As the global financial crisis transforms itself inexorably into economic crisis and now industrial crisis, the cry “where’s Europe?” can be heard across the EU. So far, Brussels’ response has been less than reassuring.
The European Commission’s watchword has been that the integrity of the Single Market must be defended at all costs, and that it will use its formidable legal powers to ensure that bailouts and other state aid by EU governments do not distort fair competition. It is a familiar mantra, and among industrialists the mood now seems to be hardening that it is not enough.
With anxiety mounting across Europe that industrial lay-offs will mean major plant closures and cascading job losses in thousands of smaller companies, national governments find themselves on a collision course with the EU, though they know that their best chance of salvation lies in concerted European action. In Brussels, there is awareness that the crisis offers real political opportunity, even if the Commission has yet to grasp it.
The time has come for a new EU industrial-policy framework that would permit Brussels to use its “honest broker” status to manage competing interests. The Commission’s eurocrats should dust-off their files from 30 years ago and recall how their predecessors handled the steel crisis that then threatened to provoke an intra-European trade war.