The Magazine

Tough Times in EUtopia

The continent's politicians think the undemocratic character of the European Union is a virtue. They have miscalculated.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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If you suspect that all this leaves the EU looking somewhat stuck, you would be right. But then this is no accident. The lack of democratic responsiveness so thoroughly ingrained into the union's architecture was always intended to stop the bloc's politicians from succumbing to the temptations of protectionism, beggar-thy-neighbor devaluations, and other questionable devices often found in the toolbox of an economically desperate national government. That's all very well, and all very praiseworthy, but it doesn't do anything about the desperation, a desperation that will be felt all the more sharply by electorates looking for their leaders to do something, anything, in response to this crunch-only to discover to their chagrin (to use too gentle a word) that there is little that the EU will, legally or politically, allow those leaders to do.

To take just one example, earlier this year Britain saw a series of wildcat strikes protesting the importation of cheap foreign workers from elsewhere in the union as a means of undercutting the locals. The facts that triggered the dispute are murky, but what is certain is that even if the British government had wanted to intervene under EU law it could not. Equally, while the opposition Tories grumbled, nobody was fooled. If the Conservatives had been in charge, they would have done just the same as Labour: nothing. If you want to drive voters to the political extremes, stories like this are a good place to start.

Except that "start" is the wrong word. Parties of the extreme, whether of left or right, already have more than a foothold in Germany and France. "Populists" of every description can be found in the legislatures in countries from Belgium to Denmark to Latvia to Austria to Poland to Hungary. Take your pick: There are plenty to choose from. Even in never-so-sedate-as-it-seems Britain, a country that has made a fetish (if not always convincingly) of its moderation, the much-reviled far rightists of the hitherto tiny British National party are showing some signs of evolving from being useful bogeymen for the left into a party with demonstrable political clout within elements of a white working class that has been neglected for too long.

The backgrounds and the prospects of these movements vary widely from country to country, as do the pasts and the resentments that have shaped them, but in recent years their appeal has begun to grow in sections of the electorate pummeled by the dislocations brought about by mass immigration and globalization-dislocations made all the more painful by the realization that the ruling elites who never really asked them for their opinion on these changes, let alone their agreement to them, couldn't give a damn about their plight. This is a perception that will only be sharpened when the populations of these countries, more and more of whom are losing their jobs, are told by that very same political class that protection is off the agenda and that austerity is on, that saving local industries is unacceptable, and that helping out foreign countries is a must. And, oh yes, none of this was our fault-it was all the bankers' doing-and, oh yes, they and their bonuses have got to be rescued too.

So what's next? The leaders of the EU countries will do their best to muddle through in rickety, unpopular unity. Here and there they will cheat both on each other and on the key EU principle of a single market. The warning signs are already there. In February, President Sarkozy attacked the way that French auto companies were supplying their home market from manufacturing facilities in the Czech Republic. The previous month, Britain's Gordon Brown had criticized the amount of overseas lending by the UK's beleaguered bailed-out banks. Nevertheless, however awkwardly, however reluctantly, the EU's members will attempt to hang together-for as long as (or indeed longer than) their domestic politics comfortably permit, an effort that will inevitably further boost the appeal of the wild men of the fringes.

That said, as the EU's leaders are all too well aware, the slump has so far brought down two European governments (in Latvia and non-EU Iceland). Nobody wants to be next, let alone run the risk of political and economic breakdown. The few remaining traces of the budgetary discipline that supposedly still underpins the euro will therefore probably be scrapped. The euro may hang on to its reach, but only at the cost of its integrity. To ordinary Germans this will be seen as a betrayal, a dolchstoss even. A people haunted by memories of where a debauched currency can lead, they only agreed to part with their much-cherished deutsche mark on the understanding that the euro would be run with Bundesbank-style discipline. That was then.

So money will be thrown around, the imperiled brethren of both East and West will, after much shoving, screaming, and hesitation, be bailed out. Some protectionist measures (directed against those outside the EU) will be brought in and all fingers will be crossed. It won't be pretty, but with luck, it might be enough to stave off catastrophe. Pushing their luck, some glass-is-half-full Europhiles believe that the fact that no country can easily work its way through these tribulations alone will conclusively make the case for still closer European integration to some of the EU's more reluctant federalists. You can be sure that this is a rationalization that Brussels will look to exploit: Rahm Emanuel is not the only politician unwilling to waste a crisis. The EU's policy response to the slump is likely to have two objectives: the reconstruction of member-states' economies and the destruction of what's left of their autonomy. Going for the latter could well drive even more disaffected voters into the extremist fringe, though Brussels is arrogant enough to persist. There are already indications that the eurocrats may be pushing at an open door. In a startling example of mistaking the Titanic for the lifeboat, Poland has become just one of several nations speeding up plans to sign up for the euro-and the safe haven it is meant to represent.

On the other hand if, as appears disturbingly likely, the economic situation grows far darker, it's easy to draw an alternative picture in which both euro and union come under previously unimaginable stress, stress with unpredictable and potentially ominous consequences, stress that will be echoed and intensified by mounting political and social disorder in a Europe that discovers, too late, that there was something to be said for democracy after all.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.