Until recently, the euro seemed destined to encompass all of Europe. No longer. None of the remaining outsider European countries seems likely to embrace the common currency. Seven Eastern European countries that recently joined the European Union (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have announced their intention to revisit their obligations to adopt the euro.
Two non-euro members of the EU, the United Kingdom and Denmark, have explicit opt-out provisions from the common currency, and popular opinion has recently turned strongly against euro membership. In Sweden, which lacks a formal "opt-out" provision (but has cleverly refused to fulfill one of the requirements for membership), a November poll on whether to join the euro was overwhelmingly negative—80% no, 11% yes.
In light of the political response to the ongoing fiscal and currency crisis—which is leaning strongly toward a centralized political entity that will likely be even more unpopular than the common currency—I suggest that it would be better to reverse course and eliminate the euro.
When the United Kingdom debated whether to join the path to a single currency in the mid-1990s, my view was that the benefits of euro membership—enhancements for international trade in goods and services and financial transactions—were offset by required participation in its poor social, regulatory and fiscal policies. Still, I thought the U.K. should join if it could get just the common currency.
Now I think that the option of a monetary union without the rest of the baggage is an impossible dream. The single money is inevitably linked to a common central bank with lender-of-last-resort powers. This setup creates important features of fiscal union, showing up recently as bailouts in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
A better plan is to start from the top. Germany could create a parallel currency—a new D-Mark, pegged at 1.0 to the euro. The German government would guarantee that holders of German government bonds could convert euro securities to new-D-mark instruments on a one-to-one basis up to some designated date, perhaps two years in the future. Private German contracts expressed in euros would switch to new-D-mark claims over the same period. The transition would likely feature a period in which the euro and new D-mark circulate as parallel currencies.
Other countries could follow a path toward reintroduction of their own currencies over a two-year period. For example, Italy could have a new lira at 1.0 to the euro. If all the euro-zone countries followed this course, the vanishing of the euro currency in 2014 would come to resemble the disappearance of the 11 separate European moneys in 2001.
My prediction is that an announcement of the new system would raise the value of German bonds, because Germany has strong individual credibility and would no longer have to care for its weak neighbors. Even Italian and other weak-country bonds are likely to rise in value because concerns about individual credibility would be offset by the improved functioning of the overall system.
The euro was a noble experiment, but it has failed. Instead of wasting more money on expanding the system's scope and developing ever larger rescue funds, it would be better for the EU and others to think about how best to revert to a system of individual currencies.