OXFORD – With the election of a reform-minded centrist president in France and the re-election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeming ever more likely, is there hope for the stalled single-currency project in Europe? Perhaps, but another decade of slow growth, punctuated by periodic debt-related convulsions, still looks more likely. With a determined move toward fiscal and banking union, things could be much better. But, in the absence of policies to strengthen stability and sustainability, the chances of an eventual collapse are much greater.
True, in the near term, there is much reason for optimism. Over the past year, the eurozone has been enjoying a solid cyclical recovery, outperforming expectations more than any other major advanced economy. And make no mistake: the election of Emmanuel Macron is a landmark event, raising hopes that France will re-energize its economy sufficiently to become a full and equal partner to Germany in eurozone governance. Macron and his economic team are full of promising ideas, and he will have a huge majority in the National Assembly to implement them (though it will help if the Germans give him leeway on budget deficits in exchange for reform). In Spain, too, economic reform is translating into stronger long-term growth.
But all is not well. Greece is still barely growing, after experiencing one of the worst recessions in history, although those who blame this on German austerity clearly have not looked at the numbers: with encouragement from left-leaning US economists, Greece mismanaged perhaps the softest bailout package in modern history. Italy has done far better than Greece, but that is a backhanded compliment; real income is actually lower than a decade ago (albeit it is hard to know for sure, given the country’s vast underground economy). For southern Europe as a whole, the single currency has proved to be a golden cage, forcing greater fiscal and monetary rectitude but removing the exchange rate as a critical cushion against unexpected shocks.
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