The Czech and Slovak Republics offer an interesting perspective on the European monetary union. Slovakia adopted the euro in 2009, whereas Czech's plans to exchange the Ceska Koruna (Czech Crown) for the euro has been delayed indefinitely. The amicably divorced partners of the former Czechoslovakia thus allow for an interesting comparison.
Slovakia's decision to join the continental currency was deeply lamented when the poorer Slovakia was forced to pay into the Greek bailout fund - a payment for which Czech was not obliged. The Czech prime minister noted: "We can all see how the monetary union is turning into a transfer union or even a debt union."
But this incident simply added insult to injury. The fiscal limitations of a transnational currency have adversely affected Slovakia's economy, whereas the relative flexibility of the crown has allowed Czech to adapt with greater ease and efficiency. This is a condition writ large across Europe. While ostensibly favoring inclusion in the EU, former Warsaw nations regard adoption of the euro as a suicide pact. Writing primarily of Poland's avoidance of the economic pains in Europe, Gordon Fairclough notes in today's WSJ:
Across Central and Eastern Europe, the story is much the same. Governments from Hungary to Bulgaria that once clamored to join the euro club are putting plans on hold and reassessing the costs and benefits of something that used to seem inevitable. The spread of the euro was seen as part of Europe's manifest destiny, and the countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain saw the adoption of the currency as a potent sign of success, both political and economic.
The change of heart is an ominous portent for the decades-long process of increasing European economic integration. The common currency is the centerpiece and the leading symbol of that integration. If enthusiasm wanes for the euro, boosters fear, this could spell trouble for other efforts to knit the nations of the Continent together.
Moreover, economies like Poland's and the Czech Republic's are the kind that euro-zone leaders want to bring into their currency union--competitive, with low debt and strong growth prospects.
Czechs believe that a second reason for the diminished economic crisis in central Europe is cultural. Unlike Italians, Greeks and the like, they (and their governments) did not spend lavishly, incur unsustainable debt and expect that rainy days would never arrive. They regard the euro fund as terminally undisciplined and cherish their national economic autonomy.
I have long argued that the New Europe will soon shift the center of gravity away from western powers. But whether this New Europe will remain a union is being decided now by those western powers. Continued fiscal imprudence threatens not only Europe's economic integrity, but its political cohesion.