Eurocrisis: the politics of no-longer-great powers

ESSAY: The EU’s problems stem from a destructive attempt by its leaders to save out-of-date institutions.

Bruno Waterfield

Topics Politics

Amid the uncertainty created by Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, there is one thing we can be absolutely sure of: the Greeks won’t be getting to vote on the European Union’s ‘fiscal discipline’, the austerity medicine that is being rammed down their necks – and nor will anyone else. For the first time in the history of the EU, even governments that stand in the way of EU diktats have been toppled.

When the Greek government briefly floated the idea of standing against the EU orthodoxy, a coalition of Germany, France, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) threatened to plunge Greece into chaos. The result was that George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, was summoned to Cannes last week to be told to step aside in favour of an unelected ‘national unity’ government.

The Greek leader had resisted strong behind-the-scenes EU pressure to suspend normal parliamentary democracy in favour of a unity government since June. But after his announcement that the Greek people would vote on the latest bailout plan, the campaign became open and explicit. Even after Papandreou abandoned his plan to hold a referendum, senior French, German and European officials demanded that he step down to allow for a ‘technical’ administration.

With a clear threat of economic force, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, warned last Friday that unless the government was deposed by Monday, Greece would not be able get its next €8billion payment from the EU and the IMF, leading to national default and bankruptcy within a month. ‘What we expect to happen is to have a government of national unity’, he said. ‘What is the other option? Default and have real difficulties to pay wages to the public servants, to the schools, to the hospitals, which will lead to paralysis of the country. I am sure that the majority of the Greek people do not want this kind of chaos.’

Papandreou had to be overthrown for the mere suggestion that his government would allow voters, (especially in Greece, was the implication) to unpick decisions taken to uphold the common good of Eurozone financial stability. The EU’s demosphobia is based on experience. The question of referenda and referendum rejections has dogged the EU since the early 1990s, as its structures have become increasingly important to European governments. The Maastricht Treaty, which gave the European Union its name and created the euro, was only narrowly approved by a referendum in France known as the ‘Petit Oui’. The Danes voted No. In Britain, John Major’s Conservative government almost tore itself apart over the question of a British vote – a debate that is still haunting a new Tory-led coalition today.

In 2005, the EU was rocked when the Dutch and the French voted to reject the European Constitution, leading to a pact to make Europe a referendum-free zone (1). Only Ireland, due to a constitutional quirk, was allowed to vote on 2007’s Lisbon Treaty, the successor to the failed constitution. When that referendum was lost in 2008, the Irish people were told in no uncertain terms to think again by EU leaders. Ireland finally voted ‘Yes’ in October 2009 after being warned that if they rejected the treaty for a second time, the country would be destroyed by Europe’s deepening economic crisis. Just over a year later, the EU forced Ireland into a punitive EU-IMF austerity programme designed to help the central-bankers in Frankfurt rather than the people of Ireland, an irony that was not lost on millions of Irish voters (2).

It is worth taking a step back to look at how EU statecraft and institutions have come to give the current crisis its dynamic and severity. For the first time since the 1930s, a looming collapse of financial institutions holds out the real possibility of an economic crash alongside the reintroduction of force, or external compulsion, into European affairs as a political measure to ensure stability.

Uncharted waters and the compulsion of nations

The latest phase of the Eurozone crisis has taken European countries into uncharted and dangerous waters, where the EU openly talks of overthrowing or overriding elected governments and where compulsion has returned to relations between European states. The current crisis, manageable two years ago, has been made worse by the EU, whose institutions and decisions have generated and exacerbated tendencies that are now leading to a serious economic event.

The EU crisis is constitutional in origin. EU and Eurozone institutions are deliberately divorced from democratic pressures, including economic interests such as energy generators, manufacturing industry and research and development. As explained elsewhere (3), the EU has evolved as a mechanism for ordering politics in Europe, and relations between European countries, by insulating them from public accountability.

