The political bankruptcy of Europe

Too many commentators focus on covering the current European financial problems. Although the deadlocked financial situation of the EU cannot be disregarded one should also pay attention to the political/ideological vacuum of the European Union.

The crisis of Europe is a crisis of values. In the last few years there has been no equivalent of the idealism that cemented the European project back in the 1950s. I am on the side of those who believe that ideas do matter and that the EU cannot simply be run by competent technocrats (no matter how efficient they may be). Technocrats may offer a brain to the EU project (although this is debatable!) but they cannot offer a soul. And it is the soul that is currently lacking in the European project.

A soul searching exercise is thus necessary, but who can carry it out? As former German Councillor Helmut Schmidt claims, Europe lacks leadership. He is more than right. Merkel behaves more like a small Town Mayor whose narrow-mindedness cannot escape the borders of her little constituency rather than a leader of a united Europe. In other member states things are not rosy either: in France, Sarkozy has been weakened by his internal policies and tries to gain political momentum by exercising the populist trick of Roma expulsions; in Italy, Berlusconi does not offer a leadership model (for many good reasons).

A crisis of ideology is also evident in the EU. The uncritical acceptance of a deregulated free-market vision within the EU circles has damaged the economy of the Eurozone and is no longer viable. The EU became a political space where a conservative free-market mentality has gradually taken over without any major thinking and debate. This kind of “acquis” has silently been imposed in every EU policy area by the large majorities of the EU establishment. The “Celtic tiger” economy was fervently promoted by this establishment as an example that all Southern European economies had to follow. Now that Ireland is bankrupt, who will take the blame?

The European Parliament, which was supposed to be the representation instrument of EU citizens, has become the hub of big industry lobbies. In addition, the ideological poverty of social democracy, along with the weakness of any other left-wing force to provide answers to the ongoing EU problems, has deprived the European public of a viable alternative political solution.

The weakness of promoting Europe as an alternative to the nation state has brought a re-nationalisation of mentalities. Populism reigns in every part of Europe paving the way for extreme right wing parties to flourish. There is a great public unease, from egalitarian Sweden all the way down to the metropolitan capital of Catalonia. This unease gives birth to alarming new political movements propagating a discourse of national purity.

The EU problems are also an outcome of the lack of competent mechanisms and strong policies. Although much was expected from the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, it seems that a strong form of European economic governance is still lacking. Many economists suggested that the Euro should have been the last thing to happen after the successful establishment of a real functioning common EU market. Nevertheless, it is now too late to say what should have been done better in the past. The adoption of the Euro was the first major move toward a common market and European leaders have the responsibility to protect it. Brave decisions need to be taken now. European leaders must surpass the frontiers of their member states in order to promote solutions that will fit a “European” rather than a narrowly defined national interest. It is unlikely that they will be brave enough to do it though.

If European leaders would like to regain some of their lost credibility they must start speaking the language of truth. Rather than explaining the real issues to their publics, politicians tend to demonise certain countries (the so-called PIIGs) in order to justify errors and cover-ups of the past. Loans that will give great returns to the lenders are presented as big favours to the smaller indebted EU countries. Very few EU officials will say that the Euro benefits the stronger EU economies more than anyone else. I will explain it myself: with the adoption of the Euro, devaluation among the Southern countries became impossible. As a result, German products got a comparative advantage over those of the financially weak EU countries who could not devalue their currencies in order to boost their exports. Although Germany is experiencing growth, allowing it to build surpluses, the weaker European economies may end up in a continuous circle of recession by implementing vicious social cuts. The face of dishonesty: EU demands austerity in labour and welfare issues but makes no demand for cuts to arms spending either in Greece or in Portugal which buy many of their weapons from the bigger EU countries.

The semantic poverty of the term “Europe” nowadays is indeed frightening. Under the current crisis, the term “Europe” may end up being an empty shell. Worse than that, as Leigh Phillips mentions in his series of EU Observer articles, the EU may become synonymous with brutal austerity in the minds of its citizens, which gradually may threaten its very own existence.

Pro-Europeanists agonise over the future of the European Union. What can inspire citizens and politicians to continue with the European project? Can there be a new beginning? And if so, how can this happen?