The Euro: Help or hindrance for economic integration?

Kristian Niemietz writes for Slovak economic newspaper Hospodarske noviny

The Euro was meant to be a lubricant for inner-European trade. A Europe divided along currency lines, supporters of the project argued, was hopelessly inadequate to compete with the big players of the modern global economy. At the outset, the argument seemed plausible. Other things equal, a removal of exchange rate risks and other currency-related transaction costs should have the same trade-boosting effect as the removal of a tariff or, for that matter, a physical obstacle.

But other things are never equal. The Euro itself has changed many other economic fundamentals, in ways which hinder economic integration rather than facilitating it.

The single currency has supplied the Mediterranean economies with huge volumes of cheap credit. Since most of this influx has been channelled into short-lived consumption or construction booms rather than productive investment, the pre-existing productivity gap between Northern and Southern Europe has not narrowed. Meanwhile, the influx has led to pronounced wage and price appreciations in the Southern member states relative to Northern levels. This can be seen in the development of labour unit costs, i.e. labour costs adjusted for productivity changes, for the economies as a whole. Since 1995, unit labour costs in have increased by 3% in Germany and by 11% in Austria. During the same period, they have increased by 39% in Italy, by 41% in Spain, by 48% in Portugal and by 64% in Greece.[1] Economies which start from sufficiently competitive positions can cope with such appreciations, but if they magnify already existing imbalances, the consequences are severely damaging.  

As a result, the years between 2001 and 2007 witnessed a sharp polarisation in intra-European trade patterns. The trade surpluses of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium grew larger every year, and so did the trade deficits of Greece, Portugal and Spain.[2] In pre-Euro times, imbalances of this type would have been corrected automatically through exchange rate adjustments. In fact, the Mediterranean economies would not even have been able to borrow on the international capital markets at such low interest rates. The credit-fuelled booms and runaway budget deficits would have been held in check by natural constraints. 

Where does this leave the prospects for European economic integration? While the consumption and import boom that the Mediterranean countries enjoyed up until 2007 was built on sand, so was the corresponding share of the Northern European export boom. As long as it lasted, inner-European trade was on an all-time high, and the Euro seemed to fulfil its purpose splendidly. But it has now become clear that the same process has priced the Mediterranean countries out of the markets. As long as this situation persists, the prospects for further European economic integration are bleak.

Turning the Eurozone into a full-scale transfer union would cement this situation indefinitely, because government payments would crowd out trade and investment flows. The alternative would be to decouple economic integration from political integration. If countries find it easier to restore competitiveness outside of the Eurozone than within it, then an exit, despite the short-term costs, should be an option – not least because in the long term, this is more conducive to the aim of economic integration than holding countries in a currency area that simply does not suit their economies.

Economic integration does not require a currency union, or even a political union at all – after all, the economies of Switzerland and Norway are also inextricably intertwined with those of the Eurozone. What it does require is an abolition of remaining barriers to inner-European trade. This means creating a market in which services can be traded just as freely as industrial goods can be traded today. It also mean