This development means that the entire European political order – established over the past two decades as a condition of German reunification, by the EU’s Treaty of Maastricht and by subsequent treaties – rests on a structure that is unable to deal with the practical exigencies of a real crisis.

The emergence of EU/Eurozone institutions alongside the growing ‘independence’ of central-bank institutions has tied European states to extremely narrow conceptions of economic policy. There is a fixation, amongst other things, with low interest rates and keeping deficits down. This development has been explicitly undemocratic, with the often stated need to take elements of fiscal policy, spending and budgets out of the ‘electoral cycle’. The effect has been to enshrine absurd monetarist dogma and targets, such as the rule that national deficits should not run at more than three per cent of GDP annually.

The ECB and national central banks have come to the fore as the dominant economic-policy organs both nationally and at the EU level as governments have divested themselves of responsibility and accountability for more and areas of the economy. This has pushed state policy closer and closer to the banking and financial sectors, binding states to destructive creditor interests, shaping and limiting policy decisions to an increasingly narrow menu of options.

From a banking to a sovereign crisis

One important economic crisis tool, default, has been expressly ruled out because central banks have a directly material and existential interest in refusing to write down debts.

In 2009, capital worth €4.6 trillion, or 39 per cent of the EU27’s GDP, was tied up in loans and guarantees to the European banking system. If the Eurozone fails to manage the crisis (sadly, experience and all the evidence points that way), then the event could lead to a violent correction. European economies would then be disrupted by the shock of an unmanaged destruction of levels of non-productive activity that represent a major share of the economy.

Economists in finance ministries, especially Germany and the IMF, have warned that refusing to countenance orderly ‘haircuts’ or write-downs has fuelled a spiralling risk and debt burden on states, especially the Eurozone’s already highly indebted PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. In October, the ECB tried to block an EU-IMF report (mainly drafted in Washington), which found that the current anti-default policy would add (at least) an extra €250 billion to the Greek debt burden. Finally, after the report was leaked, last week’s Eurozone summit agreement proposed a 50 per cent write-down of Greek debt held by banks in order to try and bring Greece’s debt down to 120 per cent of GDP by 2020. But this plan, to take Greece out of the fire to put it back in the frying pan, is probably unrealistic; it relies on two per cent growth annually when Greece’s GDP is currently shrinking at 5.9 per cent per year. Furthermore, at the time of writing, the details of how the haircut can take place on a voluntary basis, subsidised to the tune of €30 billion, have not been agreed with European banks.

The failure to grasp the nettle of default springs from the original ‘too big to fail’ banking policy of 2008. Default is not a soft option but does, potentially, lead to the managed destruction of capital rather than an unmanaged crash or shock. A managed default, whether it is imposed or negotiated on private investors, can clear the way for investment in the productive economy rather than expending energy or resources on shoring up banks or bailing out contaminated sovereign bonds.

The inability to take hard decisions has had a huge cost. The first bailout for Greece in May 2010 was just over €100 billion. The price of a second bailout, agreed last week, is an additional €139 billion. In July, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) increased its AAA credit-rated assets and guarantees to €440 billion. By October, the consensus was that the Eurozone needed €2 trillion to fire-fight debt contagion.

An agreement on 27 October to ‘leverage’ the EFSF to increase its firepower by using it to insure Italian and Spanish bonds has been widely derided as a sign of that the Eurozone is estranged from economic reality. None other than Jens Weidmann, the president of Germany’s Bundesbank and a member of the ECB, warned that the EFSF was too dependent on the kind of high-risk banking deals that had caused the economic crisis in the first place. ‘It is tied to higher risks of losses and to increased sharing of risks’, he said. ‘The way they are constructed, the leveraging instruments are not too different from those which were partly responsible for creating the crisis, because they concealed risks.’

Reality-proof EU and the German bubble

By 2015, 90 per cent of global growth will be outside the Europe. But the evolution of the EU has pushed its response to a changing economic reality into a narrow and destructive direction as it has become trapped within the institutions and policies that fuelled the crisis.

