When the euro hit wallets and bank accounts on New Year’s Day a decade ago, champagne and fireworks greeted the Europeans' embarking on what was touted as an irrevocable course for prosperity and economic integration.
Over the years, though, as the economies of Greece, Spain and other Eurozone nations became mired in debt, expectations of a happy commune of affluence have given way to thoughts of breaking off the laggards to save the herd. What the Economist and other journals have referred to as a kind of "Hotel California that you can never leave" now looks to some to be exactly the hellish trap evoked by the Eagles in their 1970s ballad.
Greek officials disclosed this week that their economy shrunk 6.2% from April through June and that unemployment is close to 24% and rising. The shaky coalition government, confronted by strikes and protests against earlier austerity measures, has yet to identify the last $5 billion or so in budget cuts it must make to qualify for the next tranche of bailout funds due in September.
The bad news came as little surprise to the Eurozone’s better-off members, Germany first among them, which have complained for months that Athens has repeatedly failed to demonstrate the will to pare its bloated government payroll and get serious about collecting taxes.
A delegation of the so-called troika of creditors -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- visited Athens last month and is expected to issue a critical report on the Greek balance sheet in September. That has shifted the conversation from whether Greece will exit the Eurozone to how many other common currency users might follow.
Even Greek analysts have become dubious of the country’s prospects for living up to the commitments made to get triple-digit billions in bailout funds. They have been issuing gloomy forecasts of an inevitable Greek exit -- or Grexit, as it has come to be called -- perhaps preparing the public for an eventual return to the drachma.
“The political system once more showed how counterproductive it is. Instead of designing a workable state, it tries to reproduce the one that already exists,” the Greek daily Kathimerini’s columnist Paschos Mandravelis groused Monday. In his analysis, titled “On another planet,” he accused the government of protecting well-connected allies and unproductive state jobs.
A week ago, Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said the government was still looking for about a third of the $15 billion in cuts to the 2013-14 budgets demanded by the troika in exchange for vital cash infusions. Debt inspectors are due back next month for a final review of whether Athens has gotten its finances in order, a judgment expected to be negative unless the government forces through deeply unpopular budget cuts and privatization plans in the final few weeks.
Elsewhere in the common currency club, the mood has changed from one of steadfast commitment to keeping the 17-nation Eurozone intact to mounting resignation that at least Greece will have to go.
Athens’ potential departure "has long since lost its horrors," German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler told ARD television recently. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs Eurozone finance ministers’ meetings, observed last week that a Greek exit would be “manageable.” On Monday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned from a hiking vacation in the Italian Alps, she was confronted with even more dismissive comments by her coalition partners.
“An example must be made of Athens that the Eurozone can also show teeth,” Markus Soeder, Bavarian finance minister and member of a conservative sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. He contended that Germany can ill afford to keep bailing out spendthrift euro members and that “further help to Greece is like pouring water into the desert.”
In the Economist cover story this week, a mock memo to Merkel on a possible Plan B advises her to consider two options to her current course of scrambling to hold the Eurozone together. One envisions Greece's departure, which alone could cost the euro area $398 billion in debt write-offs and transitional aid. The other scenario, in which Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus and Spain would also leave, could cost the rump Eurozone $1.4 trillion but halt the slow bleeding of bailouts to the struggling periphery, the respected London-based publication calculated.
Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and former European affairs director on the National Security Council under President Clinton, attributes the growing Grexit talk to an emerging consensus among economists that Athens' departure is a question of when, not if.
"Behind the scenes the European Union is making preparations for a Greek exit to contain the damage," he said of the latest assessments of the Eurozone's integrity.
Grexit would be manageable because of Greece's small economy and the fact that its finances are unlikely to ever meet Eurozone standards, Kupchan said. But he sees other departures as potentially destabilizing for the whole monetary union experiment.
"When you start talking about the Spanish or the Portuguese or the Irish leaving, that's a new ballgame," he said. "That's not a controlled exit of a member or two; it's a complete overhaul of the Eurozone."
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Photo: Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, has pledged to do whatever it takes to protect the euro common currency. But mounting debts and persistent recession in some of the peripheral countries of the Eurozone have turned the conversation to managing the departure of Greece, instead of preventing it. Credit: Hannelore Foerster / Bloomberg