Don’t get me wrong. I love the euro. I loathe traveling from, say, Italy to the UK and getting stiffed by the dizzy dude behind the bank counter who may or may not actually know the exchange rate du jour but doesn’t appear to care overmuch since he invariably piles on some ridiculous transaction fee as compensation for inventing one out of thin air. By contrast, every time I cross a continental EU country border, say from France to Germany, and don’t have to change money, I dwell with increasing pleasure on the undiluted, exuberant, money-saving joys of a single transnational currency, which is brilliantly convenient.
But the euro wasn’t created for the convenience of tourists, or rather, not just for tourists. It was supposed to be the financial cement that somehow united the various peoples of the linguistically challenged New Europe—a collection of six (1951)—no, make that nine (1973)—nope, 11 (1985)—wait, 27 (for now) prudent constituent countries, 17 of which embraced the euro and also promised to abide by the same set of stern economic rules. These nations swore they would never (a) overspend (b) cave in to those among its citizens who wanted government to continue to pay for golden-years pensions that started at age 50, or (c) cover up the ailments and weaknesses of their individual economies in order to put one over the more prosperous nation states of Europe.
Things, as you may have noticed, have not exactly turned out the way the elder statesmen of the New Europe had intended. Eurozone banks are shaky. Spain is a mess. Greece, which joined the EU in 1981 after six years of impassioned pleading, has amassed, since membership, a steady, unvarying, and consistent track record of financial mendacity—in return for which it expects (and receives) periodic bailouts and restructurings from an increasingly weary Angela Merkel of Germany. Over the weekend, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France abandoned his gorgeous wife and newborn infant in Paris in order to tell his senile Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi that he had to make “credible cuts” in Italy’s two-trillion-euro debt—an event that will certainly not occur for as long as Berlusconi is in power.
In other words, nothing is turning out as anticipated. The bailout fund is so fragile and delicate that eurozone leaders are considering creating yet another fund that would be open to investors from, say, China and India.
Why anyone in China or India should invest in a cousin of the desperate euro-bailout fund is a question none of the European leaders seems inclined to ask. Greece cannot even repay half of its own government bonds. And no wonder. The basic response to a debtor’s crisis—when that debtor is a nation—is simple if drastic: devalue your currency. But no individual nation that traffics in euros can do that.
Who can blame UK Prime Minister David Cameron for gloating? All along Britain has been obdurate about embracing the single currency that is now singeing Germany, destroying Greece, inflaming France, wounding Italy and Spain. And for that caution, the UK has been reviled, its leaders taunted as isolationists and retro-thinkers.
But, as things have turned out, retro is right. There are some things, as every first-grader knows, you simply cannot share, especially not with a very sick friend. The euro is one of those things.