Thursday, November 27, 2014

Europe’s Trial by Crisis

BERLIN – Some 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus concluded that war is the father of all things. He might have added that crisis is their mother.

Fortunately, war between world powers is no longer a realistic option, owing to the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. But major international crises, such as the current global financial crisis, remain with us – which might not be an entirely bad thing.

Just as in war, crises fundamentally disrupt the status quo, which means that they create an opportunity – without war’s destructive force – for change that in normal times is hardly possible. To overcome a crisis requires doing things that previously were barely conceivable, let alone feasible.

That is what has happened to the European Union over the last three years, because the global financial crisis has not only shaken Europe to its foundations; it has assumed life-threatening proportions.

Compared to the beginning of 2009, we are now dealing with a significantly different EU – one that has become divided between a vanguard of member states that form the eurozone and a rearguard, consisting of member states that remain outside it. The reason is not evil intent, but rather the pressure of the crisis. If the euro is to survive, eurozone members must act, while other EU members with various levels of commitment to European integration remain on the fringe.

Indeed, almost all taboos that existed after the eruption of the crisis have now been abolished. Most were established at German instigation, but now they have been removed with the German government’s active support.

It is an impressive list: national responsibility for bank rescues; the sanctity of the EU treaty’s proscription of bailouts for governments; rejection of European economic governance; the ban on direct government financing by the European Central Bank; refusal to support mutual liability for debt; and, finally, the transformation of the ECB from a copy of the old Bundesbank into a European Federal Reserve Bank based on the Anglo-Saxon model.

What remains is the rejection of Eurobonds, but that, too, will ultimately disappear. The only question is whether that taboo will fall before or after next year’s German general election. The answer depends on the future course of the crisis.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is playing a strange, sometimes bizarre, role in the crisis. At no point since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 has the country been so strong. It has become the EU’s leading power; but it is neither willing nor able to lead.

Precisely for this reason, many of the changes in Europe have occurred despite German opposition. In the end, the German government has had to resort to the art of the political U-turn, with the result that Germany, though economically strong, has grown institutionally weaker – a dynamic exemplified by its reduced influence in the ECB’s Governing Council.

The old Bundesbank was laid to rest on September 6, when the ECB adopted its “outright monetary transactions” program – unlimited purchases of distressed eurozone countries’ government bonds – over the objections of a lone dissenter: Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann. And the undertaker was not ECB President Mario Draghi; it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Bundesbank did not fall victim to a sinister southern European conspiracy; rather, it rendered itself irrelevant. Had it gotten its way, the eurozone would no longer exist. Placing ideology above pragmatism is a formula for failure in any crisis.

Currently, the eurozone is on the threshold of a banking union, with a fiscal union to follow. But, even with only a banking union, the pressure toward political union will grow.

With 27 members (28 with the approaching addition of Croatia), EU treaty amendments will be impossible, not only because the United Kingdom continues to resist further European integration, but also because popular referenda would be required in many member states. These plebiscites would become a reckoning for national governments on their crisis policies, which no sound-minded government will want.

This means that intergovernmental agreements will be needed for some time to come, and that the eurozone will develop in the direction of inter-governmental federalism. This promises to be exciting, as it will offer completely unexpected possibilities for political integration.

In the end, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has prevailed, because the eurozone today is led by a de facto economic government that comprises member countries’ heads of state and government (and their finance ministers). European federalists should welcome this, because the more these heads of state and government turn into a government of the eurozone as a whole, the faster their current dual role as the EU’s executive and legislative branch will become obsolete.

The European Parliament will not be able to fill the emerging vacuum, as it lacks fiscal sovereignty, which still lies with national parliaments and will remain there indefinitely. Only national parliaments can fill the vacuum, and they need a common platform within the eurozone – a kind of “Euro Chamber” – through which they can control European economic governance.

Federalists in the European Parliament, and in Brussels generally, should not feel threatened. On the contrary, they should recognize and use this unique opportunity. National MPs and MEPs should come together quickly and clarify their relationship. In the medium term, a European Parliament with two chambers could emerge.

