1. EU: wrapped in the flag of democracy
BSSB.BE gisreportsonline.com 02.08.2018
Balkans Ex-USSR Germany Poland
* Opinion: The European Union and the true meaning of liberalism
The European Economic Community came into being some 60 years ago with the signing of the Treaty of Rome. The objective was to secure Europe’s peaceful integration through the creation of an internal market. The process of expanding the common market and eliminating barriers was extremely successful, at first for the six founding members: France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. The French-German friendship, cultivated after centuries of wars, and the renaissance of the European spirit after nearly 200 years of nationalism, were the first great fruits of that process. Gradually, more European countries joined the six pioneers.
Nearly four decades later, the community reached another milestone with the Maastricht Treaty, which came into force in 1993, establishing the European Union (EU). The decision to launch a common currency was made despite the failure of some member states to meet the criteria to qualify. The euro, however, was created not only to facilitate intra-European trade and give Europeans the backing of a strong currency in the global competition. There was a political agenda as well. The new currency was supposed to help induce EU members into a political union.
In theory, the European Central Bank (ECB) was designed to be independent of politics. Such setups work for sound currencies. But as the euro was born with a political agenda, the ECB’s independence proved to have limits.
- To ensure the stability of the common currency, on Germany’s insistence a set of economic parameters – the so-called Maastricht criteria – was established for the participating countries.
- The euro area member states had to keep inflation in check, their budget deficits were supposed to be limited to no more than 3 percent of the gross domestic product, and their overall debt capped at 60 percent of the GDP.
- In reality, even Germany and France soon violated the Maastricht criteria. And now the ECB exceeds its monetary policy mandate, required by its mission to protect the currency’s value, to involve itself directly in the EU’s fiscal and economic policies.
France and Germany wrapped themselves in the flag of liberal democracy and started a ‘value-driven’ crusade
Through the negligence of the Union but also at the national government level, many member countries have engaged in excessive spending. The Maastricht criteria have been reduced to nice-sounding phrases on paper. As a result, we now have a strong tension between countries with lax fiscal habits, mainly in the south, and more fiscally responsible countries in Northern and Central Europe – especially Germany.
Let’s call this situation the North-South tension. There is another disruptive phenomenon in the EU, which we may call the East-West strain. This is the perceived conflict between a socialist-leaning mind-set, typical to Western Europe, and conservative political tendencies, often found in Central Europe.
- By conservativism, we understand a political orientation that respects proven traditional values and promotes progress based on these values.
- This does not mean embracing nationalism, but it surely extends to patriotism.
- To quote the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), conservatism is not about “preserving the ashes but passing on the flame.”
In the context of this East-West tension, France and Germany wrapped themselves in the flag of liberal democracy and started a “value-driven” crusade for closer political integration of the EU. It is unclear what the word “liberal” is supposed to mean here, but the crusade seems to produce rather socialist measures.
What we keep getting are higher taxes, ever more regulation, fewer property rights and omnipresent government. Opposing that, some Central European countries are either declaring themselves or being labeled as “illiberal” democracies.
As Alexander Vondra observed in his recent GIS report, it looks like those East-West tensions are now being played up only to hide the real problem – that the EU is dangerously divided between the fiscally austere north and the less responsible south.
For the sake of simplicity, let us set aside the issue of Brexit.
There is no doubt that the internal market provided by the EU is beneficial to all member states.
- Why, then, all these tensions? One often hears the complaint that the euro area has a single currency but not a single economic policy. But that is not necessarily the problem.
- The real source of pain is that economies are being squeezed into bureaucratic schemes, “harmonized” and forced into the straightjacket of one currency. This “one-size-fits-all” approach ignores the needs and particularities of the member states. In the case of the Greek debt crisis, for instance, the easiest and least painful solution – for everybody – would have been to let Greece default in 2010 and drop the euro, perhaps temporarily.
- This was not allowed, however, to the detriment of both the Greek population and the cohesion of the Union.
The EU sees itself as equaling Europe, which is simply not the case. This observation is not meant to deny the Union’s great merits. Overestimating its importance, however, skews the perspective and often leads to policy mistakes.
The last few weeks have brought warnings that Italy’s proposed new government might be a danger to Europe and the EU. This confuses an underlying problem, which could pose a serious danger, with something that would merely trigger a crisis. The problem is out-of-control government deficits and debt, not Italy’s cabinet lineup. It seems the EU is far more preoccupied with situations that may upset the status quo than with issues posing an existential threat to the union. Sometimes, as in a Greek tragedy, everything done to avert a disaster only brings it nearer.
North-South tensions cannot be fixed by establishing a common ministry of finance and transfer payments
After the Brexit vote, the remaining members of the EU displayed two telling reactions. Some were rightly alarmed that something was wrong with the union’s direction.
Others, however, responded with knee-jerk calls for an “ever closer union.” This strategy, together with some misguided British internal politics, was the main reason the Brexit crisis occurred in the first place. Europeans increasingly felt that Brussels ignored the principle of subsidiarity.
Functions were unnecessarily centralized or “harmonized.” Besides its famous “four freedoms,” the EU does need, of course, common policies in certain areas such as infrastructure, energy, security, etc. But things have gone too far: the concentration of power in Brussels caused a backlash.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: gisreportsonline.com