On December 28th, there was an article in the Opinion pages of The Daily Telegraph that must have filled the hearts of most British eurosceptics with hope. In it, Leo McKinstry argued that “the EU is in desperate trouble”, for its “edifice of federalism is crumbling, broken by its own ruinous contradictions and spectacular failures”: the single currency and the economic policies it implies have, McKinstry writes, created a “political fallout” in countries like Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain, where extremist parties have earned an ever greater support from the electorate; and the migrant crisis, he warns, is “threatening to tear apart the social fabric of Europe”, as “fiercely anti-immigration, anti-EU movements like the Front National in France, the Dutch Party for Free and the Swedish Democrats” also attract more and more voters.
Optimists and Europhiles might read these words and take them to be nothing more than gloomy wishful thinking to be expected from the reactionary Telegraph. But the same could hardly be said of The New York Times and its Sunday Magazine, which – in its December 20th issue – wondered whether the EU has “reached its breaking point”: Jim Yardley, the publication’s Rome bureau chief, noted how Europe is facing the simultaneous threats of terrorism in its cities, of an aggressive autocratic Russia in its periphery, of the migrant crisis in its borders, while a stagnant economy and a rising political extremism in countries like France and Belgium are rotting their democracies from within. And to complicate things further, Yardley argued, the EU is particularly ill-suited to deal with such issues: “European Union institutions have vast regulatory powers over everything from data roaming to environmental standards to trade deals to antitrust rules”, but “often lack the structural power, political decisiveness and bureaucratic efficiency to act collectively when faced with big, unforeseen problems like the Greek crisis, the surge of migrants or the standoff with Putin over Ukraine. National leaders are often forced to decide these issues in marathon emergency meetings in Brussels at the European Council, and even then, only incremental progress is made”, producing “a perfect recipe for public cynicism: a system of intrusive regulators whose tentacles can spread into your personal life, even as leaders appear indecisive in the face of genuine crises”.
And yet, in Brussels, no one either is aware of these problems or seems to care. On the last December 11th, The Guardian reported that the EU Commission was devising plans to “to strip national governments of authority over their borders in an emergency and to create a border guards force to police the EU’s frontiers, supervise asylum claims, and detain and deport failed asylum seekers”, in response to the refugee crisis. As Ian Traynor, the report’s author, explained, while “in theory, the new regime and the powers ceded to Brussels over its operation apply to all 26 countries in Europe’s free-travel Schengen area”, it would, “in practice”, only “apply to the external borders of the Schengen area, so would not greatly affect countries such as Germany that are surrounded by other Schengen nations”.
In other words, some countries – Italy, Greece, Spain – would be subjected to policy decisions taken by other countries – Germany, Poland, Austria – that would not bear the brunt of their consequences. Perhaps these plans won’t ever be put into effect, once the lawmaking process in Brussels stalls and indecision takes over. But the mere fact that people with responsibilities within the EU came up with such an idea is a sign that “euroenthusiasts” have failed to grasp what the events of the last decade or so should have made clear to them: that the EU has gone too far in the political “integration” of its member states.
Since its conception, the “European project” was meant to bind the countries that joined it in such a manner that going to war with one another would never again be in their interest. It began by pooling together the energy resources of France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium within the European Coal and Steel Community. And it grew, not only geographically (with the multiple enlargements taking in new members) but in scope, with consecutive advances in transferring powers and (in “Eurocrat” parlance) “competences” from national states to Brussels. After all, the “project” was always meant to achieve an “ever closer union”.
“Europe’s” founders, however, understood how that process should only be carried out by way of “small steps”, to ensure that none of those ever jeopardized the fundamental interests of the club’s membership. But from the 1980’s onwards, with the European Single Act and the road towards the 1992 Maastricht Treaty – and later culminating in the Lisbon-Treaty-Formerly-Known-as-The-European-Constitution, that prudent outlook was discarded.
And so it was that, for the last 30 years, the “steps” taken by “Europe” have been too great, both in quantity and in length. The increasing number of policies subject to qualified majority voting and of powers transferred from national parliaments to the “Community’s”’ sphere meant that in a growing number of issues the various countries of the EU have lost the power to defend what their electorates believe – rightly or wrongly – to be their own national interest. The result, aside from weakening the health of each nation’s democracies, was to change “Europe” into a conflict-generating machine between the various European countries, instead of the peace-building institution it was meant to be.
Back in 2003, just as the “Union” became far from united on whether to side with the Americans on their intervention in Iraq or not, Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the other proponents of the “Constitution” kept pushing for a Common Foreign Policy and a Common European Army. At the time, the Portuguese columnist José Pacheco Pereira wrote an op-ed piece warning that if such plans were brought into effect and a situation like the dispute over the Iraq war would arise, what in 2003 was a simple difference of opinion between sovereign countries with diverging interests, would by that point turn into an institutional conflict within the EU, leading to its disintegration and possibly worse.
