Tag Archives: Brussels

No countries for old ideas

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

Brussels – There’s a homeless man who sits with his back against the wall of Gare du Nord railway station in Brussels and begs for money. He chooses a spot near the station’s side exit, where few people pass. It also rains a lot in the Belgian capital, so he doesn’t look like a happy man. But by the end of Friday, when European Union leaders will have finished negotiating on new, stricter budget rules for member states just a couple of kilometers from where the beggar sits, they could make him look like the happiest guy in town.

Such has been the intensity of disagreement over how to take economic governance up a notch in the 27-nation bloc that there will be a lot of fraught faces in Brussels this week. Of course, if a deal is reached, the smiles will break out – until people start questioning the implications of what has been agreed.

The negotiations leading up to the summit, which began on Thursday, have been overshadowed by events on October 17: Just as a task force of EU finance ministers led by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and assisted by the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, was putting the finishing touches to proposals designed to stop member states like Greece from overspending, Germany and France decided they would save everyone the trouble and decide on the final scheme on their behalf.

The task force had come up with a system of issuing sanctions against countries that violate the 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) limit on their public deficits and the 60 percent of GDP limit on debt, as set out in the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Countries that fail to conform would face the prospect of being fined. Both the ECB and the European Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn had wanted this process to be semi-automatic, in other words not to be open to political interpretation or manipulation.

Before the mechanism – which for now will only apply to countries that use the euro – was even properly conceived, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced they had agreed on a different method. In a two-way compromise, Merkel agreed that a qualified majority of eurozone governments would be required to start disciplinary action (including political sanctions such as withdrawal of a state’s voting rights) and that a permanent emergency fund should be created for members that can’t balance their books, while Sarkozy conceded that any changes to budget rules should be included in an amended EU treaty.

The Franco-German power play prompted dismay – Trichet insisted a footnote be added to the final version of the proposals stating that he did not agree with all of them – and horror – Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn accused the French and Germans of dragging the EU back into the 19th century with the idea of removing members’ voting rights: “You are threatening states, threatening peoples, humiliating them.”

Rehn, meanwhile, insisted in Brussels on Tuesday that he would push up to the last minute for the sanctions process to be free of political intervention and disagreed openly with the prospect of denying offending members the right to vote, which he said is “not in line with the idea of an ever-closer Union.”

The Finn was speaking at the launch of a new system for monitoring the performance of eurozone economies. Dubbed the Euro Monitor 2010, the report compiled by the Lisbon Council think-tank and the Allianz financial services provider uses a range of 15 indicators in four key categories – fiscal sustainability; competitiveness and domestic demand; jobs, productivity and resource efficiency; and private and foreign debt – to evaluate performance rather than just fiscal measurements. The idea is that the Euro Monitor would provide a better early warning system of failing economies and would be a more comprehensive way of monitoring and encouraging balanced growth in the member states.

Given that he’s had more numbers thrown at him this year than a bingo hall announcer, perhaps Rehn, who expressed his support for such an analytical tool, could be excused for missing the irony of the occasion. He may well favor a more rounded approach to assessing economic progress but the measures due to be approved this week use purely fiscal indicators as their totem poles. Even though the EU is more acutely aware of its failings thanks to Greece’s spectacular implosion, the Union is about to commit to a form of “reinforced economic governance” that is predicated on the same terms that have underpinned eurozone economies for the last decade and which failed to prevent the current mess in which many member states find themselves. It uses the same debt and deficit limits that were consistently violated, not only by rulebreaker Greece but by rulemakers France and Germany as well.

Also, the proposed mechanism pounces on failure rather than encouraging success. It threatens to punish member states that fail to comply with somewhat arbitrary fiscal limits but does not suggest how they can drive their economies to stay clear of trouble. It proposes sanctions when there is no evidence that financial penalties bring states into line. Greece, for example, was the first EU country to ever be fined for an offense – for the operation of an illegal trash dump on Crete – in July 2000. It spent the following 10 years amassing fines for breaching EU environmental legislation. At the end of the decade, Greece still had one of the worst environmental records in the Union. It had neither reformed nor conformed as a result of the fines.

There is a deeper problem, though, with the proposals. They show the EU to be running short of ideas at a most crucial juncture: When countries across Europe, from Greece to Britain and Ireland to Portugal, are taking the austerity hatchet to their troubled economies, there seems to be no attempt to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced economic model to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Europe appears to have accepted the cost-cutting, tax-hiking philosophy of the International Monetary Fund without question.

This undermines the Union much more than any disagreements or backroom politics. The EU was once about breaking through the waves; its budget proposals are only about staying afloat. The measures reek of bleakness and there is nothing there to inspire the Union’s 500 million inhabitants. As John Rentoul, a commentator for the British daily The Independent, wrote in the wake of his government’s drastic spending cuts: “This isn’t about economics – as ever, that can be argued either way – it is about a strategy for the country.” Or in this case, the Union, and there doesn’t seem to be one.

Whatever is finally agreed this week, EU leaders will not be able to escape the fact that they are talking one language — that of debt, deficit, austerity, limits and sanctions – when many of their people would like to hear them speak another – that of jobs, security, prospects, fairness and quality of life. Even the homeless man in the street would be able to tell them that avoiding financial bankruptcy does not prevent you from being morally bankrupt, balancing your budget does not mean you have an equal society and reducing your deficit does not preclude you from being short of ideas.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 29, 2010.

