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It seems like a paradox. The weaker euro economies such as Spain and Greece have been terribly hit by the crisis, and experts blame the euro, at least in part, as European Monetary Union (EMU) members cannot use national monetary policy as a crisis-fighting tool. But at the same time, countries in central and eastern Europe (CEE) are pressing ahead with applications to join the common currency area.

The explanation for this apparent contradiction is in the timing. Spain and Greece would have been hit hard by the crisis even if they had been outside the euro area. What might have been easier is the recovery. A country such as Spain simply could have depreciated its currency. Exports would have become more competitive and the economy would have recovered relatively quickly. Instead, being inside the EMU will entail years of painful wage restraint, weak consumption and a slow recovery of exports.

But from the perspective of governments in countries such as Serbia, for example, the long-term costs of losing autonomy are less important than the immediate concern of getting out of the financial doldrums. Euro membership would almost immediately stanch the flow of money being bet on the depreciation of CEE currencies and the countries would benefit from lower interest rates, just as Spain, Italy and Greece have in the past. Governments could take the credit for this development, whereas the difficulties of medium-term adjustment to the EMU would be a problem for a future government.

Sebastian Dullien is a professor of economics at the University of Applied Sciences, Berlin

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously