In July 2012, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, stood before investors at a London conference and made a proclamation that changed the fate of Europe. Fear in financial markets about the unsustainable debt mounting on euro-zone governments was threatening to tear apart the beloved monetary union. But Draghi would have none of that. His central bank “is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro,” he stated bluntly.
That moment is widely regarded today as the turning point in Europe’s financial crisis. Since then, the turmoil that could have crushed the dream of European integration has receded. The yields on the sovereign bonds of Spain and Italy, which had risen to levels at which they would likely have required expensive bailouts, returned to normalcy, and the risk to the survival of the euro dramatically decreased.
Draghi’s strong statement worked because it showed a degree of resolve that had until then been lacking in efforts to quell the debt crisis. But ironically, the resolve that ended one stage of that crisis has only perpetuated the next stage: fixing the damage inflicted on the average European family.
The fact is that Europe has grown complacent in confronting its problems. The region’s political leaders are going about their business as if the crisis is over. It isn’t. Sure, the euro zone has climbed out of recession and, after six years of trauma, appears to be on the mend. The countries that required European Union-backed rescues are beginning to exit from them. But it’s hard to call what is happening a recovery.
The latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund estimates GDP in the euro zone will expand a mere 1.2% in 2014, compared with 2.8% for the U.S. Some of the most important European economies aren’t even moving at that lackluster pace. The IMF expects France to grow a mere 1%, and Italy only 0.6%. Meanwhile, with prices barely rising, concerns have arisen that the euro zone could plunge into debilitating deflation, which would make the debt burden of Europe’s weakest economies even heavier.
Europe has also made almost no progress in solving its gut-wrenching unemployment problem. The latest euro-zone jobless rate is a woeful 11.8% — a year earlier, it was 12%. For some countries, unemployment remains almost incomprehensible. Spain’s rate is 25.3% and Greece’s 26.7%. Youth unemployment, meanwhile, stands at 23.7% in the euro zone. On top of that, nearly 10 million people in the European Union lucky enough to hold at least part-time jobs are underemployed.
If this isn’t a crisis, what is? In the U.S., such depressing statistics would probably spark political and social upheaval. Yet Europe’s politicians don’t seem particularly alarmed. No one is scrambling to urgent leadership conferences as they had during the old stage of the debt crisis. Two years ago, there had been a push for a strategy to boost growth and ease the pain for the euro zone’s weakest economies. That has remained mere talk. Italy’s Finance Minister recently complained that the E.U. paid no more than “lip service” to creating growth and jobs.
The reforms that could aid the millions of jobless and restore better growth are moving at a crawl. In Italy, newly installed Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (the country’s fourth leader since 2011) is attempting to restart an effort to liberalize the over-regulated economy after two years of minimal progress, but it is far from certain the country’s politicians, beholden to special interests, will act with the urgency required.
Even those measures that have been implemented often fall short. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently praised Spain’s labor-market reforms, which allow firms to hire and fire workers more easily, for helping to create jobs. But the report then went on to say that more was needed, especially to assist young workers. (Youth unemployment in Spain is a staggering 53.9%.)
Nor has there been a big rush to press ahead with the integration within Europe that could give the region’s economy a boost. The German government is reviving a push for more centralized governance in the euro zone, including a budget commission that would have the power to veto national spending plans – the type of measure many economists see as critical to stabilizing the monetary union. But efforts to use integration as a tool to boost growth and jobs remain sidelined. A recent report from the European Parliament showed that by reducing remaining barriers to cross-border business in sectors like e-commerce, the E.U. could add a badly needed $1.1 trillion onto its GDP.
There are other ways, too, in which the varied nations of the union can help each other, if they so chose. A promising initiative from Berlin to offer young people across Europe language and job training to work in Germany has been a wild success – so much so that the program got overwhelmed.
We need to see more such efforts. But the problem in Europe today is the same that has plagued the region’s efforts to fight its economic crisis from the very beginning. Despite lofty talk of “more Europe,” each country’s national politics get in the way. That continues to undercut the intra-Europe cooperation that would produce long-term benefits but requires short-term sacrifice. Germany angrily rebuffs criticism that its export-led growth model – which produces a larger current account surplus than China’s – hurts its euro-zone partners, when changing that model, by, for instance, liberalizing its own tightly wound domestic service sector, would ultimately benefit everyone.
Back when Draghi made his now famous pledge, many bankers (especially in Germany) worried that when pressure from markets receded, Europe would slip back into its usual do-nothing mode and lackadaisically allow the region’s problems to persist. The trials of millions of European families don’t seem to be sufficient to stir the continent’s leaders to action. Europe needs another “whatever it takes” promise – this time to do “whatever it takes” to create growth and jobs. Though apparently, nobody has the guts to make it.
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