EU Bailouts for Greece, Others Not Enough

By establishing a fund to bail out Greece and aid other struggling governments, stronger European states are chasing a dream that may have no place in reality.
Publish date:

By establishing

a 750 billion euro fund

to bail out Greece and aid other struggling governments, Germany and other strong European states are chasing a dream -- a single European currency and broader European unity -- that may have no place in reality.

More budget crises will follow, if not in Greece then in Portugal, Spain, or perhaps Ireland or Italy, because the euro is simply not backed by a strong central government.

Although the currency is managed by a European Central Bank, European states have not ceded to the European Union enough power to tax and spend.

Absent a central government that can tax citizens and businesses in richer nations, like Germany, to shoulder some of the costs of pensions, health care and other social benefits in poorer nations like Greece, fiscal stability in the less wealthy states, and a single currency, is simply not possible.

> > Bull or Bear? Vote in Our Poll

Since the late 19th Century, the Europeans have been two generations ahead of the Americans on social policy, and much more aggressive in assuring that each citizen, no matter his station in life, enjoys comprehensive health care and a significant measure of economic security.

With the commercial integration that followed World War II through the European Common Market, composed initially of only six nations, and the broader European Free Trade Area, which encompassed most of the noncommunist states, public aspirations for benefits in poorer nations and regions, like Portugal, Greece and southern Italy, grew to rival those in richer states.

Politicians responded by expanding and enriching social safety nets, but costs rose too, as doctors, teachers and the like, expected to enjoy salaries and benefits more comparable to their colleagues farther north.

The price tag outran the ability of employers and governments to pay, and inflation and national budget headaches followed.

Until the euro was adopted in 1999, southern nations would let their national currencies gradually fall in value against the German mark and other currencies of richer nations.

That boosted exports and tax revenues, but the pensions paid by Portugal, Greece and others were worth less when spent in Germany and other northern jurisdictions. Conversely, these Mediterranean states became great places for Americans and northern Europeans to vacation and retire.

More on Europe's Debt Crisis

Greek Gold: Collateral on Bailout Money?

After 1999, national governments in Spain, Portugal and Greece, and to a lesser extent more prosperous Italy, faced the difficult prospect of telling their citizens they could not retire as young, enjoy the same health benefits or employment security as the wealthier French, Germans and Dutch.

Instead, these governments borrowed heavily and now face severe retrenchment and perhaps eventual bankruptcy.

The Teutonic austerity Germany and others will compel to bail out these floundering governments will shatter the myth that the welfare state can be provided equally across Europe, or Mediterranean states will simply quit the euro and take with them the Franco-German dream of European unity.

Before we chasten our warm-water friends too harshly for living beyond their means, remember northern reluctance to share wealth through a strong central government has much to do with their predicament.

In the U.S., the states can't print money and some spend more aggressively than others but most social benefits are substantially assisted by Washington, which can tax New York to subsidize Mississippi.

Unless Germans and others are willing to let Brussels tax them as necessary to equalize social spending between richer and poorer states, the euro will remain an uncertain adventure and European unity a utopian dream.

Professor Peter Morici, of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, is a recognized expert on economic policy and international economics. Prior to joining the university, he served as director of the Office of Economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission. He is the author of 18 books and monographs and has published widely in leading public policy and business journals, including the Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. Morici has lectured and offered executive programs at more than 100 institutions, including Columbia University, the Harvard Business School and Oxford University. His views are frequently featured on CNN, CBS, BBC, FOX, ABC, CNBC, NPR, NPB and national broadcast networks around the world.