This post of P O’Neill’s made me think of something. That is, the British debate on joining the Euro, and on Europe more generally. I was strongly pro-Euro, something which now looks as bad a decision as joining the Liberal Democrats was. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that had the UK had Eurozone interest rates in the 2000s, we would have had an even huger housing bubble and even more gigantic bank balance sheets, and we would have had to resolve them without being able to use the central bank as lender of last resort, and we would have been unable to devalue the currency as a stimulus mechanism.
Any counter-argument requires that the influence of the Bank of England in ECB policy would have been both powerful and right. The first is debatable, but we have to accept that the Bank didn’t restrain the housing bubble and also failed to respond to the crisis in the real economy in 2008, sitting on its hands and mumbling about inflation while the labour market cliff-dived and the bank regulators across the corridor frantically juggled with Halifax-Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, and Northern Rock. Also, the early 2000s situation of a bubbly periphery and a stagnant core would have been even worse with the London housing market in the Euro, and it’s hard to say how that would have panned out.
But what were we really debating in the 90s?
The arguments in favour, at least the economic ones, were that we might benefit from being fully integrated in a bigger trading bloc, that we would benefit from currency stability, that lower interest rates would be nice to have, and that the Eurozone restrictions would be a force that would require industry to be more competitive (or did they just mean lower wages?). The arguments against, at least the economic ones, were that the Stability & Growth Pact would be an anti-Keynesian force for deflation and that the option of devaluation would be removed.
Then there was a whole lot of other stuff. A lot of the “for” side thought it would make us more European and meant by this that it would make us more social-democratic (or Christian-Democratic, or even Free Democratic), although I don’t think any of them could have articulated a mechanism by which this would happen. I suspect that for a lot of us it was a bit like the Estonian MP who told Tim Garton Ash that “Europa ist…nicht RuÃŸland!”, or in our case, Europe was not-America.
A lot of the “against” side seemed to agree with the idea that joining the Euro meant the triumph of social democracy, because they at least claimed to think that the European Union was an inherently socialist institution. Some of them still think this now, when it has imposed structural adjustment on three European countries in order to avoid the nightmare of fiscal expansion in Germany. Others took the Friedmanite line that currency adjustment was a form of free market competition and therefore desirable. This was at least defensible. And others thought that it was a scheme to redraw the UK’s internal borders or replace the flag or something.
The interesting contradiction here was that the same people who worried that we would be unable to devalue the currency were also fervent austerians who didn’t believe in demand management of any kind. It was as if they believed in hardcore new classicism up to the point where it affected their re-election. How could it happen?
Obviously, whether you felt the SAGP would be useful discipline or an anti-Keynesian straitjacket simply depended on whether you expected the economic problem of the 2000s to be inflation or deflation. But the economic argument that was very rarely discussed was the one that is now fascinating everybody – exactly how the Eurosystem, rather than the Euro, would function in a financial crisis. Apparently this was discussed in specialist circles, but it didn’t make even the best of the national press.
To sum up, I agree that the yes side was wrong about fixing the currency. To be honest, when asked, I always said I was in favour of joining if we could join at a significantly lower exchange rate. The benefits of which Jaguar-Land Rover just demonstrated. But this is a cop-out on my part. On the other hand, I think the Eurosceptics and some of the conservative Europhiles should accept that they were wrong about the SAGP – yes, Virginia, inflation was a phantom menace, and the ghosts of 1929 were not finished with us. And we can all agree that we were all wrong about the banking and financial aspects of the Eurosystem, in that we didn’t even bother to argue about them.
I promised to blame somebody in the last post. Here it comes: the key European politicians, especially the French and the Germans and the European Commission officials, who designed the Euro and the Eurosystem. They created a system that had a structural deflationary bias in an era of deflation, one that delivered rock-bottom interest rates to countries in the grip of land fever, and one that couldn’t cope with a banking crisis although it included the biggest banking system in the world. And then they kept putting up interest rates. What’s worse is that they now have the gall to give lectures about virtuous savers – even when they are the same individuals, like Wolfgang SchÃ¤uble, who were in power in the 1990s.