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Beneath the grandiose rhetoric of this week’s mini-summit in Paris between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, a rather more important story was breaking. This was the news that the German economic recovery has comprehensively stalled, causing growth across Europe as a whole to come to a virtual standstill. Amid the storm clouds of the single currency crisis, the apparent buoyancy of the German economy had been one of the few remaining rays of sunshine. Now that, too, has flickered out.
All the warning signs of another economic catastrophe have been there for a long time now, but with policy-makers fretting over how to save the euro, they have been ignored. Rather than attempting to stave off a double-dip recession by loosening monetary policy – and fiscal policy, too, among those member states that can still afford it – Europe has gone careening off in the opposite direction. Interest rates have been raised, and member states have been forced into self-defeating austerity programmes which, by destroying growth, have made underlying debt dynamics even worse. It is hard to imagine a more perversely inappropriate set of policies.
As the US economist Paul Krugman observed this week, American and European leaders sometimes seem to be engaged in a contest to see who can make the worst of a bad situation. The recent suggestion by Rick Perry, the Republican presidential hopeful, that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke should be roughed up and put on trial for treason, suggested that the US might still be in with a chance in this race to the bottom. Yet, despite the willingness of America’s political class to put naked self-interest before national economic wellbeing, they will always struggle to match Europe in the bad policy stakes.
The truth is that a project meant to tame Germany and integrate her into the heart of Europe has backfired spectacularly. Far from making economies converge, it has succeeded only in driving them ever further apart. From Britain’s island haven, we can only look on in horror as Europe once again stares into the abyss. The combination of tight fiscal and loose monetary policy that our free-floating, sovereign currency has allowed means that, in relative terms at least, we ought to fare better than our neighbours. But when the storm breaks, it will be small consolation to have the sturdiest raft.
that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke should be roughed up and put on trial for treason...