Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time to Blame Helmut Kohl for Europe's Problems?

The German parliament in Berlin.

Recently, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl took to task current Chancellor Angela Merkel for her handling of the European debt crisis. "She's destroying my Europe," Der Spiegel quotes him as complaining.

 Kohl later disowned some of the comments he'd made and clarified, "It is true that I -- like many people -- am worried about the development in Europe and of the euro. I also see it as urgently necessary that the supposed euro crisis isn't regarded and discussed as a structural crisis of the euro per se, but as what it is: The result of homemade mistakes and challenges for both sides -- Europe and the national states."

The British press in particular likes to display great impatience with the way the fiscally responsible states (led by Germany, but also including smaller northern European nations) have dealt with the – there's no kind way to put it – disastrously fiscally irresponsible states. (One of the more intelligent articles of this type ran in the Financial Times.) The answer seems to be that the responsible states should just take on the burdens created by the irresponsible ones, without forcing the bad apples to rectify the structural problems that led to this disaster in the first place. I think Merkel has been slow and, yes, unimaginative, but she has also been largely correct: She has staked her reputation and political future on saving the eurozone, but she is also dedicated to forcing Greece, Italy, and others to learn to live like adult countries and not like teenagers who've just scored their parents' credit card for the weekend.

But we are still left with the ungenerous conclusion that Kohl himself should shoulder much of the blame. He, with France's then-President Francois Mitterand, cooked up the euro scheme as a way of mollifying European nations (France among them) that were worried about German reunification. It wasn't all a matter of that, because the European Union had been growing and solidifying for years, extending a zone of prosperity and law across a continent that had been destroyed countless times by conflict. So a common currency was a likely development at some point. But it's early introduction was intended to tie Germany closely enough to its neighbors that it theoretically would not go off marauding through the neighborhood again.

As such, it wasn't a bad idea. An unnecessary one, perhaps; there is absolutely zero appetite in Germany for fighting wars. But still, an understandable idea nonetheless.

What is not understandable is how Mitterand and Kohl, two veteran politicians who supposedly learned from the mistakes of the past, could concoct a system that is structurally illogical. Economic union without some sort of political union to enforce it is a recipe for disaster. This disaster, in fact. It could lead to large countries forcing their policies down the throats of smaller countries, which is what Merkel is being accused of doing by trying to get the poor performers to reform their economies and politics to make themselves competitive; or it could lead to poor countries overspending and expecting the rich countries to bail them out, which is the situation that has happened and that Merkel is trying to rectify.

Merkel is trying to clean up the mess that Kohl created.

If the euro was the first price Kohl and Germany paid to get reunification, then Greece, Ireland, and Italy have just presented the official invoice.
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