Nat O'Connor: It seems that domestic politics in Germany are focused on dealing with a perception by German taxpayers that they are at risk of 'paying' for the euro crisis.
Yet, there seem to be obvious political institutional solutions, using the ECB, that could help resolve the immediate euro crisis without the Germans having to 'pick up the bill'.
First of all, and partially an aside, it is calculated by German development bank, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (cited by the influential Hans Böckler Stiftung, bottom of page 5, in German), that Germany benefitted from having the euro, as a relatively weaker currency than the Deutschmark would have been. They argue Germany benefited by €50-60 billion in the last two years by not having their own currency (which would have been stronger and therefore raised the cost and lowered the competitiveness of their exports). Although this argument is circulating within Germany, it is not influencing the European debate as much as it should.
Secondly, even leaving aside this important line of argument about the less-often-calculated benefits to Germany, there is the obvious solution to any euro crisis: change the rules governing the European Central Bank (ECB). Currently the ECB is constrained to only focus on inflation. It should have a new mandate: to remain strongly independent, but to also focus on maximising employment and also act as a lender of last resort, which John Bruton spoke about very clearly on RTÉ Morning Ireland yesterday (17 Nov).
What the lender of last resort means is that the ECB would buy the government bonds of any state that is having a hard time getting a sustainable rate of interest on the private markets. Of course, if some countries benefit from this facility more than others, that would be effectively a form of fiscal transfer between eurozone members. The ECB would remain independent and could not be instructed when to buy bonds, but it would still be open to excess use.
The risk (to Germany and other stronger economies) is that currently weaker economies (like Italy, Greece or Ireland) might lean heavily on this facility instead of making the necessary (and politically difficult) structural reforms in their own economies and public spending.
One possible solution (and this is open to constructive criticism as I may have missed an equally obvious flaw!) is for a simple mechanism to be instated to resolve this: the ECB could simply keep track of how much each country benefits from it acting as lender of last resort. This record could in turn affect the annual contributions each country has to make to the EU. So although stronger countries like Germany would pay in the short term, this would be equalised in the long term by relatively poorer countries paying a little over the odds in their annual payments to the EU for a period of years (or decades if necessary). Such a mechanism should provide a disincentive for countries to lean too heavily on the lender of last resort and be obliged to make harder domestic decisions. Yet it would prevent the kind of unnessary crisis that Italy and others are facing at this time. (Note that Italy has been running a Government surplus, not a deficit - as I think John Bruton pointed out in the above interview).
The proposal of such an equalisation mechanism might also be the sugar-coating necessary for German voters to accept the need for the ECB to have as full a mandate as the Bank of England or US Federal Reserve.