On the morning of May 7th 2012, Greek voters woke up to discover that they had effectively voted to leave the EU. A majority of the new members of parliament were in parties that rejected the crippling terms of the latest EU £110bn bailout package. It looked like the beginning of the end for the 11 year old European single currency. The cracks in the European Union began to look unbridgeable
Bond investors across the world reached for their phones. Many financiers decided that the euro was finished, and they placed their massive bets accordingly. It was reported that Lord Rothshild of the banking dynasty, had personally taken out a £130m“short” position against the battered single currency. Surely, the EU could not recover from this! If Greece fell, then so would Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy which were all in the same deflationary boat – saddled with over-valued currencies, forced to cut spending in a recession, crippled by unsustainable interest rates on their massive debts. A new word was coined to describe the countries on their way out: “Grexit”
Europe's political leaders seemed caught in the headlights; unable to reconcile the need for fiscal discipline with the imperative of restoring economic growth. In Greece, where the economy had shrunk by 20%, violent social unrest had become an almost weekly occurrence as EU-imposed cuts made the recession even deeper. In Spain, unemployment among under 24 year olds rose to over 50%.. And the contagion began to infect the entire eurozone as France lost its triple A credit rating and Germany, the most powerful economy in the EU, plunged toward recession.
In Britain, the political classes awaited the inevitable. Most of the British media had decided long since that the euro was a dead duck and that it was only a matter of time before it collapsed. You cannot have a single currency without a central government and a central treasury, with the power to intervene in national budgets and the power to issue bonds for every member state. Surely, Greece and Spain would see sense and leave the euro, devalue their currencies, default on their debts like Argentina in 2001, and seek to recover on the basis of low wages and cheaper exports. What alternative did they have? Sticking with austerity was leading to economic depression and social unrest.
But somehow, the inevitable didn't happen. The Greek political parties couldn't agree on a government and decided to hold another election on 17th June. This left the pro-austerity New Democracy, led by conservative Antonis Samaras, with a reasonably firm mandate to stick with the euro, bailout and all. Greece would not default. Then, Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop the single currency collapsing. Many believed this was just another empty promise from a bankrupt eurocrat, but Draghi proved true to his word. In September the ECB committed itself to unlimited purchasing of european government bonds, and the sovereign debt crisis began almost immediately to subside. The rate of interest on Greek, Spanish and Italian debt returned to pre-crisis levels.