A postwar sovereign-bonds system, with its origin in the Bretton Wood and IMF arrangements, has been destabilised by the rise of emerging economies such as China, low European growth rates and a government-debt spike caused by Europe’s over-exposure to toxic banking assets in 2008. Instead of confronting economic challenges, especially low or stagnant growth, European elites have hidden in a comfort zone of cheap credit.

Germany, Europe’s economic ‘powerhouse’, has become too reliant on the Eurozone as a sales area, with an economy overly dependent on a credit and asset bubble that sucked in and laid waste to Spain and Ireland while compounding the troubles of Greece and Portugal. German and other European banks took the cash surpluses earned from selling to the PIIGS and offered it back to those countries as cheap credit. The creation of the Eurozone monetary bloc, with the ECB fixated on keeping interest rates low, made it cheap for the weaker economies such as Greece to get credit and to issue sovereign debt at almost the same interest rate as German bonds. This helped create the credit bubble in Europe’s peripheral countries. Enthusiastically supported by financial markets, the gigantic carousel seemed to be working for over a decade. Until, that is, the shock of the financial crisis exposed it as a bubble.

Such is the destruction wrought by a single-currency zone rigged to benefit northern European economies, that Greece is now importing olive oil from Germany. Recession in Greece, compounded by EU-IMF austerity programmes, has led to even greater competitive imbalances between the Greek and German economies. This distorted relationship meant that in September Greek consumers bought €1.5million of olive oil from German suppliers, with the extra painful twist that much of the olive oil was originally from Greece (4).

Over 60 per cent of German exports are to EU countries and Germany’s impressive trade surplus has been at the expense of Italy, Spain and Greece. According to one estimate by Swiss bank UBS, a Eurozone collapse would see German production contract by 20 to 25 per cent. For over a decade, Germany, along with other European countries, has hidden behind a credit bubble to avoid restructuring its economy. Germany, and other economies such as the Netherlands, depressed wages domestically but had a captive credit-fuelled market in the Eurozone periphery of southern Europe – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. At the same time, the euro was rigged by the ECB to maintain exchange rates much lower than deutsche mark levels giving Germany, and others, artificial benefits in the global economy.

Germany is not, despite its reputation, a productive powerhouse. Any state, like Germany, that has switched off nuclear-power stations at the cost of a fifth of its electricity output – forcing it to become more dependent on expensive gas imports during a slowdown – without being brought to its senses by the captains of industry, is in a bad way. France, meanwhile, has become highly dependent on cheap sovereign debt to maintain its prestige economic status. Its AAA rating has become its primary national interest, and its banks are deeply mired in the southern European asset bubbles.

Built on a credit bubble and insulated from democratic or economic interests – beyond those of the central banks and the financial sector – the EU’s institutions have given rise to a tendency to take manageable economic problems and to turn them into events that threaten the global economy.

A forced fiscal union?

As the Eurozone fails to get a grip on the crisis, the use of external compulsion on countries to act against their own national interests has been reintroduced into European politics as the EU evolves into the means by which powerful countries dominate weaker ones.

Many, including the British government, have urged that the current crisis should lead to a ‘fiscal union’ in the Eurozone as a necessary counter-crisis measure. This is wrong. The Eurozone, and the EU, is emerging as a compulsion union to make previously sovereign states bow to austerity programmes and to adopt fiscal disciplines drafted in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. The object of the imposed programmes is to uphold the economically irrational policies detailed earlier.

The EU has evolved as a bureaucratic and secretive way of doing politics and is now developing mechanisms that are openly about imposing an order on Europeans, whatever it takes. Conclaves of officials are now disposing of the fate of nations like Greece behind closed doors. Secret diplomacy and overt power-play is back. This is a dangerous development. Brinkmanship, as Germany jockeys to enforce ‘fiscal discipline’ on southern Europe, has polarised relations between EU member states and powers as never before in the history of the Union.

