How can we convince the Germans that we are not after their money? In an interview given to the Spiegel Online, Mario Monti went all out this time. Using all his expertise, he tried again to explain that we Italians were paying much more than the Germans were for the bail-outs to Greece, Ireland, Portugal.
Given current rates of return on sovereign debt bonds, it is the Italians and Spaniards who are in fact subsidising the Germans, and not the other way around.
Making oneself understood is not easy. In Germany today the challenges of monetary union are leading to mass disenchantment with European integration, mirroring what is happening in Italy as well. But it's also giving rise to a cultural phenomenon among some in the German ruling class, which tends to consider that it is right where the rest of the world is wrong, or very nearly so.
Tidal wave of collective pessimism
Last week, the very popular Bild newspaper proclaimed loudly to its readers, as if it were a scoop, that the continuation of the crisis is in Germany's benefit. It estimating that the country had saved 60 billion euros in long-term financing costs over the last thirty months, a figure many experts consider quite likely. Yet little has changed. The populists revel in this new proof of their country's success, while most pretend to see nothing.
What is happening on the markets? Some traders explained it very well recently to The New York Times: They know that the Italian debt securities, currently high-yielding, could be an excellent buy. However, they are still selling them, out of fear that a “tidal wave of collective pessimism” that could ruin Italy is spreading among their colleagues.
This is the reality that many German economists keep denying. Their theory does not provide for it, therefore it does not exist. They argue that yields of six or seven percent for Italy and Spain's sovereign debt are rational, and even that they serve them well. The problem is that, contrary to the Bundesbank's representative on the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, the ECB itself has taken note of that evidence. Therein lies the importance of last Thursday's decisions.
The new German nationalism most often talks about something beside the point, in a dangerous short-circuit between electoral demagogy and the dogmas of a conformist academic class.
Cash printing press
It accuses the southern countries and France of wanting to push the ECB into running a cash printing press to finance muddled management by politicians, as used to happen. In Italy, that irresponsible practice was abandoned in 1981, 10 years before the Maastricht Treaty.
At the same time, we must admit that various events in Italy have helped fuel the German distrust. In the 1990s both countries were suffering from similar ills. Over the following decade, however, successive governments in Berlin were able to deal with them, which was hardly the case in Rome. The hasty invocation of eurobonds by our politicians betrays their desire that the Germans pick up part of our tab.
So it is a good thing, even though it may seem bizarre, that the compromise that came out of the meeting of the ECB Board, in which Frankfurt agreed to buy sovereign debt of countries in difficulty only after they have requested intervention by the European financial stability funds, subordinates interventions to calm the markets to policy initiatives. This is precisely because it is about putting the markets right, and not about creating money in excess.
We are charting new territory here, where the what elements must be decided by the vote of the citizens and what is to be left up to the technocrats should be checked at every moment.
In both countries, we must be more vigilant about the spirit than the letter of the constitutions that brought democracy to us in the late 1940s. As for the European Treaties, they can be modified, if need be.
View from Germany
Germans behind Merkel
Following the shocking frontpage in the Italian daily Il Giornale, which made reference to the “Fourth Reich”, Spiegel Online's Rome correspondent writes of his experiences as a German abroad facing the wrath of the Italians, restless under the weight of the austerity policy demanded by Brussels and Berlin.
In Italy, anger is brewing against Germany. [...] In bars, pubs and in the small talk with neighbours, the Germans are summoned to explain why an entire nation is following 'the Merkel' in her policy to combat the crisis.
He talks about his neighbour Camillo, who is pleased that Germany is “finally a loser” in their position near the bottom of the Olympic medal rankings, and confirms that nicknames like “Crucchi” (pig-heads) and “Panzer” are back in use. Then there is the misfortune of the young German student who draws the hostility of his classmates in the Leonardo Da Vinci language school after declaring: “We are not a family. The Greeks have to fend for themselves. They have worked too little and sat too long over their coffee," only to realise too late, that he is the only German in the room.
Confronted by an Italian in his thirties who asks him why Germans talk of Italy as a developing country, when it is the third-largest economy in the eurozone and has put up 125 billion euros to the European financial rescue – compared to 190 billion from Germany – the journalist from Spiegel Online asks:
What should I tell him? That every country in the eurozone has its own version of the crisis, and each of them has different victims and tormenters? The truth gets wrapped up in the national colours, which the politicians and media bring home from Brussels summits and other arenas among the 27 countries. And each one knows only its own.