While the British news media and politicos alike obsess with the unfolding of the News of the World hacking scandal, Europe’s financial crisis enters a dangerous stage. In fact this crisis seems to unfolding just as quickly, and with much more important potential consequences. Was I being too sanguine last Friday, when I blogged that it was a learning curve rather than a fundamental problem? Well, probably.
I had hardly posted it than a flood of dire articles about the crisis came out. One of the best is by eminent US economist Larry Summers in this morning’s FT(£); alongside it an equally gloomy article from FT regular Wolfgang Munchau (£). Mr Summers points to the critical issue of confidence that could be destroyed in a default, drawing a parallel with Lehman in 2008. He then offers quite a plausible way out. But the problem, as Mr Munchau points out, is:
I often hear that Ms Merkel in particular has moved a long way from her original position 18 months ago, when she ruled out any money for Greece. This is true. But the crisis now moves at a rate that exceeds her political speed limit.
There’s clearly a problem. One issue is the expectation that European leaders will muddle through, as they always have. This, unfortunately, is a self-destroying prophesy. Because Europe’s leaders expect everything to come right in the end, they don’t have the incentive to make it actually happen. Actually Europe’s greatest achievements have required some strong leadership, with Helmut Kohl, Germany’s Chancellor in the 1990s standing out. Mr Kohl achieved German unification on his own terms, pushed through monetary union and the massive eastward expansion of NATO and the EU right into the former Soviet Empire. Mrs Merkel does not fill his shoes.
Still, there are plenty of bright ideas for ways out, without the Eurozone collapsing, Mr Summers’s among them. They will all require Mrs Merkel to shift her current stance. Things could get worse before they get better. At any rate it looks more soluble than the US budgetary stand-off.