[…] The tragedy of the Euromess is that the creation of the euro was supposed to be the finest moment in a grand and noble undertaking: the generations-long effort to bring peace, democracy and shared prosperity to a once and frequently war-torn continent. But the architects of the euro, caught up in their project’s sweep and romance, chose to ignore the mundane difficulties a shared currency would predictably encounter — to ignore warnings, which were issued right from the beginning, that Europe lacked the institutions needed to make a common currency workable. Instead, they engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the nobility of their mission transcended such concerns.
The result is a tragedy not only for Europe but also for the world, for which Europe is a crucial role model. The Europeans have shown us that peace and unity can be brought to a region with a history of violence, and in the process they have created perhaps the most decent societies in human history, combining democracy and human rights with a level of individual economic security that America comes nowhere close to matching. These achievements are now in the process of being tarnished, as the European dream turns into a nightmare for all too many people. […]
The case for a transnational currency is, as we’ve already seen, obvious: it makes doing business easier. Before the euro was introduced, it was really anybody’s guess how much this ultimately mattered: there were relatively few examples of countries using other nations’ currencies. For what it was worth, statistical analysis suggested that adopting a common currency had big effects on trade, which suggested in turn large economic gains. Unfortunately, this optimistic assessment hasn’t held up very well since the euro was created: the best estimates now indicate that trade among euro nations is only 10 or 15 percent larger than it would have been otherwise. That’s not a trivial number, but neither is it transformative.
Still, there are obviously benefits from a currency union. It’s just that there’s a downside, too: by giving up its own currency, a country also gives up economic flexibility. […]
For now, the plan in Europe is to have everyone tough it out — in effect, for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain to emulate Latvia and Estonia. That was the clear verdict of the most recent meeting of the European Council, at which Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, essentially got everything she wanted. Governments that can’t borrow on the private market will receive loans from the rest of Europe — but only on stiff terms: people talk about Ireland getting a “bailout,” but it has to pay almost 6 percent interest on that emergency loan. There will be no E-bonds; there will be no transfer union.
Even if this eventually works in the sense that internal devaluation has worked in the Baltics — that is, in the narrow sense that Europe’s troubled economies avoid default and devaluation — it will be an ugly process, leaving much of Europe deeply depressed for years to come. There will be political repercussions too, as the European public sees the continent’s institutions as being — depending on where they sit — either in the business of bailing out deadbeats or acting as agents of heartless bill collectors. […]
It has been 60 years since the Schuman declaration started Europe on the road to greater unity. Until now the journey along that road, however slow, has always been in the right direction. But that will no longer be true if the euro project fails. A failed euro wouldn’t send Europe back to the days of minefields and barbed wire — but it would represent a possibly irreversible blow to hopes of true European federation.
So will Europe’s strong nations let that happen? Or will they accept the responsibility, and possibly the cost, of being their neighbors’ keepers? The whole world is waiting for the answer.
The New York Times, Paul Krugman, January 12, 2011 : “The Road to Economic Crisis Is Paved With Euros”.