The ditch Blair project

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Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Tony Blair must be getting used to rejection by now. He left office in 2007 unloved and unwanted after 10 years as British prime minister. His attempt to win back some respectability as an international statesman by becoming a Middle East envoy has been a damp squib. And now his voyage to become the Europe’s first president appears to have foundered on the EU’s perennial rock of uncertainty.

In hushed tones and behind closed doors, European leaders last week seemed to reject the idea of Blair being appointed president of the European Council, a position created by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states.

Blair has some characteristics that would make him a suitable candidate for the role (charisma, valuable political experience, good communication skills, the ability to lead and diplomatic presence) but for many these are outweighed by the baggage he would bring with him (the Iraq War, his close ties to George W. Bush, his unpopularity in his own country, a pending investigation into whether he lied to his people and parliament and a fraught relationship with the EU in the past).

The fallout from the Iraq War is the biggest elephant in the room blocking Blair’s path to the presidency. The decision to hitch his wagon to George W. Bush’s lone star is something Europeans cannot overlook easily. But given the chance, Blair would probably explain that as the British prime minister, he had to make a decision – a very wrong one as it turned out – about whether to take part in a war. Had he been the prime minister of Belgium or Luxembourg, for example, perhaps his toughest foreign policy choice would have been what color bunting to get out when dignitaries visit from abroad.

Blair might even argue that having been through such a maelstrom and suffered the political consequences of his choices, he has the ideal experience to now be a unifying rather than a divisive figure. But even this does not dispel the dark cloud of mendacity that hangs over him. The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the Iraq War will hopefully establish beyond doubt what Blair knew and what he told MPs and the public before committing troops to that conflict. The fact he’s due to face such an investigation appears to undermine his bid to become EU president. To risk having the first person in such a high-profile role publicly exposed as a liar would damage the Union. Of course, there would be more than a hint of hypocrisy in the air if he is rejected on this basis alone: Few of the 27 leaders who decide who fills the role are paragons of virtue themselves – any group that has Silvio Berlusconi as one of its most prominent decision-makers can hardly claim the moral high ground.

Perhaps that’s why some of them decided to suddenly create new criteria for any presidential candidate: his country would have to be a member of the eurozone and part of the Schengen Agreement – Britain is neither. If the EU’s aim is to appoint the best person for the job, then this shifting of the goalposts is preposterous. Theoretically, the EU president should be someone that’s transnational, not national, federal, not feudal. If he or she subscribes to the European project, then their homeland’s policy should be irrelevant.

10_okOf course, Blair’s critics would argue that he’s always been at loggerheads with the Union, typified by his stance in 2003 in the buildup to the Iraq War, which was widely interpreted as an effort to split the bloc. However, Blair has engaged with the EU in more constructive ways as well. One of his first acts after being voted into power in 1997 was to abolish Britain’s opt-out of the Maastricht Treaty’s Social Protocol. He was also one of the proponents in 1998 of giving the EU a role in defense policy and was a champion of the bloc’s enlargement. He was the first British prime minister to put the UK’s budget rebate up for discussion in 2005, when he urged member states to reform the Common Agricultural Policy and cut the extensive waste and laziness that it leads to, as we are well aware of in Greece.

In June of that year, Blair stood before the members of the European Parliament and set out a vision for a less bureaucratic, more liberal and modern Europe. “The people of Europe are speaking to us,” he said of citizens’ waning interest in the EU. “They are posing the questions. They want our leadership. It is time we gave it to them.” More than four years on, that leadership is still absent and, as the turnout in June’s European Parliament elections indicated, interest in the EU is flimsy. These are issues that, theoretically, a European president could address.

The role has been created so that someone can preside over the European Council – the regular summits between the 27 heads of government – and coordinate its work. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the president should also “ensure the external representation of the Union on issues concerning its common foreign and security policy.”

Yet, what we have seen over the last couple of weeks is a climb down from this position. The message from Brussels last week was that it would be preferable for the president to come from one of the smaller member states, that he or she should be able to strengthen Europe from within, not necessarily give it a presence on the world stage, and be willing to play second fiddle to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the 27 leaders.

“There is an argument that a political star as a president of the EU would lead to trouble with the president of the Commission and other leaders,” Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg MEP who has launched a petition to stop Blair from being considered for the job, told Athens Plus.

It would be one of the EU’s more quixotic moments should it create an opening for a figurehead who could use diplomatic and communication skills to promote the Union to an increasingly apathetic public and give it a greater presence on the global stage only to then shackle him or her for fear of upsetting internal balances.

As the Dutch daily De Volkskrant put it in a recent headline: “Europe chooses: chief or messenger boy.” Given some of the names that have been mentioned as alternatives to Blair – Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Tapio Lipponen, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga – it seems the EU has decided there are too many indians to have a chief.

Presumably some of these politicians, if not all, are who The Economist had in mind when it referred to “the usual Europygmies.” Maybe, it’s a harsh assessment of men and women who are capable politicians in their domains, although hardly singular figures, but it underlines the challenge the EU now faces in trying to select someone to fulfill a role whose purpose remains unclear and undefined.

At least something is much clearer now: rejecting Blair was the easy part, too easy perhaps.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on November 6, 2009.