The euro is the basis of our economic success and symbol for the political unification of our continent. It stands for the will of Europe to consolidate its internal development and to jointly meet the challenges of our time.’
With these firm words (and a defiant split infinitive in the English version) President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany wrote to Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council in August. Their aim was to demonstrate (yet again) to the world’s financial markets their personal and political resolve to defend the eurozone against speculative attacks.
Why so serious? Isn’t the European Union the quintessential post-modern political success story of all time? Nearly 30 previously warring countries have eschewed vulgar political and economic rivalry to create a hitherto unknown form of international polity based on lasting peace, unity, freedom, security and solidarity. What could go wrong?
A former diplomatic colleague of mine, a senior British expert in (and fan of) EU processes, once bewailed my incessant questioning of the basis for European integration: ‘The problem with you is that you always argue from first principles!’
True. But what other principles are out there? If you point out that an imposing edifice has been built on weak foundations, why is that a problem and not a vital public service?
People in polite society don’t often talk about three of the First Principles which support the EU: Carefully Calibrated Paternalism; Highly Qualified Trust; and Asymmetric Solidarity. The current EU debt/financial crisis is dangerous precisely because these core principles are being hauled out into the relentless light of reality – and found wanting.
Carefully Calibrated Paternalism
All Europeans are equal. But some are a lot more equal than others. This is reflected in the way voting works at EU level. Under the current Nice Treaty voting arrangements (in force until new Lisbon Treaty voting weights arrive in 2014), Germany has a population of 83 million people and gets 29 votes (ie one vote per 2.9 million voters). Luxembourg has a population of well under 500,000 people and gets four votes (ie one vote per every 110,000 people). Luxembourg’s citizens have hugely disproportionate influence compared to Germany.
Indeed, you must add together the populations of Malta, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, Finland, Slovakia, Denmark, Bulgaria, Austria, Sweden, Hungary, Czech Republic and Belgium to amass a population total exceeding Germany’s. These countries combined get 124 votes, compared to the puny 29 that Germany, UK, France and Italy each enjoy.
What this means is that the EU Bigs – and especially Germany – have gone far out of their way to make themselves non-threatening to the EU Smalls. They do this by denying themselves the full voting weight their population numbers would receive if voting were decided according to a straight headcount of each member state’s citizens. Without this far-reaching modesty by the Bigs, they could combine forces to win any vote. The Smalls would always lose. Which, if you’re a Small, isn’t fair.
However, the fact that the Bigs give such generous voting weight to Smalls (and Not-So-Smalls) is patronising or at least paternalistic. It tells the Smalls that they are, well, small – and living off the political munificence of the Bigs. As Prince Hal ruefully puts it in Henry IV, Part One when mixing with Falstaff and the other vagabonds, ‘I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyok’d humour of your idleness.’
Highly Qualified Trust
Should Europeans trust each other? Of course. Do they? Not so much. One strikingly positive example of European Trust lies in that very fact of voting at the EU level. Each EU member state, Big and Small alike, has surrendered goodly dollops of sovereignty to Brussels, to the point of accepting that it might get outvoted on all sorts of issues with direct implications for its own citizens. This concession is made by all in return for ‘getting things done’ by the Union as a whole, where the things which get done are, by definition, in the wider EU family interest.
Thus each state assumes a minimal level of reasonableness and good faith on the part of any voting majority, a remarkable and (as events now suggest) unwise innovation in international diplomatic practice. But this is not the whole story.
Any small community, much like a family, works through informal give-and-take understandings rather than rules: the ambient level of familiarity and trust is high. The larger the community, the greater the need for formal rules, and then even more rules: familiarity and mutual trust are that much lower.
This explains why despite all the lofty rhetoric about European unity and shared values, the Union rests on incredibly complicated and impenetrable treaties, given life by incredibly complicated and impenetrable ‘directives’. Cultural-political values and practices inevitably differ hugely across so many different countries. It is difficult to make the space work without spelling out each and every detail to avoid ambiguity and disagreement (and corruption).
This is why the Germans were beyond infuriated to discover that Athens had not been, ahem, quite as honest as it might have been in reporting Greece’s national economic statistics. The rules had been accepted – but not obeyed.
No Europeans talk more about ‘solidarity’ than the Poles. Not surprisingly – the red Solidarnosc (Solidarity) logo designed by Jerzy Janiszewski helped mobilise the Polish nation against communism and became one of history’s finest political icons. Having joined the Union in 2004 the Poles now vigorously wave the ‘European solidarity’ banner. This mainly means that other EU member states should go along with whatever Poland wants, especially where the Union’s money is concerned.
A wider collectivist idea of solidarity underpins ‘social Europe’: we are all in the same European boat together, so ipso facto we must share similar beliefs and values, plus the richer areas of Europe should help the poorer areas.
The problem with such solidarity is that it risks ending up being a one-way redistributive street. If the rich should help the poor (as they have massively done through EU Cohesion Funds and other redistributive mechanisms), what should the poor do in return? Work harder? Agree to refuse assistance when they have improved their lot? Stick to the rules meticulously? Be grateful?
No-one knows. Or even wants to put the question. In fact, even mentioning this question suggests a selfish, indecent, un-European lack of solidarity. Shame on me.
The Current Crisis
All this goes to explain why the eurozone’s deep problems are now so intractable. Certain countries have failed to live up to agreed essential rules, undermining Trust. This creates tension for traditional EU Paternalism: why should German citizens have reduced voting weight and be expected to take on the role of EU lenders of last resort? If Germany must pay, surely Germany should be given a direct say in financial decisions of other EU capitals running up heavy debts?
Above all, Solidarity and Trust erode each other as member states grapple with a profound contradiction: how to make a single currency work without creating a single country responsible for it? No member state elite dares advocate a complete surrender of national sovereignty to Brussels (or Berlin), for fear of voters’ fury. Yet what is the point of any EU member state retaining independence if that independence holds back the greater European good as defined by the EU elites?
Last October, in a presentation on ‘The Physics of Diplomacy’ at a TEDx event in Krakow I explained why small, fast objects have more kinetic energy than large slow ones. The EU was, I said, a classic example of a large slow phenomenon, with plenty of mass but diminished velocity. By the laws of physics it had to be cumbersome and vulnerable to abrupt changes in circumstances.
I pointed out that the past 1,000 years in Europe had seen empires and countries wax and wane. At some point the EU in turn would crumble away. The only question was when this would happen.
My presentation included the following vivid slide, entitled ‘Will EU Diplomacy Survive?’:
l EU in 50,000,000 years’ time? No
l EU in 5,000,000 years’ time? No
l EU in 50,000 years’ time? No
l EU in 5,000 years’ time? No
l EU in 500 years’ time? No
l EU in 50 years’ time? Maybe
l EU in 5 years’ time? Probably
Five years now looks optimistic? Few serious experts believe that the eurozone and the vital founding EU treaties supporting it can survive without radical change. Such radical change is likely to involve making the eurozone more centralised (with Germany getting more effective power if German discipline is to guarantee the whole structure), perhaps with some countries falling out of the eurozone and back to national currencies.
Or will Germany itself decide that it has had enough and leave the eurozone? Where if anywhere will UK voters want to be in these new arrangements? Above all, what happens to our beloved Paternalism, Trust and Solidarity?
Big stuff. Getting bigger by the day.