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Europeans Ask Themselves: What Is Europe?

Europe’s debt crisis is the official topic of the latest continental summit meeting, scheduled to conclude today in Brussels. But the real issue Europeans are discussing is a deeper question: What, exactly, is Europe?

Is it still what American children were taught in grade school – a continent consisting of about 50 independent states, which range from tiny places like Vatican City and San Marino to global powers like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia?

Is it a cultural ideal of multi-party democracy, collective decision-making, and private enterprise that supports expansive government employment and social programs?

Is it a federation of 27 European Union member states whose ultimate goal is to collectively attain the scale and global influence that larger nations like China and the United States can achieve alone?

Is it a core of 17 nations using the euro currency, who must now either establish a more powerful centralized government at the cost of their own sovereignty, as the American states did in 1789, or find themselves inevitably pulled apart by their differing circumstances and divergent cultures?

It took Americans more than 75 years and a bloody civil war to determine that we are “one nation, indivisible.” Although the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, have been around since 1958, the continent is only being forced to address these fundamental questions now, as the 13-year-old euro currency teeters, along with the solvency of at least a half-dozen countries that use it.

The world is understandably impatient for Europe’s leaders to resolve the crisis that has festered for two years, but if you consider that the very futures of centuries-old nation-states are at stake, change is actually happening at breakneck speed. It is difficult to see exactly how the landscape is changing around you when you are in the middle of a landslide. But you know that it certainly is changing.

The quick fix, which is what a lot of people seem to want, would be for the European Central Bank to pledge to print and lend as much money as necessary to keep major debtors like Italy and Spain from running out of cash. This would reduce the risk of those countries defaulting on their euro-denominated debt to virtually zero, since the ECB would simply supply enough euros to let those countries make their payments.

This is basically the system we enjoy in the United States. Although the Federal Reserve has long insisted that it will not “monetize the debt” of the U.S. Treasury, that is exactly what the Fed would do if there were a chance that the Treasury could not otherwise repay its outstanding obligations. The Fed, after all, has a mandate to provide full employment as well as a sound currency, and a federal debt default would send the global economy into a nosedive.

Yet even though a technical default by our Treasury is all-but-impossible if the Fed obliges, Standard & Poor’s downgraded our national credit rating this summer, and other agencies may follow. Why? Because avoiding technical default hardly matters to lenders if you repay them with currency that you have debased beyond recognition.

Not coincidentally, S&P warned this week that it might downgrade the credit ratings of virtually the entire eurozone, including financial powerhouse Germany, as well as the ratings of the continent’s financial emergency fund, which is backed by euro governments.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the strongest bulwark, albeit not the only one, against the easy-money approach to solve Europe’s debt problem. She and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have pushed at the summit for a so-called fiscal union that would require all countries using the euro to enact balanced-budget laws, have their national budgets reviewed by European monetary authorities, and face mandatory penalties for violating spending rules. In this plan, the price for keeping the euro would be the sacrifice of national sovereignty in favor of a union in which everyone is treated equally; some nations, especially Germany and other financial powerhouses in northern Europe that set the rules, would be a little more equal than others.

Merkel knows something about long-term financial repair projects. Raised in East Germany, she witnessed the enormous costs that the much more prosperous West Germans incurred to bring her former region up to speed after reunification in 1989. The Ossies, as former Easterners were known, suffered years of austerity in the form of high unemployment and lower wages as they tried to catch up to their more productive countrymen. That process probably has still not run its full course, though the differences between eastern and western Germany are nowhere near what they were.

So Merkel is not inclined to be too sympathetic to Greeks, Portuguese, Italians or others who want to use German money to sustain lifestyles beyond their own economic means. She is trying to set people in Athens on the same course that people in Dresden recently followed. Of course, Greeks are not Germans, and whether the rest of Europe is prepared to follow Merkel’s path remains to be seen.

I think Merkel generally has the right idea. This does not mean she has been perfect in implementing it. Notably, she did a lot of damage this summer by insisting that private bondholders, mainly European banks, take a large “haircut” on Greek debt in order to get the country’s burden down to manageable levels. This not only sent the value of Greek bonds plunging, but it infected the credits of every other struggling euro nation, particularly Italy, which almost instantly found itself in crisis. Usefully, for Merkel at least, this disposed of Silvio Berlusconi’s unhelpful government in Rome, but it also helped send the continent’s economies into a likely recession as banks dumped bonds and cut back on lending.

Interestingly, some have painted Britain as a loser in the current situation in some corners. As an EU member that does not use the euro, the United Kingdom is being “marginalized,” this reasoning goes, by the German and French leadership amid the crisis. This sounds to me like being marginalized by the local fire department when your neighbor’s house is burning down.

But the British too will have to find a place for themselves in the evolving Europe. For that matter, so will prosperous but non-EU Switzerland, economically rising Poland, struggling Hungary, and the once-and-future Russia of Vladimir Putin, which is not going to be on anyone’s candidate list for EU membership any time soon, but which remains a major trading partner and geopolitical rival.

As financial crises go, this one is taking forever to resolve. But we are watching, if not the birth of a nation (to borrow the title of D.W. Griffith’s dreadfully racist yet classic silent film), then the birth of something equally big. On that scale, this process is moving right along.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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