Analysis: Euro zone failure could be vast geopolitical shock

LONDON Thu Nov 10, 2011 9:54am EST

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu in the Chancellery in Berlin, November 10, 2011.    REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu in the Chancellery in Berlin, November 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Related Topics

LONDON (Reuters) - Any euro zone failure would send shock waves around the globe, shifting the balance of geopolitical power and perhaps prompting a fundamental reassessment of what the world's future might look like.

EU sources told Reuters that officials of France and Germany, since the 1950s the driving forces of European integration, had held discussions on a two-speed Europe with a smaller, more tightly integrated euro zone and a looser outer circle.

Estimates of how likely the currency bloc is to break up, how damaging it might be and what might remain afterwards vary wildly. But with European leaders still struggling to find a credible response to the crisis, the prospect of one or more countries leaving -- and effectively defaulting on their sovereign debt as they do so - is seen rising by the day.

Suddenly, pundits, policymakers and other observers find themselves questioning one of their most fundamental assumptions -- that an increasingly united Europe would be a key player in a newly multipolar world.

"You already have one of the great pillars of globalization, the United States, entering a period of difficulty and looking inward," said Thomas Barnett, US-based chief strategist of political risk consultancy Wikistrat -- which is being asked by several private clients to urgently model scenarios. "Now one of the other pillars, Europe, looks about to implode."

That, he said, could leave the continent's powers -- who only a handful of years ago made up much of the G7 group of largest economies -- increasingly sidelined as China, India, Brazil and others rose.

At the very least, analysts say, the world may have to get used to a Europe that has lost much of its confidence and has much less appetite for international engagement.

Coming after so many meetings not just of European leaders but also the G20, it would also leave the reputation of existing global governance systems and a generation of political and economic elites in tatters. Some of the damage may already be largely irreversible.

"Even if by some magic the crisis were to be over tomorrow, the other strategic actors in the world are already beginning to revise their views of Europe," said Thomas Kleine-Brokhoff, a strategy expert at Europe-facing Washington DC think tank the George Marshall Foundation of the United States. "Any consensus that Europe was simply and certainly on the path to integrate further and become a unitary actor is gone."

That raises interesting questions for other areas of the world, where many had often expected regional blocs would gradually in time form EU-like entities and move to closer integration.

"Europe was supposed to be the model for others to follow," said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College. "That's going to be questioned."

DECLINE OF THE WEST?

For some, any unraveling of the euro zone -- whether or not it brings with it a collapse of the wider EU -- would be seen as yet another sign of much faster than expected western decline.

"For India, China and many of the other new powers, they don't see simply a crisis of the euro zone," said Kleine-Brokhoff at the George Marshall Foundation of the United States. "They see a crisis of the rich world and it makes them even more confident that their time has come."

But that interpretation, some analysts say, could prove an illusion.

"No one would be laughing -- I don't think there would be any winners at all," said Michael Denison, a former senior adviser to ex-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and now research director for consultancy Control Risks. "You'd have a banking and sovereign debt crisis that would hurt everyone."

Whilst relatively self-sufficient states such as India might be amongst the least affected, most analysts say other emerging markets could suffer perhaps disproportionately.

Whilst the United States and possibly a handful of other states such as Switzerland might enjoy safe haven status and incoming capital, US-based private intelligence consultancy Stratfor -- which puts the prospect of at least a partial euro zone breakup within the year as high as 90 percent -- believes China could prove the greatest loser.

"You're going to see ... a collapse in capital flows to countries like Vietnam, Brazil, parts of Africa," said Peter Zeihan, Stratfor vice president for strategy. "It's also going to be the end of the Chinese economic miracle. The largest single market for China is Europe. That's going to have a huge knock-on effect in China which could include social revolution."

NOT QUITE YUGOSLAVIA?

Taken as a sign of what increasingly looks like a rudderless and fragmented world, some states may take matters more into their own hands -- as Israel is already suspected to be considering over Iran -- rather than multilaterally.

"It is almost certainly going to make European participation in operations such as Libya much less likely," said Gvosdev at the US Naval War College. "That comes just as Washington was hoping Europe would be able to take more of the strain."

