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Troubled euro marks 10th birthday

Europe's single currency marks its 10th anniversary this weekend under increasing market pressure and with its future in serious doubt.

Unlike the launch on January 1 2002, there is none of the fanfare and celebration that heralded one of the most ambitious developments in the common market's evolution into an "ever-closer union".

Three years of an economic downturn on a scale no-one anticipated have exposed the weaknesses of a currency that was as much a political as an economic construction.

The constraints imposed on national economic policies by tying a group of different European countries to a single currency were laid bare by the global recession and mounting debt.

Despite the downturn and the continuing speculative attacks on the eurozone, supporters say the strength of the single currency has prevented an even worse fall-out from a crisis which began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in America in 2008. But detractors say the "one-size-fits-all" economic policy and interest rate policy has hobbled eurozone nations with differing financial circumstances from reacting to the crisis in their own best interests.

The euro did not cause the national economic failings in Greece or anywhere else in the eurozone. But while some see a single currency as a port in a storm during the crisis, others see a high risk of cross-border "contagion" when the euro's name is tainted by one of its economically weak member states. "Imagine 17 individuals tied together for safety as they climb a rock face," explained one EU official. "When the going gets tough and one person slips, being attached to the others could be a life-saver. Alternatively, the one falling could drag the other 16 down too."

Critics say the euro has not been sufficiently well supported to prop up its weaker eurozone members as the economic crisis has bitten. And rescue plans agreed during months of emergency EU summits are taking too long to be put into practice, they say, including a sustainable, massive bail-out fund, and new Brussels powers to control and penalise national eurozone economies breaching debt and deficit levels in future.

Last year, when Greek finances were exposed as far worse than expected, the eurozone struggled not just to support the country with a large enough bail-out guarantee, but also to convince markets that the response was tough enough to demonstrate eurozone stability and credibility. That credibility problem is as big as ever as euro notes and coins enter their second decade in circulation.

But one EU official insisted: "What has happened to these struggling eurozone members countries would have happened anyway, because of problems inherent in their national economic policies: without the euro they would be much worse off."

So far Greece, Ireland and Portugal have required financial bail-outs - Greece twice. Italy is now in difficulties and Spain's economic troubles have been hanging like a black cloud over the eurozone for more than a year. And, on the 10th anniversary, the euro's long-term future remains in doubt - with the latest of another round of emergency summits to tackle the crisis getting under way at the end of January.

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