This crisis offers a tremendous opportunity for Europe. It has defined the agenda for years to come: banking union, fiscal union, and political union. What remains missing is an economic-growth strategy for the crisis countries; but, given mounting unrest in southern Europe, such a strategy is inevitable. Europeans have reason to be optimistic if they recognize the opportunity that their crisis has created – and act boldly and decisively to seize it.

Read more from our "Sticking with the Banking Union" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      A "European Parliament with two chambers could emerge.". That is probably the best reform idea so far. Looks also like a feasible solution to the seat issue and the general shortage of plenary time in Strassbourg.

    2. CommentedBrenda Jones

      Europe's trail by crisis is clearly everyone's trail by crisis, as our world now functions as a closed system—what affects one, affects all. Further, Europe's financial crisis is symptomatic of a much larger global crisis that affects every system—ranging not only from financial but economic, governmental, educational, social, environmental and ecological as well. Everyone feels this systemic crisis on some level, and it is life-threatening.

      The solution is integration and union, but on a higher dimension of life where the objective is "human integration" built on reciprocity and love. The old paradigm of "I am for me"—whether on a national, multinational, or individual level—no longer works in this interconnected and interdependent world. This is why further integration of the European Union will fail without taking this into account.

      We need to come into harmony with the universal law of balance and giving. Then we will develop in a positive way, in sync with our expanding universe and the forces that operate behind it. As we correctly relate to both our natural environment and each other, we will experience an abundant and happy life on all levels.

      For further reading:

    3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The EU has fractures through it. The creation of a single currency without the requisite structures and underlying integration of economies was rash. It need not end in disaster if some reasonable measures are taken.

      The generation of great virtual wealth beside widespread poverty and insecurity is a world-wide phenomenon of the last thirty years. The policies of low taxation of opulence in parallel with the regulation of the consequently poor damages our society.

      Europe has an opportunity to change. The question is: in whose interest this change should be. Without a clear vision of this no real improvement is possible.

    4. CommentedMorten Lynge

      "...but also because popular referenda would be required in many member states. These plebiscites would become a reckoning for national governments on their crisis policies, which no sound-minded government will want.

      This means that intergovernmental agreements will be needed for some time to come, and that the eurozone will develop in the direction of inter-governmental federalism. This promises to be exciting, as it will offer completely unexpected possibilities for political integration."

      I find this part very, VERY hard to stomach!

      Essentially he's saying, though not in those words:
      "The voters does not want to do what we (the politicians) want, so we must find a way to do it anyway!"

      How on earth can something like that come from a supposedly DEMOCRATIC politicians?

        CommentedAlexandros Liakopoulos

        Mr Fischer,

        While you are one of the main responsible for the creation of the current "could-be-seen-as-an-opportunity" financial crisis, as you and your European colleagues at the time FAILED to bridge and/or fill the POLITICAL DEMOCRATIC GAP of the Internal Market Project of the EU and that of the newly inserted at his time Monetary Union, I truly understand the effort you make with this article to "underwrite" your own mistakes, failures and catastrophic neoliberal choices! But in the same time, I do not forget, nor that your government along with the French one was "pushing" back in 2003 for the "non-inspection policy" of Eurostat over National Statistic Agencies, neither that you where the main "transfert-belt" of the Neoliberal Doctrine the Social-democrats of Schroeder were applying in Germany to the European level, nor that with these specific choices and the parallel maintenance of an incomplete Economic Union facing "structural imbalances", the main aim of the German "Deep State's" Orientation was to CHAMPION THE EU, through economically extincting everybody else, who did not have the German "engine", a solid "buyers-community" at its periphery (or should I call it "vital space"?) and the ability to internally maintain the structural imbalances of the "Common Market".

        In the same spirit - knowing the "School of Neoliberalism" and its teachings that you obviously adopt as you politically imposed thed during your mandates - I totally understand your "optics" of the "crisis": as your idol Milton Friedman was teaching, "every crisis is a great opportunity, as it makes something that till yesterday was looking out of imagination, impossible or even false, to become possible, feasible and right. If and When the necessary circumstances are created, everything is possible", he was teaching. Obviously you got his message and you should be proud to be announced one of his greatest... "students" (or should I say "followers", as he is more seen as The Neoliberal Doctrine Pope, rather than as an economic professor with much blood on his and his students-followers hands?).

