The European Union’s unending quandary

By John Lloyd
May 21, 2013

The pace of European disintegration continues to quicken. Recession deepens in the 17-member euro zone; it is now the longest downturn since the currency was launched in 2000. In Italy, a new left-right government, launched on an anti-austerity program, finds the neighborhood more austere than it had hoped. In France, Maurice Levy, boss of the advertising giant Publicis, did a survey showing that northern Europeans – Poles, Germans, Brits – were moderately optimistic while southerners – Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and the French – were deeply pessimistic. France dipped into recession earlier this month, for the third time in four years. The union is pulling apart.

Nothing brings relief. In the Netherlands, a TV show persuaded the country’s deputy finance minister, Frans Weekers, to watch clips of Bulgarians boasting about how they had defrauded his country’s government of welfare benefits. Bulgarians and Romanians, the poorest members of the European Union, will be able to move to any state in the EU next year. What had been presented to the poor as a new freedom is now an imposition for the rich.

Those who have been most enthusiastic for the union now proclaim that it is in grave danger. In an interview earlier this month the financier and philanthropist George Soros said European leaders, in trying to find exit routes from the crisis, have “generated political dynamics that are leading toward the EU’s disintegration.”

“Euro-skepticism” – Euro-fury is more like it – has grown. A survey by the pro-EU European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows that:

“[S]ince the beginning of the euro crisis, trust in the European Union has fallen from +10 to -22 percent in France, from +20 to -29 percent in Germany, from +30 to -22 percent in Italy, from +42 to -52 percent in Spain, from +50 to +6 percent in Poland, and from -13 to -49 percent in the United Kingdom.”

The ECFR sees the crisis as rooted in a “clash of wills” between northern and southern states – with the richer north no longer willing to pay down the debts of others without tight controls, and the southern countries resenting the call for centralized control of budgets, taxes, pensions and the labor market. “Europeans now know,” writes Levy of Publicis, “that none of us can count on others to resolve our local problems. It may take years before we manage to recreate a real sense of union that can carry Europe into the future.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure from the many in his Conservative Party to remove the UK from the EU. But he has embarked on a strategy that argues for fundamental reforms, mainly in the direction of returning powers taken by the EU to the nation-states. Other leaders, most obviously German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now take at least part of his point.

Left and right now propose different reforms. A German-inspired “manifesto for rebuilding Europe from the bottom up” is supported by, mostly, professors of the left led by the political scientist Ulrich Beck. Its call for the unemployed, the young, pensioners and low-paid workers to realize their European-ness (rather than protest against it) is good-hearted. But it’s undercut by the demand, apparently without irony, that the elite institutions – the European Commission, European and national parliaments – “create a Europe of nationally involved citizens”: the top down enabling the bottom to come up.

On the right, also in Germany, professors of the right have formed an anti-Euro party, the Alternative for Germany, which has signed up some 12,000 members but has so far attracted only some 3 percent of voters. Broadly, the right wants less Europe, the left wants more “Europe.”

The problem, underneath the dreary economic figures and the alarming spikes in unemployment, is democracy, and the lack of it. Pro-Europeans in every country – especially in what had been the motor of the union, the Franco-German alliance – would, off the record, quite cheerfully admit this was an elite project, but one conceived and implemented for the common good. It was formed to make another great European war impossible – and it remains inconceivable. It stimulated very large amounts of common action, common regulations, common approaches to problems. Its finest hour was in giving the former communist states that broke free from Soviet hegemony in the late 1980s an example and a challenge.

But the elitism of the project has been exposed, and at a time of adversity it becomes a handy target. The absence of democratic accountability and engagement of ordinary folk meant the elites felt free to accelerate the development of a more and more integrated union, of which the euro has been the largest innovation. Now, for many states, it’s the largest burden.

The union will survive only by becoming minimalist. Europeans – who are first of all Germans, French, Italians, Poles, Brits and others – may distrust their politicians, but they know them. They know their faces, their backgrounds, their accents, their tricks, their virtues. They will not – cannot – transfer that loyalty to those they do not know. They will not allow them to make decisions on how to spend the taxes citizens pay. The creation of a more integrated Europe – which sooner or later will look like a state, act like a state and thus be a state – has to be a process of small steps. Or it won’t be much at all.

PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a conference on Europe at the German foreign ministry in Berlin May 16, 2013.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

8 comments

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How can one possibly expect Europe to have a strong economy when all the manufactured items in every store say Made in China?

The European masses must be put to work. Europe needs a protective tariff.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Well, we do have folks in EU Parliament that reflect and represent sentiment of electorate, illustrating autocratic (elitist, if you prefer) nature of ”European democracy” along the way.

As Mr. Swoboda told Mr. Rehn the other day: “you are responsible to this parliament, the troika is not, stop the troika – we don’t need it”.

I like your recognition Mr. Lloyd, of the elitist Europe, as much as I don’t like populist answers to it. It seems somewhat important to note though, that the idea, conceived by Plato ages ago has met some profound critique that can now be observed in reality.

