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A eurozone, but not a strong one

There are several fascinating elections due this year. Next month, we can look forward to Britain's most unpredictable outcome in 100 years. In Poland, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has become a presidential candidate in hopes of succeeding his twin brother Lech, killed in a plane crash earlier this month. Japan's ruling DPJ faces a referendum on its first turbulent months in power with upper house elections this summer. In November, recession-weary Americans will go to the polls to elect a new congress.

With all that going on, you probably haven't thought much about next month's local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state. Eager to institutionalize a post-bailout era of greater fiscal discipline, the German government is preparing to push for a major revision of eurozone rules in the form of a new European Union treaty. The aim is to build momentum behind a drive for fiscal consolidation and greater powers to enforce rules across the currency union.

But it's hard to imagine that Chancellor Angela Merkel's government will get what it wants. Irreconcilable differences remain among key European states, and Germany doesn't have the political power it held a generation ago in the run-up to introduction of the euro. Today's union is much larger, and the perceived benefits of convergence are worth less. The contentious debate over a new treaty will unfold just as the battle is heating up to replace Jean-Claude Trichet as president of Europe's Central Bank.

The immediate concern is that Standard & Poor's lowered Greece's debt rating to junk on Tuesday and Portugal by two steps. The big longer-term worry for Europe is that politicians locked into tough deflationary programs (in Greece and beyond) will take the once-taboo step of pushing for debt restructuring. We're not talking about the break-up of the eurozone, no matter how much apocalyptic rhetoric we hear in days to come or how many pundits write articles this fall with titles like "Who killed Europe?" But the less dramatic risks for European fiscal policy are plenty serious.

That's where Germany's local elections come in. The balloting in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to more than 20 percent of Germany's citizens, will provide a real test of Angela Merkel's center-right government. A bad result would jeopardize Germany's shot at tax reform. More to the point, it would weaken the entire eurozone by undermining support for fiscal discipline at the heart of Europe.

A return of the German left, even a modest one, will generate much more expansionary policy than we saw during the grand coalition period between 2005 and 2009. That will create stronger institutional support for German labor demands, driving a rebalancing within the eurozone as German labor costs begin to rise. That will undermine European competitiveness at a delicate moment in the union's recovery from recession. Over the longer term, it's hard to imagine Europe's fiscal woes improving in that environment. That's why I believe strongly in the eurozone, but not in a strong eurozone.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? (Portfolio, May 2010)

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