The European Union has always been primarily a political project. The idea of the union was to take peoples that had long and complicated histories, and to place them in a situation where they must work together and shed their differences in order to achieve success.
From the political angle, it can be argued that this objective has been achieved. War and conflict within Western and Central Europe has mostly been stymied. Considering the continent’s lengthy history in these areas, this is great news.
However, it’s particularly the countries that adopted the euro as common currency that put themselves into a more precarious economic position. The problem is simple: countries maintain certain political and fiscal responsibilities, but do not control the fate of their common currency.
The result is that eurozone politicians have very different fiscal policies, but don’t have the flexibility of monetary policy to help accompany them. Some countries are trying to spend their way out of trouble, while others are maintaining strict austerity. Either way, the European Central Bank (ECB) controls the plight of the currency and can make unilateral decisions that have a big impact on every country. For example, in the beginning of June 2015, the ECB announced the minimum of a $1.14 trillion quantitative easing program that will add new currency units that together are larger than the economies of Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Luxembourg, and Slovenia combined.
There has been an array of other problems plaguing the eurozone as well. The most notable of these was that Greece was admitted into the monetary union in the first place after fudging numbers on the Greek economy. Even though Greece makes up about 2% of the overall eurozone, the country has been in constant trouble that has threatened to undermine the entire union. (For a primer on this, read The Origin of the Greek Crisis)
The euro itself has dropped precipitously, particularly in terms of USD but also in terms of GBP and CNY. In the beginning of 2008, a US dollar could buy only €0.65 euros. Today, on average through 2015, one US dollar can buy €0.91 euros.
With European demographics getting more challenging by the year, and deflation stalking the eurozone, problems don’t seem to be going away for the euro. The crises in Ukraine and Greece continue on without much resolved, and the ECB is continuing on with its QE program. Meanwhile, the Refugee Crisis has created another political distraction that has its own challenges for the people of Europe.
Will the shrinking euro be able to revert its course, or is Europe doomed to become the next Japan?