Monday, October 24, 2011

Italy is the Key in Europe

It seems to be boiling down to this.  Italy and its prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are the evolving focus of any acceptable solution to the European sovereign debt crisis. 

There are, I believe, two reasons for this focus.  First, Italy is the third largest economy in the European Union.  Thus, moving it into the spotlight leapfrogs the problems of Spain and Portugal and others in terms of impact.  If Italy can be “tamed” then Spain, Portugal, and others will have to fall in line.

Second, Italy, within the European Union, is most like Greece in terms of fiscal irresponsibility, governmental patronization, and lackluster economy.  If both Greece and Italy take steps to correct their situations, then other troubled countries can justify stronger efforts to straighten out their problems as well. 

Another factor is that Silvio Berlusconi has become a characterization of European leadership…or the lack thereof…given his personal as well as his public tribulations.  And, this does not include his recent disputes with others, like that with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, over the makeup of the board of the European Central Bank.  Berlusconi, it seems, must be brought into line...even though he is just barely hanging onto power now.  

By focusing on Italy, the European Union is, in a sense, attempting to “get its arms around” the problem.  The EU efforts of the past have started with the smaller countries with the idea of working up the ladder as the need arose to deal with larger and larger countries.

By bringing Italy in at this time, the EU seems to be admitting that the problem is more fundamental than it had assumed in the past and that the problem is one of solvency and not the liquidity of the sovereign debt.  

Furthermore, the EU seems to be saying that more fiscal coordination needs to be achieved within the European Union itself and to gain this coordination, even the larger countries, like Italy, must submit to greater oversight and community discipline than had originally been built into the organization.    

With the crisis, it has become more and more obvious that for the countries of the European Union to really benefit from the creation of a common currency, greater fiscal union must be achieved as well.  Painful as it may be to some to accept this reality, I don’t believe that there is really much support anywhere for the breaking up of the currency union.

The European Union may finally be getting someplace, although I don’t want to be too optimistic.  Up to this point, the EU has just been “kicking the can” down the road.  It has continually avoided the seriousness of the situation; it has not accepted the reality of the solvency issue; and it has attempted to deal with problems piecemeal. 

As a consequence, many analysts have claimed that it would be better for some nations to leave the currency union or for the Euro to be eliminated all together. 

The fact is, the benefits of the currency union have been sufficiently great that the members of the EU really don’t want to see it go away. 

The “big bump in the road”, however, has been the need for sovereign nations to give up some of their sovereignty on the fiscal front, something they have, understandably, been reluctant to give up.  As a consequence, the path to greater fiscal union has been winding and painful.  No one, willingly, wants to look like the pansy.

By putting the pressure on Italy, the European Union is accepting the seriousness of the situation; it is accepting that the primary issue is one of solvency and not liquidity; and it is finally trying to encircle the problems that exist, not deal with them one-by-one.

This does not mean that the crisis in Europe is over.  There are still many “bumps in the road” that must be smoothed over. 

However, to me, putting Italy into the spotlight raises some hope that the officials in Europe (I am not willing to call them “leaders” yet) may finally be moving in the right direction.

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