Days and nights, Europe’s leaders have discussed the minutiae of private-sector involvement in the Greek debt restructuring. They have immersed themselves in financial engineering with the aim of leveraging the European financial stability facility. This is all necessary, but it’s the job of finance ministers or Treasury officials. What citizens and markets alike expect from the heads of state and government is that they do the job for which they are indispensable, and map out the political choices Europe is now screaming for.
A key reason why the eurozone is under challenge is that markets have become conscious of a fundamental weaknesses in its design. It relies on three hardly-compatible principles: national banking systems, which both finance the sovereign and rely on it as a potential backstop; states that are supposed to be solely responsible for their own debt, so that they cannot rely on partners when in trouble; and a central bank that has not been given the mandate to be a lender of last resort. This trio of principles was assessed consistent in normal times, because banks were sound and state solvency was not in doubt. But in crisis times, a perverse interaction between bank and sovereign weakness develops. And the central bank has no mandate to put a stop to it.
There are several, partially compatible ways out of this. One is to make states individually safe by going far beyond the requirements of the Maastricht treaty and bringing public debts down to levels where solvency cannot be challenged anymore. It implies decades-long austerity. Another way is to make the financial system safe by putting limits to the banks’ exposure to their sovereigns and creating a eurozone-wide deposit insurance. It implies that states renounce the convenience of having ‘their’ banks. The third way is to change the mandate of the European Central Bank. This implies breaking with the Bundesbank’s heritage and giving the ECB a governance structure adequate to a new, quasi-fiscal role. A last option is to move towards fiscal union so that individual state solvency stops being a concern for markets. It means accepting both shared responsibility over public debts and ex-ante oversight of national budgetary decisions.
Provided it is implemented consistently, each of these responses would be recognised by markets as a watershed. Each has advantages and drawbacks. Each has broader implications for Europe. Each involves risks. But a way has to be chosen. As the Pierre Mendès-France, the late French prime minister, used to say, “gouverner, c’est choisir”.
A version of this column was also published on the A-list section of the Financial Times