Europe as Germany

Angela Merkel’s stern speech to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, on 26 October was less an exercise in democratic accountability than an assertion of raw power: a German Chancellor laying down the law to the rest of Europe, including France. ‘The world is watching Germany and Europe to see if we are ready and able to take responsibility. If the euro fails, Europe fails’, she said, eliding German interests with the wider EU. ‘None of us can foresee what the consequences would be if we were to fail.’

Her words were directed at France just hours before a Eurozone summit. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has been desperate to involve the ECB, with its unlimited firepower, to shore up the euro and to help banks exposed to Greek, Italian and Spanish debt, saving France’s AAA rating in the process. The idea of ECB involvement is anathema to Germany, where politicians led by Merkel raise the spectre of the 1930s stagflation that led to the economic collapse, ushering in Nazi rule and the Second World War. ‘No one should take it for granted that there will be peace and affluence in Europe in the next half century’, warned Merkel. In an exercise in power unseen for a generation in Europe, Merkel’s speech (backed by a Bundestag vote) meant President Sarkozy was given no option other than to agree or to face down a chancellor embodying the German people and peace in Europe.

When state institutions confront conditions of life that are completely different from the circumstances in which those institutions were formed, the situation can become destructive, particularly when these bodies insist on pursuing a narrow and out-of-touch policy. This process is even more dangerous when, as now, it becomes bound up with the struggle of global powers for their existence.

Competing for the EU – not outside it

Germany and France are two global powers that can only resolve their interests beyond their national borders. The Eurozone territories are the key sphere of economic and political influence for both countries.

Eurozone tensions are far more than any spurious return to the national status quo before the euro’s creation, because of the involvement of Germany and France who are both global powers. As nations that both need to project their power in Europe, the struggle for control of the EU assumes a fundamental importance. Britain has so far stood on the sidelines but there are signs it is getting involved, making the dynamics even more unstable.

The 1992 EU Treaty of Maastricht, that created the euro, was also the treaty of German reunification. Britain and France were both keen to bind or neuter Germany in the euro arrangements. By shackling Germany to France and the rest of Europe, by fostering a German statecraft completely dependent on the EU, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president Francois Mitterrand may have created a monster on a par with the Treaty of Versailles.

The particular character of the German state means it has become more bound than any other to EU statecraft and institutions. For Germany to pull away now from the EU would be of foundational significance, a much greater change than reunification. France, hitched to Germany since the Saarland/Ruhr coal and steel union arrangements of the early 1950s, is less entangled with the EU for reasons of the postwar settlement and its independent foreign policy. But following a decade of the Eurozone bubble and 20 years of EU integration, France has come to rely on the European status quo to maintain its rather gilded existence and the AAA credit-rating of a top-rank world power.

A German or British breakaway?

Some have predicted that Germany’s national interests will push it to ditch France and to form a breakaway currency with less stressed AAA countries such as Finland, the Netherlands or Denmark. This argument fails to take into account Germany’s need as a global power to project itself throughout the European territories. Moreover, a breakaway would be tantamount to an act of aggression. There would be immediate repercussions and counter-measures by France, which straddles northern and southern Europe, to mitigate against the losses. The EU’s single market for exports would cease to exist, damaging Germany and plunging Europe into chaos.

Rivalries between France and Germany over who controls the Eurozone/EU are becoming an important feature of the crisis. Broadly speaking, France wants to turn the EU into a Eurozone vehicle, with some strong protectionist tendencies, using the ECB to defend its currency, the euro. Germany needs to keep the current EU treaty order both because it is hardwired into the German constitution and because it relies on the single market for its economy. In many ways, the EU is modelled on Germany’s constitutional ‘basic law’ order that seeks to insulate the state from voters. Germany throws its weight around by upholding and shaping an EU institutional order that is intrinsic to its statecraft, a model now internationalised throughout Europe.

Thus Germany is the strongest supporter of sweeping EU powers to impose fiscal discipline, preserving the euro as a rigged currency in its interest. France is much more reluctant to go down this route because its economy is more dominated by a high level of state debt. Britain, completely outside the contest, could end up being hit by protectionist or arbitrage problems for 50 per cent of its exports as the single market crumbles under these strains. There is already evidence of this process, beginning with a British EU court case against the ECB over location policy and a battle with France and Germany over a financial transaction tax.

