The euro can be phased out the same way Europe’s individual currencies were. The bonds of troubled member states would benefit as a result.
Until recently, the euro seemed destined to encompass all of Europe. No longer. None of the remaining outsider European countries seems likely to embrace the common currency. Seven Eastern European countries that recently joined the European Union (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have announced their intention to revisit their obligations to adopt the euro.
Two non-euro members of the EU, the United Kingdom and Denmark, have explicit opt-out provisions from the common currency, and popular opinion has recently turned strongly against euro membership. In Sweden, which lacks a formal “opt-out” provision (but has cleverly refused to fulfill one of the requirements for membership), a November poll on whether to join the euro was overwhelmingly negative—80% no, 11% yes.
In light of the political response to the ongoing fiscal and currency crisis—which is leaning strongly toward a centralized political entity that will likely be even more unpopular than the common currency—I suggest that it would be better to reverse course and eliminate the euro.
When the United Kingdom debated whether to join the path to a single currency in the mid-1990s, my view was that the benefits of euro membership—enhancements for international trade in goods and services and financial transactions—were offset by required participation in its poor social, regulatory and fiscal policies. Still, I thought the U.K. should join if it could get just the common currency.
Now I think that the option of a monetary union without the rest of the baggage is an impossible dream. The single money is inevitably linked to a common central bank with lender-of-last-resort powers. This setup creates important features of fiscal union, showing up recently as bailouts in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
The political reaction at each step of the ongoing crisis has been to strengthen this union—bailout money from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, fiscal involvement by the European Central Bank, and more EU influence on each government’s fiscal policies. A common currency loaded on top of a free-trade zone is leading toward a centralized political entity.