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A woman walks by an Athens pawn shop. Greece requires another bailout but has managed to stave off an EU exit. John Kolesidis / Reuters
A woman walks by an Athens pawn shop. Greece requires another bailout but has managed to stave off an EU exit. John Kolesidis / Reuters

Well the yuan hasn't overtaken the euro but no all-clear yet

You don't hear the ugly word "Grexit" much any more. A couple of years back, at the height of the crisis in the euro zone, it was on everybody's lips.

You don't hear the ugly word "Grexit" much any more. A couple of years back, at the height of the crisis in the euro zone, it was on everybody's lips.

It was regarded as almost inevitable that Greece would be forced to exit the euro zone, even the European Union, because of its financial troubles.

Back then, many economists believed the euro zone was doomed; the currency was facing huge pressure on the international markets; the individual economies of member states were entering a period of recession, with even the strongest - Germany - looking weak.

The zone would break up into a German-led core and a peripheral zone, which might include Spain, Italy and even France, it was predicted.

Well, none of that has happened. Not only has Greece managed to stay inside the currency zone, but no other countries have looked remotely like exiting. The busting of Cyprus was the closest the EU got to expelling a member state, but even there, the crippled economy stayed in the zone.

In fact, the currency union has enlarged itself, with the entry of Estonia, and others are lining up to join.

In addition, there have been signs recently of a pickup in economic activity in the zone economies. In the second quarter, GDP growth was running at an annualised 1.2 per cent, and many indicators suggest that trend has continued into the third quarter.

The euro, meanwhile, has continued to strengthen, defying the predictions of those who said it would wither away to nothing, to be replaced as the world's second reserve currency by the Chinese yuan.

The euro, it seems, is here to stay after all. So, does all this amount to a clear sign that the euro-zone crisis is over? The answer depends on another question: which euro-zone crisis?

Since the global financial crisis of 2009, Europe has faced not one, but two crises. One was the fallout from the global downturn in asset values after the credit crunch, which hit European economies hard, along with most others in the world.

The other was exacerbated by the global crisis, but is very much of Europe's own making. As individual economies in the zone ground to a halt, or went into reverse, their financial foundations were laid bare, and shown to be built upon a mountain of debt and artificial credit, especially outside the northern "core" economies.

Ever since its introduction in 2002, the currency had acted as a straightjacket on the finances of the peripheral countries, keeping interest rates there low while simultaneously encouraging the flow of "hot money" from the north.

The bursting of the bubble in 2009 showed what a sham the whole enterprise had been. Successive fiscal crises in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy required huge bailouts from the European financial authorities and the IMF.

This self-made crisis is still unresolved.

The financial systems of all those countries are still under threat.

Greece needs another bailout, a mere 10 billion (Dh49bn) this time, on top of the 240bn it has already swallowed up. The other peripherals are all suffering under big debt burdens.

The key question is whether the gentle economic recovery under way across the zone will be strong enough to outweigh the German-inspired austerity policies imposed to tackle the European financial problems.

In other words, will the apparent end of crisis I also signal the end of the self-inflicted crisis II? There is no guarantee of this.

Although the recovery in GDP growth is encouraging, it is uneven across the euro zone. Germany, with up to 2.8 per cent growth annualised for 2013, looks sound, as do the other core economies (to varying degrees) like France and the Benelux states.

But the picture in Ireland, with property prices still at rock bottom, or in Spain, with 27 per cent unemployment, is much more grim. Even in bigger economies like France and Italy, recovery is fragile.

The currency and the zone will survive, that much now seems certain, but only at the cost of the economic well-being of many of its members.

fkane@thenational.ae

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