It is useful to look at this crisis as a three-way game between firefighters, architects and pyromaniacs.
The firefighters’ aim is to put out the fire, regardless of what the building will look like afterward, or what the inhabitants will think. Firemen are guided by immediate necessity: will this serve as a firebreak? Will it save lives? They work under pressure, waste no time bewailing the lack of contingency plans, and make do with the materials that they have to hand. They are not concerned with constructing a neat explanation — or, to use the current buzzword, a narrative.
The architect, on the contrary, needs to work things out to the very last detail, leaving nothing to improvisation, which is his worst enemy. He wants to design his building with time, weighing up all the alternatives, knowing the exact budget, the load the structure can bear, the use it will have, and who will inhabit it. He also wants emergency plans, escape routes, a maintenance program, periodic revisions. If there is anything he hates, it is an undecided client, who doesn’t know what he wants.
Lastly come the firebugs. In this crisis they are of three kinds: the unbalanced, who find satisfaction in watching things burn; those who act in bad faith, hoping to profit from the blaze; and those who cause fires with their negligent conduct, do nothing to stop them, or impede the work of firefighting.
Translate this into European terms and you will see the bind we have been stuck in for the last four years. The crisis has shown that the euro has a design fault. It was made for fair weather, leaving the problems of steering it in a storm for later. This seemed reasonable then. German unification created the necessary conditions for it, but also created pressure for a hasty launch, without the central bank or fiscal union that would make it seaworthy. Against the advice of shipbuilders, the promoters of the euro believed that the currency would create the conditions for its own sustainability.
Thus the euro was born with serious shortcomings in its design, no firebreaks, and no fire brigade to back it up. When the blaze broke out, there were no ready-made mechanisms to stop it from spreading.
Equally serious has been the appearance of the arsonists: some, because they have now taken up the battle they then lost to prevent its launching; others, because they are making huge sums of money out of the fire; and yet others, because they are so blinded by moral prejudice that they refuse to lend the necessary fire extinguishers, until it is determined whether the tenants were negligent, have their insurance policy paid up or own resources to pay the cost of putting out the fire.
To emerge from the crisis, the architects propose building the edifice properly, without fudging or improvisation. For the euro to work, says the chief architect, Angel Merkel, we need a political union worthy of the name, capable of governing the euro in a transparent, responsible manner. For firemen such as Mariano Rajoy, the plan is exactly the opposite: improvise an instrument to put out the bank and fiscal fire that is about to burn out his mandate and lead to a full bailout of the country. If properly designed by architects, the required banking union would be fireproof. But the banking union proposed by the firemen is incomplete, probably not very effective, and, in any case, esthetically deplorable. A capital injection would resemble the hideous cement sarcophagus that covers the Chernobyl reactor. But, say the firemen, it would do the job: prevent the euro nucleus from going into meltdown, affecting everyone.
So this is where we are now. While firemen and architects stand yelling at each other, the arsonists are well ahead of them, bearing jerry-cans of gasoline.
This article first appeared in El Pais.
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