European Central Bank faces threat to euro and unity

Tourists wait at the Piraeus Port, near Athens, where striking workers prevented hundreds of passengers from boarding ferries.
Tourists wait at the Piraeus Port, near Athens, where striking workers prevented hundreds of passengers from boarding ferries. (Petros Giannakouris/associated Press)
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By Neil Irwin
Thursday, June 24, 2010

FRANKFURT, GERMANY -- For an entire generation of European leaders, the euro coins jangling in their pockets are more than just a currency. They are a powerful driver of political unity on a continent where people speak more than two dozen languages and spent much of the 20th century fighting each other.

Now, as the euro faces a challenge like none before, the question is whether it will last.

The debt crisis that began in Greece and menaces half a dozen other European nations has caused the euro to lose 15 percent of its value relative to the dollar since January. Some economists consider it obvious that the currency union will not survive in its present form, that one or more southern European nations will end up reverting to liras, pesetas and drachmas.

That leaves the future of European unity to be decided not merely by politicians in Paris, Berlin and other capitals, but in a glass skyscraper in this banking hub, by a French banker named Jean-Claude Trichet and his 1,600 employees. Less than a decade after cash machines across the continent started spitting out the same currency -- and less than a month after it laid the cornerstone for a new permanent headquarters -- the European Central Bank is facing extraordinary pressure to keep the euro, and Europe, together.

The bank has crossed into virgin territory in response to the crisis, buying billions of euros' worth of government bonds to try to stabilize markets. But those actions have unleashed new tensions at the heart of the ECB as its largest member, Germany, recoils from what it sees as a violation of the most deeply held principles of central banking.

The challenge

The ECB's challenge is to craft one policy that will work for in 16 member countries from Finland to Portugal, which have different economic conditions -- and views about inflation and employment.

Trichet testified Monday that a broad new strategy of cooperation -- perhaps involving stronger restrictions on government deficits and new means of helping troubled states -- is the key to Europe's economic future. He told the European Parliament that he envisions "the equivalent of a fiscal federation," which would "require a quantum leap in terms of progress" toward a stronger economic union.

In their effort to hold Europe together, Trichet and his colleagues have upended the traditional rules under which they operate, taking a page from the playbook that Chairman Ben S. Bernanke used at the U.S. Federal Reserve during the financial crisis. But these efforts have exposed new strains within the organization, complicating their efforts.

Early last month, the European debt crisis spiked and markets turned hard against Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, significantly increasing their cost for financing government spending. One solution would be for the ECB to intervene in the market, buy some of those countries' bonds and thus force down the price of borrowing money.

But the ECB has no authority to buy government debt, a power that other central banks, such as the Federal Reserve and Bank of England, have. That restriction reflects deep German opposition to any policies that carry a risk of fueling inflation, borne of the hyperinflation in that country in the 1920s. The rules are meant to prevent the ECB, which is modeled after the German national bank, from essentially printing money to lend to national governments. German politicians and economists were aghast at the idea of compromising that core principle because of, in their view, the fiscal profligacy of a few euro member states.

As the situation grew dire, however, Trichet and his colleagues decided that the goal of European unity was more important.

The compromise: They would buy bonds on the open market, not directly from governments, getting around the prohibition on funding government debt. At the same time, they would take other steps to avoid increasing the money supply, thus easing any inflationary pressures.

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