The annexation of Ireland

The tendency towards compulsion as a counter-crisis measure was hidden with the initial Greek bailout in May 2010, a package that was requested by Athens. Ireland was the first country to be pushed into an EU-IMF bailout that it did not want in order to make life easier for the Eurozone. The pressure included top-level anonymous EU briefings, mainly from Germany, on the weakness of Irish finances and the need for extra austerity. The tactics deliberately drove up the cost for Ireland of servicing its debt.

Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at University College Dublin, has given a superb account of how the EU used anti-democratic force, via the increased power of central bankers, to override Irish sovereignty (5). As he noted, the IMF, no soft touch, warned Ireland that its default-free bailout was less about helping the Irish than disciplining Spain.

‘The ECB walked away with everything it wanted. The IMF were scathing of the Irish performance, with one staffer describing the eagerness of some Irish negotiators to side with the ECB as displaying strong elements of Stockholm syndrome’, wrote Professor Kelly. ‘The sole purpose of the Irish bailout was to frighten the Spanish into line with a vivid demonstration that EU rescues are not for the faint-hearted. And the ECB plan, so far anyway, has worked. Given a choice between being strung up like Ireland – an object of international ridicule, paying exorbitant rates on bailout funds, its government ministers answerable to a Hungarian university lecturer – or mending their ways, the Spanish have understandably chosen the latter.’ In early 2011, Portugal was also forced to accept an EU-IMF bailout in order to set an example to Spain.

Destabilising Italy’s elected government

The tendency to bludgeon governments into line has peaked with the overthrow of the Greek government but there other dangerous developments unfolding.

On 23 October, after Silvio Berlusconi was given an unprecedented dressing down by the EU – represented by an openly contemptuous Merkel and Sarkozy – the Italian prime minister was instructed, publicly, to carry out highly controversial pension and judicial reforms combined with additional cuts while the French and German leaders sniggered at his inability to do so.

Unlike Greece, Ireland or Portugal – all already run by the EU and IMF – Italy is a large member state, where the Union’s founding Treaty of Rome was signed. It has the EU’s fourth-largest population and is the third-largest Eurozone economy. As with past interventions, Merkel and Sarkozy’s contempt pushed up the interest rate that Italy has to pay to borrow to punitive and dangerous levels – the highest since the euro was created. It gave extra impetus to moves and plots to get rid of Berlusconi, a buffoon but an elected leader. ‘Nobody in the union can appoint themselves administrators and speak in the name of elected governments and the peoples of Europe’, said Berlusconi, more hopefully than realistically on 24 October.

Not yet satisfied with Italian promises to implement a political programme written by EU officials, Olli Rehn wrote an imperious letter demanding answers on a detailed set of questions on progress in implementing emergency Italian austerity measures passed in September. ‘Grand Viceroy Rehn’, quipped the Financial Times, as even the favoured newspaper of Europe’s oligarchs blanched at a demand for ‘additional measures’ including ‘further expenditure constraint’ and a ‘thorough spending review’.

By 8 November, with the cost of servicing Italian debt reaching levels reached in the recent past by Greece, Ireland and Portugal before they entered EU-IMF programmes, Berlusconi – under intense pressure – agreed to step down as power shifted to his finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, who is in favour of a new Greek-style ‘technical’ government of experts. The combined strength of markets, let off the leash by Merkel and Sarkozy, and sneering EU diktats had finally overthrown Berlusconi, a man who had survived multiple sex scandals and corruption trials, whom even the combined weight of the Italian opposition and judiciary had been unable to dislodge.

Were the eurosceptics right?

Recent developments in the Eurozone have given a new lease of life to British eurosceptics who are now able to claim that ‘we told you so’ over the shaky and irrational foundations of the single currency. But many sceptics conveniently forget that they supported binding a unified Germany into the EU and its euro. They are also quiet on the rise of the ‘independent’ central bankers, such as Britain’s Mervyn King, who have played such a leading role in the crisis.

