YOU may have missed it, but the European Union held a summit this week. Taking in a nutritious working lunch, Europe’s prime ministers, presidents and chancellors devoted half of Wednesday to weighty issues of energy and taxation. Gone are the panic-stricken sessions of last year, dogged by talk of the euro’s imminent failure. Today, Europe’s leaders note, reform is under way across most of the euro zone and some southern European countries are regaining their competitiveness. The government-debt market is back in its box, where it belongs. And over the past year share prices are up by a quarter. Nobody could pretend that life is easy; Europeans understand that hard work and sacrifices lie ahead. But the worst of the crisis is now safely in the past.
It is a reassuring tale, and those worn down by the Wagnerian proportions of the euro saga (who isn’t?) are eager to believe it. Unfortunately, the idea that the euro is yesterday’s problem is a dangerous figment. In reality, Europe’s leaders are sleepwalking through an economic wasteland.
Someone call a somnambulance, quick
The euro-zone economy has just endured a sixth successive quarter of shrinking GDP. The malaise is spreading to core countries including Finland and the Netherlands, which both contracted in the first quarter. Retail sales are falling. Unemployment, above 12%, is a record—with more than one in four Spaniards out of work (see article). In spite of savage spending cuts, government deficits are persistent and high. The sum of government, household and company debt is still excessive. Banks are undercapitalised and international lenders worry about their as-yet-unrecognised losses. Although official interest rates are low, firms in southern Europe are suffering a cruel credit crunch. All this is causing economic hardship today and eating away at the prospects for growth tomorrow. The euro zone may not be about to collapse, but the calm in Brussels is not so much a sign of convalescence as of decay.
For everyone’s sake, Europe’s leaders must shake themselves out of their lethargy. They must grasp that if they do not act, the euro zone faces stagnation or break-up—possibly both.
After years of crisis, the to-do list is clear. The urgent task is to sever the ties between banks and governments too feeble to support them. That was the aim of the banking union agreed on last year. But, as the pressure has eased, the union has become ensnared in technicalities and a fundamental argument about how much historic bank debt, if any, should be dumped on it—how much, in other words, Germans, Finns and Dutch should bear the burden of other people’s mistakes. This delay is highly damaging. Europe’s banks need funds by whatever means. America has recovered before Europe not just because it has been less austere, but also because it rapidly sorted out its banks so that they could lend again (see Charlemagne).
In addition, the euro zone needs growth-boosting reform. The EU should extend the single market further into services. Instead of thinking up red lines, it should pursue a free-trade agreement on offer from the United States, its biggest trading partner. And it should ease austerity by slowing the pace of budget cuts and using cash from the core euro zone to pay for schemes to boost youth employment and investment in small and medium-sized firms in the periphery.
Clearly, the reason for today’s inaction is not a shortage of things to do, but a shortage of the will to do them. This hiatus is partly caused by elections due in September in Germany, the prime mover in almost any European policy these days. But there is a deeper reason, too. Across Europe voters have grown resentful of both their own politicians and the EU. In France the president, François Hollande, is paralysed by scandal and a dismal approval rating of 24%, another record (see article). A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that the share of French voters who say that they look favourably on the EU has fallen from 60% in 2012 to 41% now, less even than in Eurosceptic Britain. Italy is mired in recession, yet it cannot seem to muster a coherent political platform for change. At the same time, voters want to keep the single currency: 70% of them still support the euro in Greece, which has suffered more in the crisis than any other country. Over the past few years crunch votes in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have repeatedly backed staying inside the euro zone.
This is a recipe for inaction. On the one hand, voters want the euro zone to stay together. On the other, they will not back the difficult reforms needed to pull it out of the crisis.
Time was when the bond markets would force politicians to face up to this contradiction. It was the threat of financial panic that kept euro-zone leaders up until dawn hammering out rescue deals and promises of reform. But the financial markets have been anaesthetised ever since Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), promised to “do whatever it takes” to protect the euro zone from collapse. Speculators know that to bet against the single currency would be to take on the theoretically infinite balance-sheet of the ECB—and that, at least at first, would mean heavy losses.
Mr Draghi was right to buy the euro zone time. He was also right to furnish the ECB with the tools to tamp down speculation. The trouble is that the politicians are squandering the chance for orderly reform. Optimists say that everything will be just fine after Germany’s election, when its leaders will have a mandate for euro-zone reform. But German reluctance either to lead or to pay for the rest of Europe runs deeper than that. Besides, Mr Hollande’s woes mean that the Franco-German relationship, always central to the evolution of Europe, has seized up.
And if euro-zone leaders stumble on? Like Japan, Europe will be under a shadow for years to come. The cost will be measured in disillusion, blighted communities and wasted lives. Unlike Japan, though, the euro zone is not cohesive. For as long as stagnation and recession tear at democracy, the euro zone risks a fatal popular rejection. If the sleepwalkers care about their currency and their people, they need to wake up.