Culture & ideas Ideas

End of the line for the euro 1/4: Berlin gets ready to leave the euro

12 August 2011
Le Monde Paris

On the night of his re-election, Nicolas Sarkozy learns that Angela Merkel is about to be overthrown by a faction in her party that wants to leave the euro. A short time later, Germany’s constitutional court invalidates the euro stability mechanism. In this political fiction, Le Monde examines a possible scenario — which may be more likely than it seems — for the end of the single currency. Excerpts.

On Sunday 6 May, 2012. Nicolas Sarkozy had just been re-elected to the French presidency, winning 69.3% of the vote to defeat the Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen.

However, the 10pm meeting for party bigwigs in the headquarters of Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP), was anything but festive. General elections were only a month away, and all the signs pointed to a massive surge in support for the socialists and the FN. It was hard to imagine a more bitter victory.

Flanked by his two bodyguards, the US ambassador Charles Rivkin cut a path through the crowd to the president. No one was surprised when the two men retreated into a corner for a moment of private conversation.

An hour later, at a meeting of his closest associates, the president took a folded A4 page from his pocket and silently placed it on the table. In the dramatic pause that ensued, all eyes were on the blurred 15cm by 9cm photograph of a portrait of Konrad Adenauer against the backdrop of the angular forms of the Federal Chancellery.

"Gentlemen, allow me to present the new Deutschmark. Several million of these bills will soon be stockpiled in the warehouses of a Mecklemburg printworks. Ambassador Rivkin has confirmed the story: the Germans are going to print their own paper." An icy silence descended on the room, which was eventually broken by the president.

"Let me tell you Rivkin’s exact words: ‘If the Christian Democrat nationalists and the liberals bring down the government and win a majority in early general elections, we can start counting the days until the end of the euro. It won’t last another six months.’ Those lunatics are implementing Le Pen’s programme. I can fight her in France and win. But what can I do with this? I’ve had to slug it out with the liberals, the bible-thumpers, the pinkos… And now this! It took me five years to be able to put my hand on Angela’s shoulder without her flinching.”

He broke off for moment before resuming in a voice of barely-suppressed rage.

“I can’t just wave a magic wand to change the polls in Germany. And whether it's true or not, if this gets out the euro will go into a spiral. We will lose control. And not just for a blip on the graph. I’m talking about a complete loss of control. How can I be expected to manage this? It’s a shitstorm I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And certainly not on myself.” After pausing for a moment, the president added, “Obama’s gambling his re-election on this as well. He must have his reasons if he is taking the risk of telling us." 

The writing was on the wall. If Rivkin was telling the truth, the German Chancellor would shortly be overthrown by a cabal of euro-secessionist MPs. She wouldn’t even make it to the next election in 2013. To save the European currency, the president had no other choice. He would have to make some major concessions for his "friend" Angela. 

2pm, Friday 11 May, 2012. Sitting at his laptop, the Irish Times correspondent browsed through the enormous European press review published everyday by the Commission, when his attention was caught by a short news agency report. The news was out. Charles Leesbey clicked the link and stared thoughtfully at his screen: "The German constitutional court has ruled that the euro stabilisation mechanism is a violation of the budgetary sovereignty of the Bundestag ... In their verdict, the judges concluded that the 2011 law ratifying article 136 of the Lisbon Treaty and an international treaty to create a permanent financial stability mechanism are partly in breach of the federal constitution."

"See that, Charles?” remarked his colleague from El País.

"I see it."

"Looks like they want to blow it all up. Doesn’t it?"

"Maybe."

"Have you met Kerber, the guy who took the case?"

"I did an interview with him last year in Berlin. But my paper didn’t want to run it. They said he was 'too marginal'."

The argument posed by economic policy expert Professor Markus Kerber of the Technische Universität and 50 other plaintiffs, collectively known as Europolis, was remarkably simple. On the night 9 May 2009, when the deal on the Greek crisis was cobbled together, the European Union had ignored the rule of law. The principle of German consent to the European currency had been betrayed. The status of Europe had effectively been transformed. It was no longer a legal union, but a union of financial transfers. For the professor, this was not an act of 'solidarity' but a blank cheque written by the German taxpayer. 

"Our case is about the violation of our fundamental rights to property and democratic participation," Kerber had told Leesbey. The agreement had ridden roughshod over the budgetary sovereignty of the Bundestag. The question was a pertinent one, and not just in Germany. In a time of cutbacks, MPs in countries like France and the Netherlands, who were fighting tooth and nail to save civil service jobs and hospitals, were appalled to see their governments commit trillions or hundreds of millions of euros to Greece and Portugal. 

Now Kerber had won, thought Leesbey, just as his mobile phone beeped to signal an incoming text message.

“Extraordinary ECOFIN meeting Saturday 12," it said. "Arrivals from 11am. Background briefing Friday 6pm.”

Once again, he'd be spending the weekend in front of a screen in the Justus Lipsius building.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.