Right-wing eurosceptics do not contest the dominance of the financial sector and have been silent over enshrining monetarist diktats in both British politics and the international order. Most have few answers about how Britain or Europe can overcome the slide down the world’s economic league, which is the real driver of this crisis. Their belief that Britain is safe solely because it can devalue sterling is both depressing and defeatist. Devaluation is a necessary but insufficient economic tool, as events have shown.

The UK government has embraced the EU/Eurozone idea that more ‘fiscal discipline’ is the answer by underwriting irrational institutions with compulsion. The idea that the Eurozone failed because it is not enough of a single currency and did not enforce its rules is one of the most monstrous European establishment myths for some time. Many eurosceptics also buy into the growing misanthropic prejudice that swarthy Greeks and Italians cannot be trusted with money and need to submit to the command of thrifty and productive German or Dutch officials.

A new European order

A month ago, the Dutch, almost certainly with German approval, suggested a system of ‘guardianship’ for fiscal offenders, such as Greece, allowing problem countries to be taken into the tender care of the EU-ECB. Those subject peoples who refused the EU’s ministrations would then be expelled. Greece was openly threatened with this scenario after it announced its ungrateful plan to hold a referendum.

In a series of important articles, EUobserver’s Leigh Phillips has documented how the crisis has seen national governments remodelled along EU lines to remove them further from voters, whether opposed to austerity or paying for bailouts, in order to uphold a new European order of experts. ‘This has not happened by putsch or coup d’état, at least not one involving any guns or tanks. There are no colonels or partisans who have captured the garrisons and seized the telephone exchange’, he wrote this summer. ‘Yet a junta has installed itself nonetheless, a junta of “experts”, technocrats, those educated in the knowledge of What Needs To Be Done.’

Dealing with economic reality requires real political leadership. It means making demands both of elites and the public for European and national economic restructuring to lift productivity. This is denied by EU states preoccupied with maintaining routines and detached institutions. The EU is becoming more and more explicitly a tool of domination. Because it is unable to get to grips with the new economic and political realities, it is defying them with the full force of statecraft.

For an alleged peace project, the EU is looking like a much uglier construction. European affairs are once again governed by secret summit diplomacy and power-play in which the explicit assertion of an order based on inequality between nations is backed up by compulsion.

‘We are not children’

Speaking in the snow outside Dublin’s General Post Office in November 2010, Fintan O’Toole, the Irish thinker and commentator, addressed a crowd of over 50,000 people demonstrating against the EU-IMF austerity package that had just been imposed on Ireland. During his speech, O’Toole made an important point.

People, he argued, were prepared to make sacrifices and, after all, they made them every day in order to provide for their families, children and to build communities. While they were ready to work to repair the Irish economy, people were not ready to be sacrificed on the altar of undemocratic institutions, he said. ‘We can emerge from this crisis with a renewed sense of solidarity and justice and with a vigorous democracy in which power has returned to the people’, said O’Toole. ‘We are here today to say that we are not economic units whose only function is to behave ourselves… We are not children who must take our medicine or be sent to bed without our supper… We are citizens. And we want our republic back.’ (7)

The expulsion of the public from EU decision-making and institutions has made the economic situation far worse than it needed to be. Irrational EU and Eurozone institutions have stopped trying to persuade and have started using force to impose destructive policies. Without the cut and thrust of democratic politics or a contest between opposing economic interests there are no alternatives to the series of unravelling bureaucratic fixes that are pushing Europe to the brink of disaster.

Supporting calls, whether in Greece, Britain or anywhere else, for referendums on bailouts, austerity programmes or euro membership plays an important role in beginning the political process that can stop the cycle of destructiveness that the EU has become. The EU and euro are threatening to drag down the world economy, consuming nations and peoples to uphold institutions that have failed. Democracy might be disruptive to the world of euro summits and central bankers, but it is Europe’s only chance.

Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors, published by the Manifesto Club.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today