The New York Times

October 21, 2004

Europe's New Members Not Ready for the Euro


FRANKFURT, Oct. 20 - Six months after the European Union admitted 10 new members, capping their journey from Communism to the free market, they got a blunt reminder that the club's inner sanctum, its currency union, will remain off limits to them for several years.

The European Central Bank said in a report issued Wednesday that fewer than half the new members had met the fiscal requirements to adopt the euro. None had met the political requirements, like compatibility of its central bank statutes with those of the European Central Bank, according to a companion report by the European Commission.

The bank, the currency's guardian, said many of the countries were moving too slowly in cutting their budget deficits to levels below the ceiling mandated by the Maastricht Treaty, which created the monetary union.

"They have their weak points and they have their strong points, and life is difficult for all of them," said the president of the bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, at a news conference here.

Mr. Trichet said there was no timetable for countries to adopt the euro, echoing what is by now the conventional wisdom here: with the exception of Estonia and one or two of its Baltic neighbors, none of these countries will be ready for the euro until the end of the decade.

That is a remarkable turnabout from the heady days just before the expansion of the European Union, when political leaders in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava talked about adopting the euro in short order. Now, in Prague, the finance ministry and the central bank are squabbling about whether the Czech Republic can meet even the less ambitious deadline of 2010.

The reason for much of the backsliding, experts say, is the political upheaval that erupted in many countries after they entered the union. The collapse of coalition governments and a revolving door of prime ministers has scrambled fiscal policies and raised doubts about the independence of their central banks.

"Some countries that were ahead fell back, in the context of elections," said Otmar Issing, the bank's chief economist, who oversaw the report. "That is the normal process in a democracy."

In some countries, the political tumult is taking on a less-than-democratic flavor. Hungary's newly elected prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, is pushing legislation in Parliament that would allow him to appoint half the members of the governing board of the central bank.

Mr. Gyurcsany, a millionaire businessman and one-time Communist youth leader, is unhappy that the central bank has set interest rates at 11 percent - the highest in Europe - to curb Hungary's high 6.6 percent inflation. The new law, if approved, could tilt the board in favor of the prime minister.

"It's very dangerous," said a former president of the Hungarian central bank, Peter Akos Bod, in an interview. "It goes very much against European custom, and against the short history of the bank."

Hungary's high rates are necessary to prevent runaway inflation, Mr. Bod said. The answer to the government's woes, he said, is to curb state borrowing. Its budget deficit is equal to 5.5 percent of gross domestic product - well above the 3 percent cap mandated by Brussels.

The Czech Republic has also struggled to stem a tide of red ink. Its deficit peaked at 12.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2003, before falling to an estimated 5 percent this year. That volatility prompted the deputy governor of the Czech central bank, Ludek Niedermayer, to question whether the country will achieve its goal of reducing the deficit to below 3 percent by 2008.

Oliver Stönner-Venkatarama, an emerging market analyst at Commerzbank, said it was no surprise that the Czech Republic was facing budget problems. "They're under pressure because of the labor market," he said.

There are a few success stories. Estonia, with low inflation and almost no debt, has made "amazing" progress, according to Mr. Issing. It already pegs its currency to the euro, and could probably adopt the currency without disruption, analysts say.

But critics say that Europe's demand for fiscal discipline is ringing hollow at a time when 5 of the 12 euro countries - including the two largest, Germany and France - are in violation of the deficit rules.

Mr. Trichet said the situation led to an "obvious" question regarding the deteriorating fiscal situation of the would-be members. If Germany and France do not abide by the rules, why should other countries?

Still, the new countries have shown little sign of trying to use the Germans and the French as an alibi for their own fiscal problems. Analysts say these countries recognize that they have to meet the requirements to get into the club before they can question the club's rules.

The bigger issue, some experts said, is that the race to adopt the euro has become less urgent for most countries. They are struggling with thorny problems, like chronic unemployment, inflation and bankrupt pension systems, which a new currency will not solve.

"It wouldn't be in the interest of these countries to be in the euro zone right now," said Katinka Barysch, the chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London. "It's not their main priority."

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