Walker's World: Can Draghi's plan succeed?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Sept. 10, 2012 at 5:31 AM
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GENEVA, Switzerland, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- Despite the market euphoria and the tumbling of debt yields in Spain and Italy, there are three reasons to fear that the euro crisis is far from over.

The first is that the people supposed to pay for it all are increasingly against the pledge of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to buy "unlimited" numbers of bonds of eurozone members in trouble, so long as they abide by conditions that have yet to be drafted.

The Germans are digging in their heels. The latest poll indicates 54 percent of respondents are against the new euro bailout system, on which Germany's supreme court is to pronounce its verdict Wednesday. Only 25 percent say they want the court to approve and 53 percent are against transfer of more powers to the European Union with 27 percent in favor. Only 30 percent want Greece to stay in the eurozone and 43 percent want Greece out.

Germany's own central bank, the Bundesbank, voted against the Draghi plan, saying it was "tantamount to financing governments by printing money," which is explicitly forbidden in the ECB's own statutes.

The German media reaction was ferocious, even among usually sympathetic papers like the centrist Suddeutsche Zeitung, which noted:"Rescuing the euro at any price could be an economic disaster -- that is the red line that must not be crossed. The other limit is the law: In a community based on law, the ends can never justify the means. A euro community that is based on constantly breaching treaties is built on a shaky foundation. On Thursday, the ECB unfortunately crossed both red lines. The euro cannot be saved if Germany, the most important economy in Europe, doesn't want to play along. The ECB and the other parties who are in favor of an unconditional rescue should not drive the German people to the barricades in the interests of Europe. But they are close to doing just that."

The business paper Handelsblatt saw the bank's move as a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Europe: "The crisis has given the ECB Governing Council such an increase in power that no national government and no other European institution can hold a candle to them anymore. The Governing Council can at any time, with a majority vote, decide the fate of at least half a dozen governments, supporting them or bringing them down -- and that number is increasing."

The second reason to withhold the celebrations is that both the Spanish and Italian governments are trying desperately to avoid signing up for Draghi's offer to make unlimited purchases of their bonds. This is because Draghi sought to make the bailout palatable to German opinion by insisting on strict conditions. In order to trigger the bond purchases, a government has to agree a tough and binding austerity and reform package with the Troika, of the ECB, the European Union's commission and the International Monetary Fund.

The governments in Madrid and Rome argue that agreeing to such binding conditions both for themselves and their successive governments, flouts national sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. They may be right, looking at the way Greece has groaned under the rule of the Troika.

But what happens if Rome and Madrid sign the pact, get the debt financed by the ECB and then renege on their promises, as they have done repeatedly before? If the ECB then stops buying their bonds, they go bankrupt and the eurozone collapses. And whereas the ECB can let Greece go to the wall, because it is a small an economy, Italy and Spain are the third and fourth largest economies in the eurozone after Germany and France.

In this sense, Draghi's claim to "strict conditionality" is hollow. It is a blunderbuss he dare not fire because it would be an act of suicide for the eurozone itself.

The third reason to hold the euphoria is that Germany itself is heading back into recession, says the latest forecast by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the international body whose analyses and statistics for the developed economies are close to definitive. And across the oceans, China's economic growth is slowing, with the weekend's figures showing imports declining year on year and exports growing feebly at less than three percent.

The global economic outlook presents a gloomy context for the ongoing travails of the euro. The European outlook is even worse, with French President Francois Hollande just announcing tax increases and spending increases of some $40 billion. And the German political scene is looking even more difficult than its economy.

So long as Germany sticks to the strategic commitment its successive governments have made since 1945 to build its future in a democratic Europe, it will probably grit its teeth and pay to hold the eurozone together. But German forbearance and generosity are being tested to the limit.

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