        So, you say this is a real "opportunity" for Europe, something that makes me suspicious: if this specific "crisis" and if all "crises" are seen as "opportunities" - irrespectively to the blood through rising crime, blood through new kind of deep poverty, public frustration, public unrest, suicidal "exploding data", undemocratic oriented decisions that overlook the democratic deficit EU is facing and proposing to deepen it even further as a means to overcome the "crises", etc - could someone suspect with "vital suspicions" that someone in your position of the past, could - and would if he made that choice, according to national, international, supranational or even private interest that prevail the public interest, according to the neoliberal-neorealist nationalistic orientation you widely manifested during the Yugoslav invasion of NATO - create the necessary environment for a future financial crisis to appear, "pushing" Germany to the seat of the European Champion (or should I say Emperor) it has always wanted since the late 19th century???

        Was that too complicated question? Sorry for that, let me rephrase: all today's decisions future results can be projected with a quite safe mode, as was also the case in your times: so, you knew what was coming, and if you didn' t know, you SHOULD KNOW! PEOPLE WERE YELLING AT YOU at the IGC 2000, on the streets of Berlin, of Genova and Florence, of Brussels, etc., saying they could not tolerate your actions! But, you "opted" for these specific policies that today manifest widely their results: neoliberal transformation with economic "stagnation" within Germany, "under-inflation" policies that boosted the european "structural economic devides" rather than "bringing the gap between poor and rich nation member states, NATO alignment that always putted a halt to the further unification of Common External and Defense Policies of the EU, while also made the Balkans the Caucasus a US play-yard after half a century and "opened" those markets to the German economic interests, etc. I remember that even your "teacher", short of speak, Milton Friedman, was doubting a monetary Union can stand without a Political Union. I also remember Dimitris Tsatsos, EMP and Representative of the EU Parliament in the IGC 2000 YELLING AT YOU that NO POLITICAL UNION CAN NEVER BE SET ON PLACE, WITHOUT ADDRESSING ITS PRIMAL PROBLEM OF DEMOCRATIC LEGITIMACY, DEEPENING THE DEMOCRACY, BEFORE ACCEPTING NEW INSTITUTIONALLY IMPOSED HIERARCHIES AND THEIR DECISION!

        Chancellor Kohl as all other political leaders who REMEMBER what the European Union stands for, as they have lived the WW II and the efforts to get Europe out of the hatred, the mistrust and its bloody past, oftenly condemns ANY ATTEMPT OF GERMANY TO CONQUER EUROPE! He and everyone with COMMON SENSE, that likes to LEARN FROM HISTORY RATHER THAN READ HISTORY AS A NOVEL, would blame your "analysis" as shallow, nationalistic oriented (trough a "misleading" and informally stated conclusion of yours, that Germany "has lost" during the crisis, more or less) and unwilling to accept its own merit to the current European problems!

        Mr. Fischer,

        More or less I blame you and your policies for our current situation. Of course I blame not only you, I also blame other people, policies and "powers": however, they all bear with them the "label" of a mixed neoliberalist economic policy, neorealistic German external policy seeking to CONQUER Europe through a brilliant plan (Germany pushes the EU to become more "federal", while it "nationalize" the EU as a whole, through the decisions of its High Constitutional Federal Court and/or through its Parliament) and a Social Insensitivity, Unconsciousness and Senseleness!

