FRANKFURT – For many European leaders, the eurozone crisis demonstrates the need for “more Europe,” the final aim being to create a full-fledged political union. Given the continent’s history of war and ideological division, and today’s challenges posed by globalization, a peaceful, prosperous, and united Europe that wields influence abroad is surely a desirable goal. But major disagreements about how to achieve that goal remain.
Historically, monetary union was regarded as the route to political union. In the 1950’s, the French economist Jacques Rueff, a close adviser to Charles de Gaulle, argued that “L’Europe se fera par la monnaie, ou ne se fera pas” (Europe will be made through the currency, or it will not be made). Germany’s President Richard von Weizsäcker echoed this view almost a half-century later, declaring that only via a single currency would Europeans achieve a common foreign policy. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that “if the euro fails, Europe will fail.”
But the crisis confronting “Europe” is not so much about political union as it is about European Economic and Monetary Union. If anything, efforts to hold EMU together may have taken us further from the goal of a common foreign policy by re-igniting within member states (regardless of whether they give or receive financial aid) nationalist resentments that we hoped had died long ago.
Politicians launched monetary union in 1999, despite warnings that the constituent economies were too diverse. It wasn’t long before several states violated the Stability and Growth Pact. Later, the eurozone’s “no bail-out” principle was abandoned. The response to these failings, however, was a demand for greater economic integration, including such intermediate steps as the creation of a “European finance minister” or an EU commissioner with sweeping powers to facilitate closer integration.
Such ideas, of course, ignored the central issues of national sovereignty and democracy, and specifically the privilege of nationally elected governments and parliaments to determine their own taxes and public spending. The fact that sovereign member states did not deliver on their European commitments is hardly a convincing argument for giving up sovereignty now.
In short, all of the measures that would implicitly support political union have turned out to be inconsistent and dangerous. They have involved huge financial risks for eurozone members. They have fueled tensions among member states. Perhaps most important, they have undermined the basis on which political union rests – namely, persuading European Union citizens to identify with the European idea.
Public support for “Europe” depends to a large degree on its economic success. Indeed, it is Europe’s economic achievements that give it a political voice in the world. But, as the current crisis indicates, the best-performing EU economies are those with (relatively) flexible labor markets, reasonable tax rates, and open access to professions and business.
Moreover, the impetus for economic reform has come not from the EU, but from national governments, one of the most successful examples being “Agenda 2010,” launched a decade ago by then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Numerous academic studies, following the work of the American economic historian Douglass North, support the notion that it is competition among states and regions that lays the groundwork for technological progress and economic growth. The total failure of the Lisbon Agenda, launched in March 2000 to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-base economy in the world” demonstrated the weakness of a centralized approach.
Arguably, in earlier centuries, it was competition within Europe that generated unparalleled dynamism and prosperity across much of the continent. To be sure, this was also a time of wars. However, this does not mean that centralization is the best – much less the only – way to guarantee peace.
But, once again, EU leaders responded by concluding the opposite: the Lisbon Agenda’s failure was interpreted as justifying still more harmonization and centralization of national policies. True to form, in his “State of the Union” address to the European Parliament in September 2012, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called for a more powerful Commission.
This approach – harmonization, coordination, and centralized decision-making – continues to be regarded as a panacea for Europe’s problems. It is the sort of pretense of knowledge that the economist Friedrich von Hayek denounced as a recipe for constraining freedom and ensuring economic mediocrity. Indeed, the European project should start from the premise that appropriate institutions, property rights, and competition, together with a growth-friendly tax system and solid fiscal policies, are the basis of economic success.
The dangers of a centralizing approach can also be seen in the relationship between the 17 current eurozone members and the 11 non-eurozone EU states. As the former press on with greater integration, the adverse economic consequences of doing so are likely to deter the latter from EMU participation (which may be another sign that institutional competition cannot be suppressed forever).
There are plenty of areas in which common action at the EU level is both appropriate and efficient. Environmental policy is clearly one. But centralization of economic decision-making, as an end in itself, cannot underpin a prosperous and powerful Europe.
Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers, once said that, given the chance to start the European integration process again, he would have begun with culture – a dimension in which we neither need nor want centralization. Europe’s cultural richness consists precisely in its diversity, and the basis for its finest achievements has been competition between people, institutions, and places. Its current economic malaise reflects European leaders’ prolonged efforts to deny the obvious.