Looking back, it’s easier to see that Pereira didn’t need to imagine such a scenario. There already was – and still is – one not-merely-hypothetical-but-very-much-real factor bringing discord into the “Union” and threatening to pull it apart: the Euro.
What happened with the EU’s single currency was exemplary (albeit in the worst sense the word can have) of the problem. It was born, as most things in “Europe” are, out of a bargain between France and Germany, in which the former supported the latter’s unification, and Germany gave up its old currency and at least some control over its traditionally tight monetary policy. It allowed for a gigantic leap, symbolically and practically, towards a true “European Union”, a political entity with powers previously intrinsically linked with national sovereignty. What it created, however, was far from the harmonious and free-from-nationalist-and-self-interested-feelings space from Monchique to Cape Greco and Limassol to Nuorgam in which everyone would join in singing the “Ode to Joy” in multiple languages but in tune and in unison.
By joining within the same monetary area economic realities so distinct as to make them have incompatible economic policy needs, the Euro meant, on the one hand, a currency undervaluation in Germany with the corresponding loss in value of its citizens’ income, and on the other hand, a currency overvaluation on countries with less competitive and attractive economies (like Greece or my native Portugal), posing significant obstacles to those who, unfortunate enough to live in them, wished to export goods or services that could otherwise have benefited from a weaker currency that would make them more appealing to holders of stronger currencies.
At the same time, and to make matters worse, the euro created a bubble in those countries’ sovereign debt bonds: comfortably seated under the same monetary umbrella that sheltered Germany; theoretically obliged to meet certain budgetary criteria aiming to protect the euro’s stability; and with the implied promise that, should things unravel, the simple fact that they shared a currency would make countries like Germany pay for the solvency of countries like Portugal, Greece or Italy; these countries were able to borrow money for German-level interest rates, while following Greek-style budgetary policies. Once the subprime crisis in American crossed the Atlantic, it didn’t take long for the monetary umbrella to become powerless to shelter them from the fears of their creditors.
Once Greece or Portugal were on the brink of bankruptcy and had to be bailed out, the need to do so without jeopardizing the euro’s credibility as a stable currency created the terrible combination that has brought us to our current predicament: paying for the “bailout packages” by the richest countries angered their voters due to their perception that they are paying for the “sloth” and “profligacy” of the other countries; in Greece or Portugal, the “harsh” measures and the loss of budgetary autonomy inherent to those packages and the EU’s Budget Treaty made their electorates despise the “lack of solidarity” of the “austeritarian” rich; and the solutions that might help overcome the worst economic and financial consequences of this arrangement – a deeper economic and political integration, with Eurobonds, euro-wide welfare benefits, and new and wider “competences” over national budgets given to the (undemocratic) EU institutions – would end up worsening not just the problem of the lack of democratic control of political decision-making, but also – especially – that increasingly serious “war of electorates” created by the way the euro and the EU were designed.
One thing “euroenthusiasts” are not able to say is that they hadn’t been warned. For exemple, in 1997, the Nobel laureate in Economics Milton Friedman famously wrote an article in which he argued that the Euro would be a huge mistake: The EU, Friedman argued, lacked the prerequisite attributes that would allow for a sensible adoption of a common currency between its member states:
“Europe’s common market is composed of separate nations, whose residents speak different languages, have different customs, and have far greater loyalty and attachment to their own country than to the common market or to the idea of “Europe.” Despite being a free trade area, goods move less freely than in the United States, and so does capital. The European Commission based in Brussels, indeed, spends a small fraction of the total spent by governments in the member countries. They, not the European Union’s bureaucracies, are the important political entities. Moreover, regulation of industrial and employment practices is more extensive than in the United States, and differs far more from country to country than from American state to American state. As a result, wages and prices in Europe are more rigid, and labor less mobile. In those circumstances, flexible exchange rates provide an extremely useful adjustment mechanism.”
Adopting the Euro, then, Friedman warned, “would have the opposite effect” of what its advocates intended:
“It would exacerbate political tensions by converting divergent shocks that could have been readily accommodated by exchange rate changes into divisive political issues. Political unity can pave the way for monetary unity. Monetary unity imposed under unfavorable conditions will prove a barrier to the achievement of political unity.”
And Friedman was far from a lonely voice. Today, as the EU and its various member states face the refugee crisis and its political consequences, it would be wise of them to mind the lesson of the euro cautionary tale: sometimes, Eurosceptics do it better; sometimes, a healthy dose of Euroscepticism is exactly what “Europe” needs if it wants to be healthy. The EU was a stabilizing element in the European continent for decades because it served the interests of those who’d joined it. By taking too many steps too far towards “an ever closer union”, those countries lost their ability to protect those interests. And by making itself unable to serve its members’ interests, the EU is making it ever more likely that one day, those countries will no longer be interested in being a part of it.
Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes about politics, film and TV for O Insurgente, is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico and a weekly commentator for its cable TV channel ETV, and has written for the American online film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room and for the British website CapX. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also find him on Twitter @ba_lifeofbruno.