The economic crisis that began in 2007, became a banking crisis in 2008, a sovereign debt crisis in 2009, a Euro crisis in 2010 has now become a political crisis in 2011. All of the deficit countries in the Eurozone, the so-called PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain have now seen their governments replaced (in Spain, that will actually take place after the election this weekend, though the result is not in doubt). Germany seems to have won the argument that harsh economic discipline is the only solution to the protracted restructuring that seems to be required.
The stereotypes that have been flying around: that Greek dishonesty or Italian indiscipline are the root of the crisis may appeal to a certain kind of headline writer, but in fact the crisis has been caused as least as much by German indiscipline and banking incompetence. Of course Chancellor Merkel has much to gain by being portrayed as an inflexible, "iron" Chancellor, but the reality is that unless Germany can find some flexibility to allow the ECB to become a true lender of last resort to the Eurozone banking system, then the single currency in its current form is doomed.
While technocratic, un-elected, governments take office in Athens and Rome, in countries which have a very recent history of fallen democracy, we can see a short-to-medium term strategy taking shape. The weakest economies will get a does of German discipline, while Germany considers the prospect of full fiscal union if those economies can be stabilized.
A two-speed Europe is already decreed.
However the two speeds may be a standstill- at best- in the core Eurozone and a major reverse in the periphery.
The failure of the capital markets has already caused an investment drought, for those countries inside the EU, but outside of the Euro. In Central and Eastern Europe, it is already clear that the Eurozone banks that have been most active in the region are looking to make an exit, in order to retrench their home operations. UniCredit has already put several of its operations up for sale, intending to maintain their operations only in Poland. Commerzbank is set to do the same. Yet these countries are already suffering from a serious capital shortage. In the UK, the lack of investment is already causing a significant increase in unemployment. In Spain the already horrendous unemployment numbers are getting worse.
The consequence of the kind of restructuring that Germany is asking for, will be a huge increase in the numbers out of work. The next year will see levels of unemployment not seen since the hungry thirties. The implications for the kind of restructuring that is under discussion are unemployment rates that in some countries will top 50%.
With democratic governments already suspended in Athens and Rome, the European political elite may believe that it can ram through their policies without consent "in order to save the Euro". However, the price is simply not worth paying. Far better to restore the shock absorber of independent currencies and attempt to ease the pain of the inevitable restructuring under the control of governments that have the consent of the governed than to maintain this suicidal policy mixture.
The "Merkozy" Paris-Berlin axis is said to be under strain. To my mind, the polices that are being followed can not but lead to massive unemployment and a major political breakdown unless Germany simply opens its moneybags- which they are understandably reluctant to do. Yet without major flexibility and compromise from Berlin, the economy of all of Europe is headed for meltdown.
Relying on German flexibility to save the currency strikes me as dangerous as relying on Greek probity. This is the moment of truth for the Euro. Without German shock and awe in the financial markets, the economic outlook is for a major contraction in Europe, accompanied by huge unemployment and significant political instability.
We are back to the 1930s in Europe.