On Sunday this newspaper gave a lot of space to a serious matter: the EU is saving the euro but losing public support. The figures are clear: confidence in the EU has plunged in the peripheral euro countries, until lately so pro-EU. It is tempting to conclude that the problem is the poor management of the euro-crisis, and the failure of the austerity policies imposed by Germany as an indispensable condition for the bailouts granted or suggested. But we need only look at the EU countries beyond the euro zone to realize that the problem is more extensive and, unfortunately, more profound.
No European country is further from the single-currency mindset than the United Kingdom. Last weekend the polls showed us a familiar phenomenon: while the parties of the government coalition (Conservatives and Liberals) insist there is no alternative to austerity, 58 percent of the public think that the present economic policy is detrimental to the country. Support for the coalition parties is at an ebb, while UKIP, the party of Europhobic, populist nationalism, attracts 17 percent of the vote.
Bulgaria is headed for early elections after the government’s fall, forced by a popular revolt against high electricity prices and austerity measures. Sofia had been included, by pro-fiscal-consolidation economists, among the EU’s star pupils: the BELL group (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) was known for fiscal stability and low indebtedness, unlike the naughty PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). The Baltic republics are regularly held up as examples of the benefits of radical fiscal austerity, prompt and ruthless, to getting back on the path of growth. No matter that these countries have the EU’s highest rates of emigration, with the aging of the population that entails; that poverty has risen to intolerable levels such as 40-49 percent; or that 80 percent of Latvians and Lithuanians term the economic situation bad or very bad. Latvia (which Hillary Clinton called “Angela Merkel’s second-favorite country”) after strict compliance with the austerity creed, last week applied for euro-zone membership, delighting the hawks of consolidation.
No European country is further from the single-currency mindset than the United Kingdom
In Central and Eastern Europe the litany of “no alternative” — or of considering any alternative anti-EU and populist — has been heard for two decades now. There the platter of human rights and democracy that the EU represented was seasoned with an economic model clearly to the right of that prevalent in Western Europe. In Germany itself, few question the Agenda 2010 that a decade ago consolidated the model of extreme wage restraint and export dependence, a model that has not only resulted in a 10-percent shrinkage of the middle class, but also abetted the imbalances of the euro zone by financing, and even incentivizing with the common monetary policy, the debt in the periphery of the euro zone.
For all these reasons, we are not looking at an economic crisis that became political due to bad management in the euro zone. Nor is the public disaffection with the euro per se. The ideological paradigm that the Triple A groups has imposed in order to climb out of the euro crisis has a longer and wider curriculum in the EU. The underlying crisis is a political one: real alternatives are lacking. The public can choose austerity or expansion, shoulder the load of their politicians’ mistakes, understand that bad times call for painful decisions. But what does not seem sustainable in the long term is to associate the EU with a single economic policy, with an unequal sharing-out of the costs of the crisis, with a stubborn, arrogant technocracy distant from the reality of millions of Europeans. Most of us can distinguish the EU project from this asphyxiating obstinacy. But a change of course has to come before the European elections in 2014, which threaten to open the Pandora’s box of anti-European populism, but are at the same time a golden opportunity to open a far more inclusive debate on how to manage our economy and our interdependence.