothered to sort out how we will make a living in this world, we’ll never get the chance to build the liberal society.

  • Malcolm Todd 29th Apr '10 - 1:51pm

    What’s the Greek for catastrophe?

    EYPO, I think.

  • Evrophyles is defininetly a Greek name. Why not address Plato or Aristotiles ? Europhiles must not cause mayhem in the english language. as it is a noble name and will not bear comparison With many other gentlemen like Evroskepticon Hygienikon an old friend who lives next door to me. The more I hear those Romantics and dreamers who think yesteryear was better and see the English Nation under threat by immigrant hordes, I am reminded of those ignorant pupils who in so called Public Schools did badly in the classics because they somehow had a better time playing cricket and rugby than studying their grammar. I believe that Ptolemy knew the importance of Britannia and had placed Albion in the outer spheres of Europe for a very good reason. If that’s where these rude folk want to be so let it be. Kierete!.

  • jedibeeftrix 14th Feb '15 - 6:39pm

    i can’t believe i would not have commented on this article at the time…

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