I’ll quote ”wika-wakka”, to summarize issue:

”Karl Popper blamed Plato for the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, seeing Plato’s philosopher kings, with their dreams of ‘social engineering’ and ‘idealism’, as leading directly to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler (via Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx).”

I don’t care if folks in their ivory towers have a trouble with realizing what they’ve become, these elite entities are as good as their understandings or visions and they have no rights whatsoever to impose their will on the will of the people. Whether we like it or not, democracies work the other way around and it’s time to get things straight. Freedom is not tidy… and all that crap.

There’s far more damage in obvious, blatant to the point of mockery, collusion of these treacherous thinkers with the corporate interests than in their archaic and frugal visions that are determined by their experiences as individuals and nations.

Instead of safeguarding and expanding such models as Nordic, that can, for the fun of us all, appease both sides of (persistently boring and extremely annoying) ideological divide and withstand scrutiny whether you call it Nordic capitalism or Nordic social democracy, we’re having this eager bunch of poor social engineers, apparently unable to multiply or mark the damn tables.

Willingly or not, they’re hurting people and markets, markets and people… not heeding the will of the citizens and representatives. At times I do think it’s for the best if things fall apart, for it seems that’s the only way to get that monkey off our back.

Not that the US is any better, it’s but a poor excuse for democracy, hijacked by vicious 9/11 crimes.

Regards,

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

Well, we do have folks in EU Parliament that reflect and represent sentiment of electorate, illustrating autocratic (elitist, if you prefer) nature of European democracy along the way.

As Mr. Swoboda told Mr. Rehn the other day: “you are responsible to this parliament, the troika is not, stop the troika – we don’t need it”.

I like your recognition Mr. Lloyd, of the elitist Europe, as much as I don’t like populist answers to it. It seems somewhat important to note though, that the idea, conceived by Plato ages ago has met some profound critique that can now be observed in reality.

I’ll quote ”wika-wakka”, to summarize issue:

”Karl Popper blamed Plato for the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, seeing Plato’s philosopher kings, with their dreams of ‘social engineering’ and ‘idealism’, as leading directly to Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler (via Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx).”

I don’t care if folks in their ivory towers have a trouble with realizing what they’ve become, these elite entities are as good as their understandings or visions and they have no rights whatsoever to impose their will on the will of the people. Whether we like it or not, democracies work the other way around and it’s time to get things straight. Freedom is not tidy… and all that jive.

There’s far more damage in obvious, blatant to the point of mockery, collusion of these treacherous thinkers with the corporate interests than in their archaic and frugal visions that are determined by their experiences as individuals and nations.

Instead of safeguarding and expanding such models as Nordic, that can, for the fun of us all, appease both sides of (persistently boring and extremely annoying) ideological divide and withstand scrutiny whether you call it Nordic capitalism or Nordic social democracy, we’re having this eager bunch of poor social engineers, apparently unable to multiply or mark the damn tables.

Willingly or not, they’re hurting people and markets, markets and people… not heeding the will of the citizens and representatives. At times I do think it’s for the best if things fall apart, for it seems that’s the only way to get that monkey off our back.

Not that the US is any better, it’s but a poor excuse for democracy, hijacked by vicious 9/11 crimes.

Regards,

Posted by satori23 | Report as abusive

So the Common Market isn’t so “common”. The Euro is on life support. The economic “have nots” are head-butting the “haves”, who, surprise, surprise, own most of the “assets in play”.

As an economic soap opera, it’s quite entertaining. Sort of like watching a game of Monopoly played backwards.

But there is much genuine misery. Why are those responsible so invisible and impossible to bring to account? The sheer scope of stupidity and incompetence is impossible to comprehend in proper context.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Economic definitions:
• Recession (archaic) – two or more quarters of less than zero growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
• Recession (since computerized econometric models 40 years ago) – two or more quarters of less than break-even growth
• Break-Even Growth: Economic growth at the point of population growth
• Depression – two or more years of recession

It’s interesting how these economic “journalists” cannot use the D-Word – Depression.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The EU has most of the problems of the Articles of Confederation. But EU states unlike US States are unlikely to go for a united economic government and uniform laws on corruption and other economic maters and a single court system for interstate issues. In fact they have very little in the way of laws so the actors involved know the results before hand. The leaders only answerable to one state hold meetings without much laws a sort kangaroo court.

There is no strong offices filled by Europe wide election. So that means each leader is for his own nation only. Without Europe wide elections of the powerful one can only expect, a total lack of coordination of the parts.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The first step has to be creation of Europe wide elections of offices with power to coordinate and common economic laws and courts. The US had the Articles of Confederation which failed for all the reasons the EU will and was replaced by the Constitution. It happened in one step after the Confederation failed worst and worst over time.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

It seems to me that the UK and I’m sure other countries in the south of Europe would prefer a free trade arrangement along the lines of NAFTA but with the free movement of labour added. This way economic but not full social union is achieved. Parliaments in each individual country would then be more effective and responsible to their citizens.

Posted by Mexberry | Report as abusive