German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with European Parliament President Martin Schultz during an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday. © Geert Vanden Wijngaert, AP Photo

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with European Parliament President Martin Schultz during an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Today, March 14, Germany left the eurozone.

Oh, nothing official. And I'm not holding my breath waiting for any objective confirmation, such as the reintroduction of the Deutschmark. But the new German budget marks the beginning of the effective end of the eurozone and the euro.

What exactly happened that's so momentous? How can a single national budget make such a difference?

Because any European recovery is riding on Germany.

A balanced budget, but . . .

The German budget for 2014, announced by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Wednesday, the eve of a European summit, includes an additional 5 billion euros ($6.4 billion U.S.) in spending cuts. Total net new borrowing for 2014 will drop to 6.4 billion euro ($8.3 billion U.S.), a 40-year low.

And it puts the German budget on a path to balance in 2015. That's a year earlier than required by the German constitution.

If fiscal prudence is your goal, then this budget deserves the praise heaped upon it by Minister of the Economy Philipp Rösler, who said: "With all modesty, this is a result of historic proportions. The lesson from the sovereign debt crisis is that solid finances are essential. Thanks to this approach, Germany is in the vanguard in Europe. Our success with a policy of growth-oriented consolidation is the envy of the world."

The problem -- aside from the smugness of those comments -- is that fiscal prudence isn't the most pressing goal in Europe's other biggest economies.

Jim Jubak

Jim Jubak

Beyond Greece

Everyone knows the Greek economy is a disaster -- and that was pressed home in the latest unemployment numbers. Unemployment hit 26% in the fourth quarter, up from 24.8% in the third quarter. For workers between 15 and 24 years old, the unemployment rate is 57.8%. The percentage of the unemployed who have been looking for a job for more than a year hit 65.3%.

But the real problem isn't Greece. The real problem is that the rest of Europe -- except for Germany -- is, like Greece, facing growing unemployment with no medium-term relief in sight. Employment in the eurozone as a whole fell by 0.3% in the fourth quarter from the third quarter. Among the zone's major economies, only Germany showed an increase in jobs. The decline in fourth-quarter employment is particularly ominous because the Christmas shopping season normally generates jobs.

And the prospects for improvement? Grim. Ernst & Young, for example, projects that unemployment will continue to climb this year, and the recovery through 2014 is likely to be anemic. By the end of 2017, Ernst & Young estimates, the unemployment rate in Europe will remain stuck above 11%.

No helping hands

The European summit now under way is supposed to propose measures to promote growth in European economies. But it's not clear where that growth could possibly come from.

Germany's neighbors have pleaded with the country to stimulate its own economy, because more spending by German consumers might produce added demand for goods from Spain, Italy and France. The new German budget seems to have taken that off the table.

The European Central Bank also seems disinclined to intervene. The International Monetary Fund has called on the ECB to stimulate growth in Europe by cutting its benchmark interest rate, but the bank continues to insist that current monetary policies, combined with austerity budgets from European governments, will be enough to lead to higher growth in the second half of 2013. At the moment, the bank is committed to waiting for structural economic reforms to work. Take this growth alternative off the table.

Other eurozone members, most especially France, have called for relaxing the eurozone's 3% budget-deficit-to-GDP-ratio rules to allow governments to run higher cyclical deficits in tough economic times. The French are clearly pleading in self-interest -- it looks as if France will run a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3.7% or more this year rather than hitting the 3% target. Germany, however, has continued to insist that countries follow the budget rules -- and has been especially emphatic about the need for big economies, such as France, to set a fiscal example for smaller eurozone economies. So remove this last alternative.

And yet, somehow, the leaders gathered at this summit are supposed to produce a growth plan for the eurozone. The eventual post-meeting statements for these meetings are always drafted in advance, then modified by discussion. The draft for this meeting, according to the Financial Times, called for "short-term targeted measures to boost growth and jobs."

Even before the meeting, that language was taking fire from Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. The announcement of the 2014 German budget -- an announcement moved up a week so the budget would be released before the summit -- seems intended to put pressure on the summit to hold the line on fiscal discipline. Germany and austerity advocates such as European Commission Minister Olli Rehn have heaped scorn on French calls for relaxing the budget rules.

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