The basis of a monetary union is the agreement of all member states on a uniform development of the price level across the member states and nothing else.
If, for example, the monetary union’s central bank has an inflation target of 2%, this means that the price level in each of the member states is to increase by 2% each year.
This fundamental basis for the functioning of a monetary union has been utterly disregarded in the case of the European Monetary Union (EMU), resulting in a huge gap in competitiveness between Germany on the one hand and Southern European countries on the other.
The following chart shows the development of the prices of new, domestically produced, final goods and services in the largest economy (Germany) and the third-largest economy (Italy) of the Eurozone as well as the development of Unit Labour Costs (ULC) in these two countries.
Unit Labour Cost growth, which is roughly equal to the growth in nominal wages minus the growth in labour productivity, closely corresponds with the development of the price level over time: if nominal wages grow by more than labour productivity, prices will rise. Assume, for example, that nominal wages increase by 5% and labour productivity increases by 3%. Then Unit Labour Costs have increased by (about) 2% and will eventually translate into (roughly) 2% inflation.
As the chart demonstrates, the development of Unit Labour Costs (and therefore of the prices of goods and services) within the Eurozone has been dramatically divergent. Furthermore, the European strategy of “internal devaluation”, which means expecting Italy to cut wages and thereby restore competitiveness has failed to achieve a significant reduction in the competitiveness gap vis-a-vis Germany.
The meagre results of Italian internal devaluation have been associated with tremendous economic and social costs. What would have been needed was German boom-and-inflation helping internal devaluation in Italy. Alas, Germany, which has never been big on basic macroeconomics, has been ruled by a curious obsession with fiscal probity, so the much needed German boom-cum-inflation has not happened.
Closing the competitiveness gap vis-a-vis Germany inside the Eurozone may well be too painful to be politically feasible. Already, all of Italy’s opposition parties favour exiting the euro. As is common in democracies, they will eventually come to power.
But even if the Eurozone managed to emerge from the ongoing crisis intact, the next euro crisis would not be far away because the EMU has no mechanism to prevent asymmetric shocks from leading to substantial differences in Unit Labour Costs between member states. Instead of a fiscal rule requiring member states to set the budget balance in such a way that Unit Labour Costs and prices develop in line with inflation in the EMU as a whole, there is a nonsensical deficit limit of 3%.
That is, the EMU would be as unprepared for the next asymmetric shock as it has been for the last. And given how painful and costly the not-yet-completed realignment of the regional price levels within the EMU has turned out to be, I cannot imagine Europeans would be willing to go through that all over again.