Greek expulsion from the euro would demolish EMU’s contagion firewall

Should EMU leaders choose to cut off liquidity support for the Greek banking system they might find that their contagion defences are a fiction.

We know from memoirs and a torrent of leaks that Europe’s creditor bloc came frighteningly close to ejecting Greece from the euro in early 2012, and would have done so with relish.

Former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has described the mood at a G7 conclave in Canada in February of that year all too vividly. “The Europeans came into that meeting basically saying: ‘We’re going to teach the Greeks a lesson. They are really terrible. They lied to us, and we’re going to crush them,’” he said.

“I just made very clear right then: if you want to be tough on them, that’s fine, but you have to make sure that you’re not going to allow the crisis to spread beyond Greece.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel did later retreat but only once it was clear from stress in the bond markets that Italy and Spain would be swept away in the ensuing panic, setting off an EMU-wide systemic crisis.

The prevailing view in Berlin and even Brussels is that no such risk exists today: Europe has since created a ring of firewalls; debtor states have been knocked into shape by their EMU drill sergeants.

The democratic drama unfolding in Greece this month is therefore a local matter. If Syriza rebels win power on January 25 and carry out threats to repudiate the EU-IMF Troika Memorandum from their “first day in office”, Greece alone will suffer the consequences.

“I believe that monetary union can today handle a Greek exit,” said Michael Hüther, head of Germany’s IW institute. “The knock-on effects would be limited. There has been institutional progress such as the banking union. Europe is far less easily blackmailed than it was three years ago.”

This loosely is the “German view”, summed up pithily by Berenberg’s Holger Schmieding: “We’re looking at a Greece problem, the euro crisis is over. I do not expect markets to seriously contest the contagion defences of Europe.”

It sounds plausible. Bond yields in Italy, Spain and Portugal touched a record low this week. Yet it rests on the overarching assumption that the Merkel plan of austerity and “internal devaluation” has succeeded. An army of critics retort that the underlying picture is turning blacker by the day.

Europe’s rescue apparatus is not what it seems. The banking union belies its name. It is merely a supervision union. Each EMU state bears the burden for rescuing its own lenders. Europe’s leaders never delivered on their promise to “break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns”.

Lees deze column van Ambrose Evans Pritchard verder op The Telegraph