        Having that in mind, I am not amazed you concretely propose to disregard the public frustration and the clear lack of political authorization of Each National People to their respective National Governments and/or European Officials to go further the way of austerity-unification-EU's German Occupation we are moving till now! I am not even amazed you do not bother to talk about subjects as Democratic Legitimacy of your proposals, Social Cohesion Impact, Equality of Member States in the New Federal Intergovernmental Europe you are proposing, etc. What I am only amazed of is that you really learn nothing from the current drama you and your "colleagues-same thinkers" have created and that even now that you see - you cannot miss to see! - the results of your actions in human pain and "human capital", you still remain calm, "untouchable" from the real manifestations of your choices and actions! So, stating I am amazed, I only ask myself if the neoliberals have a human soul after all, or they do manifest a "transformation" of the human kind, into a soul-less one, that "doesn' t have the problem of bearing a consciousness and moral guilts", as A. Lombachievski puts it (Political Ponerology), and - therefore - are capable of all sorts of crimes, even the ones he calls "wide-scale Social Bads" (genocides, wars, racial or other pogrom operations, etc).

        So, looking at your position on the subject of the crisis, while Greeks are dying, Spanish are dying, Germans will soon be dying to fulfill your, your political "friends" and your ideology' s and nation' s goals, in the same time that internationally neoliberalism gets recognized as a model very much responsible for the mess we all face today, one think I could propose, with all my social solidarity towards you and your health: please sir, STOP WRITING AND VISIT A DOCTOR TO EXPRESS YOUR THOUGHTS! IT WILL COST US ALL MUCH LESS IN THE YEARS TO COME!

        PS to all the rest: Mr Fischer prefers to put "Europe on Trial by Crisis" rather than put himself! Who can blame him? All GUILTY PEOPLE do not act this way, refusing their involvement to the crime and throwing the guilt to someone else? The same thing does this article here! A much needed article would be on "Fischer's Trial by History" or even "Merkel's Trial by History"! But I am sure, no such article will ever appear in the public eyes, without the Massive World Propaganda disproportionately "bear it", "brake it", "defame it" in the public eyes, etc, etc. But even if such article will never be written and/or reach the public eyes, HISTORY IS NEVER LATE IN ITS RANDEZ-VOUS FOR DELIVERING ITS LESSONS! Whether there will be an article or not, Fischer's and Merkel's politics will soon - very soon - be beaten and successfully overturned, from the European People, exactly as History TEACHES, whether Mr Fischer and his kind read it during their vacation in order to "kill time", or they read it as a vital, indispensable TOOL for the formation of each specific political decision they make!

    5. CommentedRichard Dolan

      "This crisis offers a tremendous opportunity for Europe. It has defined the agenda for years to come: banking union, fiscal union, and political union. What remains missing is an economic-growth strategy for the crisis countries ..."

      It's certainly true that monetary union with banking and fiscal union is a recipe for disaster. And Fischer's paen to Union! sounds so lovely, so anodyne. Fantasies often do. This one only lacks its Evelyn Waugh to give it the proper send-up.

      The trouble is sketched earlier in Fischer's piece -- the voters, alas, don't seem to like the prospect of ever more union, perhaps because they have the innate sense to suspect that grand ventures often go spectacularly bad. Not to worry, the political elites will rescue the benighted untermenschen from their folly. Democracy of the participatory sort will have to take a back seat, at leaset for a while and perhaps for longer than that, while all that 'inter-governmental federalism' by Those Who Know Best does its magic, making actual democracy not the first but surely one of the more significant casualities of this crisis-too-good-to-waste.

      And if there were to be such a union, first fiscal then political, what would it look like? Evidently, it would not include the British, and perhaps not the Finns and other northerners as well. Fischer states (accurately) that teh Brits and perhaps others have no appetite for the union he imagines, and so the only possibility is that they will have to be left by the wayside.

      Even for those who might be inclined to give the Fischerian union a go, what would its economic policies (those 'economic-growth strategies' he mentions) look like? There are many different models on display in the EU today -- pretty much each member-state has its own, and some have worked out better than others. So will the Greeks slowly become more like the Germans, the Spanish like the Finns?

      Europe, with all its differing languages, cultures, religions, ethnicities and histories, has evolved into a system of nation-states, a form of political and social organization that seems to fit its complex diversities quite well. Perhaps the more important lesson from today's euro-crisis is that a union forced on such diverse societies in the name of an an airy dream of an 'alles menschen werden bruders' concept of union has a way of turning out very badly indeed.