Debate: The crisis and three Europes

14 November 2011 – România libera (Bucharest)

The EU may well soon be split up between the performers, the lame, and the laggards, worries Romanian political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. And let’s not count on a fake European identity to bring everyone together.

It wasn’t very polite on the part of Europe to get into a crisis just after we rejoined them, a diplomat friend from eastern Europe told me with some bitterness. After fighting for several years against the two-speed Europe, my perplexed friend now sees this way out as the only road to salvation. What else can be done?

If we accept solutions such as the one put forward by Jean-Claude Piris (one of the lawyers who had a hand in the drafting of the Lisbon Treaty) – a supplementary treaty just for those eurozone members capable of moving on to fiscal federalism – we'll have put the euro crisis behind us, but we’ll have three Europes: the unified eurozone of the efficient; the eurozone of the lame, not sure whether to go forward or go back (Greece, Portugal, and others) – and the Europe of those outside the circle who have no serious prospects of catching up.

Europe has been through other crises. Why is this one any more tragic? Everyone – starting with the Americans – was betting on the capacity of Europe to bring peripheral countries up to a common denominator, both in terms of democracy and prosperity, and so such crises seemed to be “problems of growth.”

The obsession with Europeanness

The reality, writes Ivan Krastev in his text for the Dahrendorf Symposium (held on 9 and 10 November in Berlin in memory of the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who died in 2009), is that we are witnessing a crisis of disintegration: everything that has made the European project possible is turning against it at this time of divergence.

First democracy, with populism and the concessions made to populism by European leaders, and then the welfare state as a birthright that democracies can hand out to their citizens regardless of the economic realities.

Supporters of Europe hold that if we can prove the existence of a common European identity, solidarity with others will flow naturally, as will support for European policies and tighter integration. So why do the Greeks, who have identity to spare, not back the policy of their government? More generally, how can identity alone serve to legitimise any policy?

The obsession with Europeanness and Europeanism, generally based on an identity defined by a psychological point of view, make us lose sight of what Europe really is: a set of laws and the ability to apply them. Greece is not a standard – no more than Italy and Portugal are – and this is what threatens to disintegrate Europe, not the much-despised immigrants, and not Russia or China.

Ready-made European identity

In short, as proposed by Professor of European studies at Oxford Jan Zielonka in “The Ideology of Empire”, European identity is merely propaganda out of Brussels to justify the neo-colonial European desire to push for European standards beyond its borders, in Ukraine, Libya and the Maghreb.

I would say that it is also a propaganda that we have heard on the outskirts of the EU: the “return to Europe” was a rousing and successful speech on the post-communist transition that brought the people together in their hope for freedom, in which capitalism posed as a dream and not a nightmare.

In reality, we weren’t able to go back to Europe because we had never been there. We were the Third World of Europe, and the role that the IMF is playing today was played between the two wars by representatives of those who lent us money, then as now, to stabilise our budgets: the Bank of France, which kept a permanent agent in Romania with the power to veto government spending.

We find this ready-made European identity from the Rond Point Schuman in Brussels, to Belgrade, and even to Tbilisi, where people spend their evenings arguing about just how and how far they are European. But in the centre, where Europe proper is to be found, one doesn’t hear a word about ‘identity’ – only the desire that the Europe of the 1970s stay the same.

Waiting for Mr Barroso

In other words, European identity is only for those who still aspire to the standards of Europe; those who already have it have stopped paying it any attention. They’re worried by other things – like the fact that they no longer have the social security their parents once did. The new crisis is blamed on the lack of harmony between the instruments of political Europe and those of the project to establish a common European currency.

In 1996, Lord Ralf Dahrendorf wrote these prophetic words: “The market's invisible hand will make even the most sophisticated plans vulnerable.” And that’s what has happened. The European federalists, those who have always wanted “more Europe”, believe that harmony can be restored only one way: namely, by politicians daring to take the final step (fiscal government) and catch up with the common European currency.

But not everyone can take that step to a fiscal government based on the euro, since the European economies are not performing at the same level. As things are currently, Germany is to export ad infinitum to Greece, which is to remain perpetually bankrupt and in the grip of austerity. Europe would thus be reduced to a “German Europe”, a core Europe. That, at least, is what Habermas has confided at our conference.

We’re all waiting for Mr Barroso, who is no longer from a country in the heart of Europe, to pull off the magic trick that holds it all together. But it’s difficult to imagine the rabbit that might hop out of his hat.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.