The French and Greek elections last weekend both delivered a body blow to Europe’s austerity drive designed to rein in national over-spending and reduce the enormous debt mountains that have been accumulating over the past 30 years or more.
That Francois Hollande picked up on the anti-austerity theme was probably as much to do with pragmatic politics as ideology. He knows very well that he will not be able to keep all his policy commitments from the campaign trail.
France is not Greece, but it does not have any laurels to rest on either. It was recently downgraded by one rating agency, has high youth unemployment at 25 per cent and a budget that has not been balanced in three decades. That the people voted for a candidate promising a brighter future, reversing pension reforms, creating thousands of new jobs and re-negotiating Europe’s fiscal compact is little surprise – but may shortly be rudely confronted by reality.
At least Hollande is a democrat and a good European. Nicolas Sarkozy was too when he took up office. His interventions in the European Parliament during the French Presidency of the European Union could not be faulted by federalists. And his energy and dynamism were deployed in the common interest.
That is, until he found himself facing likely defeat to his socialist challenger. He then turned abruptly to the right in a vain effort to woo the voters of Marine Le Pen. Time and again, EU leaders who experiment with populist messages have only served to strengthen – rather than weaken – the hand of the initiators of such messages. In the Netherlands, Finland, Greece and elsewhere – populist, racist and extremist parties have all benefitted from such heightened rhetoric. Why vote for a copy when you can vote for the original?
At the other end of the Mediterranean, the Greek elections delivered an anarchic result in which the two main parties rightly got punished for the decades of corruption and clientilism. But the anti-establishment parties that have reaped the benefit and filled the vacuum have largely vented their anger against the EU and international financial institutions that have imposed tough austerity measures in return for bailing them out from certain bankruptcy. The result leaves no party in Greece able to form a government and everyone promising to voters what cannot be delivered.
So the beleaguered Greek citizenry continues to suffer from an inept and self-serving political class that now counts neo-Nazis among its ranks. On the other side of the spectrum is a new far left party, Syriza, which has blatantly and opportunistically capitalised on the country’s woes and the tough adjustment plan imposed by external creditors. It is disingenuous of the party leader to pretend he can tear up the bailout conditions, so painfully negotiated over the last two years, and offer a painless alternative.
The tendency of politicians in both France and Greece to blame foreigners – Brussels bureaucrats or third country migrants – for their country’s travails is a telling indicator that the construction of Europe over the last 60 years still remains a fragile structure that can be so easily and quickly overturned by irresponsible and populist rhetoric – leading to a recrudescence of the kind of nationalism that led us into two world wars in the first half of last century.
Growing Euroscepticism across member states must be countered by a radical renewal of those who are convinced Europeans. We cannot afford to become complacent or indifferent to events that are now shaping public opinion. Europe needs to rediscover its élan and purpose or we will sleepwalk to disintegration and disunity.
Ending the current economic crisis must be everyone’s top priority. No stone must be left unturned in finding a solution, even if that means further pooling of sovereignty. Germany for instance is currently deaf to some practical solutions, such as a European debt redemption fund – which would combine discipline with solidarity – because it fears a loss of sovereignty and accepting responsibility for other people’s debt. But the alternative – never-ending taxpayer funded bailouts – is surely worse.
It is too simplistic and economically nonsensical to argue that austerity is wrong and growth is good. They are two sides of the same coin. Governments cannot invest in growth if they are paying huge interest rates on their borrowing to cover their debts.
Annual deficits need to be reined in by reducing unnecessary expenditure so that the resources subsequently liberated can be invested in productive jobs and growth strategies. Some countries have more to do than others in this regard but the rules agreed by European leaders and recently enshrined in a political pact on budgetary discipline remain sensible for long-term budgetary planning.
In this week we commemorate the speech on May 9, 1950, by French foreign minister Robert Schuman. The words launched the idea of European integration and pooled sovereignty. His message remains as relevant now as it did then.
Europe will not stand still. It will either collapse under the weight of growing nationalism and scepticism or it will recover its sense of purpose, agree to make a qualitative leap in integration in response to the crisis and therefore offer the next generation the kind of peace and stability that we have enjoyed over the past half century.
It is not enough to hope that the latter scenario will prevail for there are forces actively working to destroy it. There is no need to fear a more federal Europe, but every reason to embrace it.
Guy Verhofstadt MEP is leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament.