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Scapegoating les Anglo-Saxons

EU poobahs take aim at Wall Street and the City.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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But it was never more than an uneasy peace. The scapegoating of Wall Street and the City may be a diversionary tactic but there is nothing fake about the animus that lies behind it. The great majority of the EU’s political class disdains the Anglo-Saxon market capitalism that is, in its disorderliness, brutal competitiveness, and unembarrassed pursuit of profit, the product of an economic and political tradition that is the antithesis of its own. Americans expect that sort of thinking on Europe’s left, but it’s present on the continent’s right too. Outside the U.K., the dominant strain of thinking amongst the EU’s establishment right is in the Christian Democratic tradition. Its origins lie in Roman Catholicism—a creed never entirely comfortable with the free market. The mixed “Rhineland” model of capitalism is its model and “solidarity” its lodestar. For a very French example of this thinking, check out Nicolas Sarkozy’s Testimony (2006), where the future president attacked “stock market capitalism” and “speculators and predators.” (Note the date: Sarkozy was not one of those who kept quiet when times seemed to be good.) 

Thus the rejection of the Wall Street way by European elites is philosophical and aesthetic as much as it is party political. Its roots are deep and its expression, sometimes, ugly. In November 1942, a French official wrote a piece for a pro-Vichy magazine (interestingly, the same issue features an article by one of the future architects of the euro, François Mitterrand) bemoaning those who would live “free” (his scare quotes) in the “soft, comfortable mud of Anglo-Saxon materialism.” 

The “Anglo-Saxon” other (the Vichy crowd liked to throw in the Jews, as well) is a convenient target for European leaders looking for someone, anyone—other than themselves—to blame for the current shambles. But this is a scapegoat that the EU’s mandarins are also riding in pursuit of two long-standing objectives: crippling the City of London and, so far as possible, keeping Wall Street out of Brussels’s domain. Less than two weeks after the implosion of Lehman, Sarkozy announced that laissez-faire was “finished.” Wholesale reform of the global financial system was, he pronounced, essential.

 

Few would deny that some reform is needed. It’s even possible to assemble a respectable defense of the “anti-speculative” measures (such as certain restrictions on short-selling), if not their confidence-killing timing, recently put into place by German chancellor Angela Merkel. But look more closely at the underpinnings of Merkel’s actions and the picture darkens. The new measures can then be seen not as well-intentioned reform, but as the next step in Merkel’s populist crusade against the “perfidy” of international “speculators,” a crusade designed to mask the extent to which the current crisis (and the bill to German taxpayers) was brought on by the speculative scrip—the euro—that Germany’s politicians had forced upon their voters.

The fact that “speculators” have had little to do with the convulsions now shaking the eurozone means nothing to Merkel. It’s far easier to talk to the electorate about a “battle of the politicians against the markets”—a not unfamiliar tune to U.S. voters—than admit that the real battle that she has been fighting is against what remains of the political, democratic, and financial integrity of the European nation-state. 

And we can be sure that the EU elite will continue to stand alongside Merkel in combating the bogeyman bankers, a wag-the-dog war that dovetails nicely both with short-term expediency and long-term belief, and is designed to cut the financial sector—specifically the Anglo-American financial sector—down to size. That doesn’t mean the death of the local big banks that have for so long been a part of the European financial landscape, but it does mean that their business will be reined in. They will see a return to the far tighter political control of the past with all the potential for abuse that can bring. Significantly higher taxes lie in their future, although increasing worries over the fragile state of many EU banks (not least because of their exposure to the PIIGS’ debt) may stymie such plans for now. The bonus culture will come under additional pressure (not all Americans will mourn that), and efforts will be made to ensure that the markets are just that bit friendlier to entrenched interests—such as those of governments that borrow too much. The news last week that France is falling in with Merkel’s recent initiatives and that both countries would like to see them extended across the EU, is an early indication of what is to come. 

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