Costas Simitis, a former Greek Prime Minister, has urged Europe’s political leaders to demonstrate solidarity and have a vision for Europe’s future, reports Ewan Munro.
Given the traumatic nature of recent Greek political and economic history, and the extent of the demands placed on the Athens government by the Troika, it might have been expected that Costas Simitis would make a visceral attack on the European Union. He did no such thing.
But the former leader of Greece, speaking at a special Eurozone lecture organised by the University of Manchester’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, did criticise the European Union and the path that has brought his country and the Eurozone to crisis. His lecture was riddled with attacks on the coherence of the EU as an actor, the piecemeal nature of European responses to the sovereign debt crisis and the structural imbalances of the European Monetary Union.
“There is no vision”, he said. “The ‘European ideal’, the hope of overcoming the traumas of World War II, creating a community of states capable of dealing with common problems, is slipping into history.”
The challenges of monetary union without fiscal federalism have been well chronicled the last few years and remain a major challenge to the EU. However, the extent of the focus on fiscal challenges has caused politics to overlook the need to address broader challenges facing Europe.
“The causes of the overall crisis are far more complex and varied,” continued Mr Simitis. He urged that “imbalances between the developed core and the less developed periphery” be addressed.
The evident gulf in competitive performance within the Eurozone has been a major contributing factor to the growth of public debt that has plagued the EMU since 2008. To address these imbalances requires vision and explanations from national and European political elites, said Mr Simitis.
The painful effects of Hellenic efforts at devaluation have been deep and divisive. While Greek unemployment figures have fallen slightly this year, they remain at 26.8% , while the figure for the young is over twice that, at a staggering 55.3%.
These figures represent an underlying and growing risk to the long term prospects of the ‘European project’. The ominous growth of a disillusioned generation is not confined to Greece, but is increasingly evident in both Spain and Portugal.
The turn out in the last European elections highlights the declining trust and interest in Europe’s supranational institutions. Meanwhile the improved electoral performance of extremist and Eurosceptic parties marks a move toward introspective, nationally framed politics that have been quiet since the signing of the Schuman Declaration that founded the European Coal and Steel Community.
To overcome Europe’s crisis, a concerted effort must be made across the EMU to promote economic convergence. This will not be achieved solely by imposed economic measures directed critically at the southern member states.
“The divergent levels of competitiveness, administrative capacity and education cannot be overcome simply by debt reduction,” asserted Mr Simitis. Pain must be shared, he argued.
Germany’s successful, export-led, economic model depended on surpluses being created with fellow member states. This model is not sustainable without those markets within the Eurozone remaining open for business. Yet Berlin, and many other northern European capitals, resists funding southern nations that it sees as being less frugal or industrious than itself.
The ‘lazy southerner’ narrative that has come to hold such sway in recent years simplifies a complex and multifaceted picture. This rhetoric is counter-productive, it serves to divide our continent and promote a return to regressive politics. This is at a time – Simitis highlighted – when Europe is facing an unprecedented challenge to its standing in global affairs.
If rising public anger at austerity in the peripheral nations is to be countered, drastic action is needed to reverse the political trajectory. The responsibility for this action falls squarely on the shoulders of the politicians and political parties that have incrementally built the European Union as we know it today.
The coming century will no doubt prove decisive in terms of the future of both the European Union and the global standing of all its constituent members.
Mr Simitis continued: “Jacques Delors used to say ‘people do not fall in love with a single market’. Ideas…are needed. We must determine and explain what future we are aiming at, (but as we currently stand) nationalist excesses cloud our understanding of a common ‘narrative for the future’.”
If the political elites fail to provide this common narrative – and public opinion continues to increasingly view the European Union as an imposition, rather than the vehicle for collective solutions – this century may see the demise of the most ambitious exercise in regional integration and an end to the longest period of relative prosperity in European history.