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Opinion

Spanish bailout, Greek elections make June a make-or-break month in debt crisis

Europe's debt crisis, magnified by the Spanish bank bailout and Greek elections, puts Europe at a crossroads: move to real fiscal union, which populations don't want, or break apart. There's a way to avoid this awful choice. Build up Europe and build it down at the same time.

By Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff / June 11, 2012

A man uses a Bankia bank automated teller machine in Madrid, June 11. Eurozone finance ministers agreed on Saturday to lend Spain up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to shore up its teetering banks. Op-ed contributor Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff writes: 'Any attempt at federalizing the eurozone, even in a minimal way, needs to be accompanied by the removal of unnecessarily centralized regulation.'

Paul Hanna/Reuters

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Washington

One day, when historians look back to June 2012, they will likely find it was a make-or-break month for Europe. The debt crisis, now in its third year, has produced a moment of extraordinary clarity for the 17 countries joined by the euro: Either move toward real fiscal union or break apart.

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After two years of incremental reforms brought on by the crisis, big questions have muscled their way onto the European agenda. Popular revolts against austerity and the conditions attached to bailouts in Greece, as well as a crisis of trust in Spain and its banks, create a dilemma for Europe’s leaders: They are forced to centralize more power in Brussels at a time when ever more citizens resist that idea.

In order to survive, the eurozone must do both. It must centralize more (move closer to a federal model of governance) and respond to its citizens’ concerns.

For the first time, the pressure to fix the construction error of monetary union – erected without any binding, central fiscal authority – might be great enough to force Europe’s nations to cede substantially more sovereignty.

The battle lines for a June 28-29 summit of European heads of state are drawn. On one side are southern debtor countries that want German money soon in order to calm the financial markets. But these countries wish to give up as little sovereignty as possible later – the price demanded by the Germans.

On the other side are the Germans, who first want reforms and a commitment to centralization of power in Brussels. In the middle are the French, who want more fiscal integration without ceding French sovereignty.

To Americans, it has always been a mystery why the rich Europeans (especially the well-off Germans) don’t simply quell the crisis with overwhelming force – the force of money and the power of a more federal Europe.

Many financial analysts believe the German preference for a delay in responding to the debt crisis has been too costly. Yet the Germans, who account for less than 30 percent of the eurozone’s output, have always felt too weak to carry the whole load of rescue and reform. They enlisted a powerful ally: the markets.

Without the pressure of the markets, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s team believes, there will be no structural reforms in southern Europe. And there will be no market pressure without limits on German largess. Too much help creates a moral hazard: Why reform when the Germans pay anyway? This concern created the German strategy of brinkmanship. It has been a perilous approach, but it has also forced reforms across the continent.

Now, a turning point has been reached. More brinkmanship and more delay risk tearing the currency union apart. And so the Germans are backing fiscal federalism – at least in principle. They now agree to the idea of centralizing bank oversight.

In the end, however, fiscal federalism requires Germany and her northern allies to share part of their wealth with their southern brethren. That is what they still resist. They fear that jointly financed bank bailouts as well as joint deposit insurance for banks will create joint and several liability across the continent – the first step on the way to the “eurobond” that they so detest.

The Germans continue to oppose putting their own money on the line for the mistakes of others. Eventually, the Germans will have to give in if they do not want to be responsible for bringing down the whole edifice.

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