Europe’s welfare rock has made it a hard, undemocratic place
Speak now to an intelligent European politician (having assured him or her that the conversation is off the record) and you will discover a deeply worried representative — and one who leaves you in a similar state. Whether they are in the European parliament or a national legislature, European politicians are now constrained to contemplate their powerlessness. And ours.
Ordinary members of parliaments often feel like that. But ministers, even of small states, who have been elected to represent, propose, plan and legislate, now feel it too, and more acutely. Especially in the countries that remain devoted to the idea that the state should protect its people from the hardships and, in some cases, the vicissitudes of life, people have been accustomed to expect much more in the way of protection. But politicians must now offer less. For many citizens, that provision, coupled with security, was the point of government. But now, as each week brings little respite, ministers, prime ministers and presidents feel powerless.
In part this is because one state, Germany, emasculates all others. It acts — nominally — with France, but the latter’s weakened economy and politically weaker president, Nicolas Sarkozy, makes the duopoly at the apex of the European Union one of the weak providing political cover for the strong more than a true meeting of equals. On Angela Merkel’s decisions, and those of the German parliament, hangs the fate of nations. She has not wished it so: Those who make the parallel between the Nazi savagery of 70 years ago and Germany’s present power indulge in a facile radicalism that owes nothing to observable reality. Yet however reluctantly, she disposes for a continent.
This reduces politicians in other states to colonial administrators, constrained to follow the policies determined by Berlin, endorsed by France, and proclaimed as inevitable by prevailing economic opinion. It means that when their unions demonstrate, their small businesses cry for help, their students grow hopeless about jobs and careers, and their vulnerable and aging citizens grow fearful for their supports and pensions, they can only say: It will pass, we will return to growth and the good times will roll once more. And yet they don’t know if it’s true.
They are paralyzed, caught between two sets of headlights bearing down upon them. Germany has decreed that all members of the euro zone sign on to a pact that will make the economic and financial levers of national governance dependent on a central EU power — a move on which the European citizens are not to be consulted and that comes at a time when there is a gathering revulsion against the Union.
To say it is undemocratic is to say the obvious. In the member states, parties of the far right and left, long hostile to the EU, denounce it at meetings and in statements. The strongest of the extremists of the right, Marie Le Pen’s Front National party, which poses a real threat to Sarkozy’s ability to remain on the ballot through to the second round of France’s presidential election in April, has soft-pedaled its racism but accelerated its anti-Europeanism. One of its militants, a translator named Guy Rondel, was quoted in the Financial Times this week as saying that “I think we should leave Europe. They decide everything and we have no say.” How much that remains a minority view depends on the success of the French president’s Merkel maneuver. Failure would play well for Ms. Le Pen.
If countries took Mr. Rondel’s advice, and left “Europe,” or at least the euro, then, indeed, democracy could be restored. Control of the currency would allow a devaluation, making domestically produced goods cheaper both at home and abroad. Fiscal decisions could again be taken by ministers. Industries could be protected.
But the relief would be temporary. Indeed, it might be illusory. The restoration of the drachma, the peseta or the lire would be followed by a ferocious attack on the new/old currency, driving it down — and leaving the government and the banks with debts even more vast because they are still denominated in euros. Unemployment, already high, would leap. Faith in conventional politics, already faltering, would collapse. Democracy would tremble, extremism gain.
The promise of the EU was to provide both protection and dynamism; the former from a welfare state, the latter from the removing of barriers to the international market. Protection, in many states, cannot be sustained at past levels. Dynamism, meanwhile, happened largely in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, while the southern states borrowed heavily over the past decade to finance their welfare states and disguise their decreasing competitiveness.
Governments, banks and corporations were all complicit in this. But so were citizens, forgetting all the tedious old warnings, dating back as far as Polonius in Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” (And wasn’t Polonius king of the bores?) They racked up easily extended debt, careless of a reckoning. Now the reckoning is here, and its stakes are higher than even the Poloniuses thought.
Faced with a rapidly devaluing mandate, the intelligent European politician can do little but hope that Germany, the great European phoenix of our time, knows what it’s doing and will do it with care, returning us to growth. But it will do so without our assent. Because we have taken ourselves into a cul de sac from which there is no democratic exit.
PHOTO: A combination of three pictures shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she reacts during a discussion of the BELA (Broader European Leadership Agenda) foundation at the Neues Museum art gallery in Berlin, February 7, 2012. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch