Lessons from euro’s first 25 years
Prior to the introduction of the European single currency in January 1999, its architects foresaw a future of macroeconomic stability and accelerated growth. While the euro has delivered on some of these promises, it has failed to facilitate the continent’s economic and political integration.
FLORENCE – The 25th anniversary of the euro’s introduction, which has passed largely under the radar, offers an opportune moment to assess the current state of the greatest monetary experiment in modern history.
The euro’s launch in January 1999 polarized economists. In the face of much skepticism – the late American economist Martin Feldstein even argued that the single currency could trigger a war in Europe – the euro’s architects envisioned a future characterized by macroeconomic stability, anchored by an independent central bank and a fiscal framework geared toward stability. Structural reforms, which the European Union’s member states were expected to implement, were meant to enhance the monetary union’s capacity to adjust to shocks.
None of those scenarios materialized. Over the past quarter-century, the euro has shown extraordinary resilience, navigating through several critical challenges and defying early predictions of its collapse. But while the single currency has delivered on some of its promises – most notably, maintaining price stability for most of its existence – it has failed to boost Europe’s potential growth or facilitate the continent’s full economic and political integration.
This mixed record can be attributed largely to the fact that Europe’s economic union was incomplete from the outset. Despite the significant progress that has been made since its inception, the eurozone’s fiscal and economic frameworks remain woefully underdeveloped compared to its monetary infrastructure.
To understand the consequences of the eurozone’s unfinished architecture, it is useful to divide the past 25 years into four distinct periods. The first phase, from 1999 to 2008, could be labeled the “2% decade”: economic growth, inflation, and budget deficits (as a share of GDP) all hovered around this rate. This phase was characterized by the excessive optimism of the “Great Moderation.”
But the internal imbalances that emerged during this period would haunt the eurozone for years to come. The convergence of interest rates, evidenced by minimal spreads, resulted in overly sanguine portrayals of member states’ public finances. Simultaneously, loose fiscal and monetary conditions reduced European governments’ incentives to undertake structural reforms and bolster their banking systems.
Nominal convergence also masked more profound structural disparities, as capital flowed from the eurozone’s richest members to their poorer counterparts, where it was frequently channeled into less productive sectors, such as real estate and non-tradable services, often through instruments like short-term bank loans. Consequently, while the eurozone’s current accounts appeared balanced, significant imbalances emerged.
The fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis, particularly the discovery that Greece had lied about its budget deficits and debt, eroded trust among member states. The prevailing narrative shifted to one of moral hazard, emphasizing the need for each country to get its own house in order. By the time eurozone governments finally coordinated a response – establishing the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), launching the banking union project, introducing the European Central Bank’s Outright Monetary Transactions program, and expanding the ECB’s balance sheet – the euro appeared to be on the brink of collapse.
The key turning point was the pledge by then-ECB President Mario Draghi to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro in July 2012. But with monetary policy increasingly viewed as the “only game in town,” the eurozone’s economic and financial structures remained fragmented.
The COVID-19 crisis changed that. The exogenous nature of the pandemic shock, together with the lack of impending elections, enabled EU leaders – led by French President Emmanuel Macron, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – to present a unified front, unencumbered by the pressure to avoid moral hazard. The EU suspended the Stability and Growth Pact, which had previously capped member states’ budget deficits at 3% of GDP, and rolled out the Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency and the NextGenerationEU recovery programs, financing both through common borrowing. Meanwhile, the ECB introduced its €1.85 trillion ($2 trillion) Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.
Although this demonstration of collective leadership reassured markets, fueling an economic rebound, the optimism proved to be short-lived. A global inflationary surge, fueled by robust macroeconomic stimulus and pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions, was exacerbated by the energy-price shock that followed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although European policymakers worked together to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian gas, they failed to mount a collective response akin to the NextGenerationEU initiative. Confronted with rising deficits and debt, not to mention the most aggressive monetary-tightening cycle since the 1980s, EU countries have once again put eurozone reforms on hold.
Two important lessons follow from the euro’s first 25 years. First, the monetary union’s incomplete institutional framework has proven to be both costly and dangerous. Finalizing the banking union, especially the creation of a common resolution fund with the backstop of the ESM and deposit insurance, is essential to ensure stability and bolster the international role of the euro. Thus, Italy’s recent failure to ratify the ESM treaty is a serious setback. Pushing forward the capital market union is essential if Europe is to meet the financial challenges posed by the digital and green transitions. To achieve all of this, EU leaders must strike a balance between risk sharing and risk reduction.
Second, completing the euro is crucial for safeguarding and developing the EU’s greatest achievement: the single market. European countries’ current pursuit of national industrial policies, funded through state aid, undermines the core values of the single-market project. To address this challenge, the EU must formulate a cohesive European industrial policy. This should include an increase in cross-border investments, focusing on European public goods such as human-capital development, the availability of critical materials, and the green and digital transitions.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President François Mitterrand, and European Commission President Jacques Delors turned the dream of a single currency into a reality. During the COVID-19 crisis, Macron, Merkel, and von der Leyen managed to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve a historic breakthrough. Now, a quarter-century after its introduction, the euro requires visionary leaders to shepherd European sovereignty to its next phase.
This article draws on the CEPR Policy Insights February 1, 2024, paper “The First 25 Years of the Euro,” written under the auspices of the European University Institute’s Economic and Monetary Union Laboratory (EMU Lab).