Wikistrat chief strategist Barnett says much depends on what emerges if the Euro falls. If, as many suspect, a rump euro zone around Germany remains whilst Mediterranean states go their own way, the whole geopolitical focus of the continent could shift.

The northern element, he suggests, could focus its attention more to the east, giving priority to what could either become a corporatist or confrontational relationship with Moscow. The southern states, in contrast, might integrate much more closely with North Africa and the rest of the Mediterranean -- a region perhaps dominated by a newly assertive Turkey.

The euro itself should still be salvageable, he says, but it may just be that the political will is simply not there.

"It's essentially a common-law marriage that never quite made it to the church and now seems to be moving toward a split," said Barnett. "It shouldn't be necessary, you would have hoped that it could be avoided, but we are living through an age of political immaturity."

There is a high likelihood of a rise in street protest and resistance to austerity measures in Europe and probably also elsewhere, many experts say, even if more serious violence should largely be avoided.

"This isn't the breakup of Yugoslavia," said Control Risks' Denison. But others aren't so sure. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned several weeks ago any euro zone failure might endanger the decades of peace the currency and the EU were supposed to cement.

Some worry the risks have been exacerbated by the extent to which Europe's political and wider elites refused until the last to consider the euro project might fail.

"It's very difficult to say any of this without sounding like rather a scaremonger, or someone addicted to worst case analysis," said Paul Cornish, professor of international politics at the University of Bath.

"We (may) be persistently resistant to the signs of change because we don't like what we see. euro zone failure might create deep political instability, possibly involving tension and even conflict. We will find ourselves under-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with whatever does happen."

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (3)
PenRumi wrote:
The fallout from Greece, Italy or Spain defaulting on sovereign debt loans would be so great that instead of realignment of economic powers, as Peter Apps suggested, it will drag emerging economies – China, India and Brazil – into the quicksand. Instead of advocating self-sufficiency, the proponents of globalization, such as Paul Krugman, clamored for inter-dependency. Krugman should return the Nobel Prize for economics he was awarded in 2008.

Nov 10, 2011 9:55am EST  --  Report as abuse
hariknaidu wrote:
It’s amazing hidden between the lines are the socalled Anglo-American experts with little or no knowledge of internal workings of EU, sending out alarming signals, including The Economist (Lon), the breakup of EZ.

Well let me explain again to your Euroscceptics crowd, including UKs Cameron, that neither the EZ nor the economic integration process will terminate because of Greek political oligarchs or a misfit in Rome.

It’ll inevitably put the EU Project back, may be Grrece will need a decade or more to revive its growth or default and get out of EZ. But I don’t expect that to happen now under Papademous.

Italy, under Mario Monti, will make strides to stabalize its bond market and reforming its structural deficits under Berlusconi. It’ll be done. And Italy is not a liliput. It’s a dynamic economy inspite of its politicians and governance problems.

Cameron and his caucus of non-EZ members don’t need to become arrogant now that bailout crisis has engulfed Italy. Because the destiny of EU is in its capacity to overcome current political divergences and startegic outlook.

Eventually we shall look at this crisis as the beginning of ever closer union of EU.

Nov 10, 2011 11:14am EST  --  Report as abuse
BajaArizona wrote:
The simple reason to expect the Euro to collapse is the lack of central banking. This lack is structural. Even if the ECB were given the powers of a central bank, it still would be unable to regulate the various independent governments. In order for the Euro to work, Europeans have to be willing to weaken their own governments drastically and see the creation of a central government with real authority. Which is never going to occur. Thus, expect a Euro collapse. This was said in as many words by many leading economists when the European countries started on the path to a common currency in earnest, in 1993. Among the naysayers…Dr. Paul Krugman.

Krugman is an agitator. He agitates for or against ideas which he believes are hurting us. In his writings, he is not always magnanimous and understanding of the difficulties others face. However, despite delivering a heartfelt screed per week, it is a very rare column of his which contains no insight. Yet he steps on many toes, and many become angry as he self-assuredly cuts to pieces their cherished canards.

I have been reading Krugman for around 13 years. I often disagree with him. Yet I have never read a column of his that did not contain some of the shrewdest insight on economic matters available. This is why I take all reflexive Krugman haters with a grain of salt. I know he’s not perfect, but I also know he’s probably the best there is.

Nov 10, 2011 3:17pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.