The euro zone crisis is over – that is, if you choose to believe Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.
Speaking to Portuguese diplomats in Lisbon last Thursday, Mr. Barroso said that "the perception of risk in the euro zone has disappeared." The former Portuguese prime minister added, "Investors have understood that when European leaders commit themselves to doing everything to safeguard the integrity of the euro, they mean business."
So, will 2013 be remembered as the year the euro zone crisis came to an end – without the much-predicted collapse of the common currency, or at least the drop-out of some of its members? Or are the skeptics right who say that European leaders have only bought time, and 2013 will be the year euro zone citizens even in the richer countries feel the painful results of austerity programs, sending the European economy deeper and deeper into recession?
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Barroso is not alone in his positive assessment. Last month, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schuble commented on a successful buy-back of Greek government bonds, saying that the worst of the crisis was over. And according to a survey by German research group Sentix, the majority of the European business community shares this optimism. The number of investors who believe that one or more euro zone members will have to leave the common currency in 2013 is now at about 25 percent, which may still seem high, but is actually down from 33 percent last November.
The man widely credited with this rise in positivity is Mario Draghi. When the president of the European Central Bank (ECB) announced last summer that his institute would do all it took to save the euro, and when the ECB subsequently bought large amounts of government bonds from ailing economies like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, it seemed to convince the financial markets that there was no point in betting on the demise of the common currency.
But critics say the underlying problems are yet to be addressed. The fundamental one is competitiveness. While sharing the convenience of a common currency and common interest rates, there are large differences between the euro zone members in productivity and labor costs.
The latest ranking of best- and worst-performing nations, published by the World Economic Forum last year, put Finland at third place out of 144, Germany at sixth, Portugal at 49th, and Greece at 96th. It is hard to see how austerity measures alone can mitigate the divide, even though wage cuts and reduced pensions have already taken place on a massive scale in Greece, Spain, and Portugal.
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Peter Bofinger, economist at Wrzburg University and one of the German government's economic advisers, believes that while reforms in southern European countries are inevitable, Germany, Europe's most powerful economy,needs to do more to help. In fact, it needs to make itself less competitive.