Monday, April 16, 2012

Piris (2): Are We Scared Yet?

Given that Piris was proposing some pretty serious reforms, one of the political scientists in the audience asked a question that is interesting in oh so many ways: Are we (sufficiently) scared yet? (Please forgive the Scream reference. For someone of my age, it is quite simply unavoidable.)

As my political scientist colleague explained, a large reform requires a powerful motivating factor, and a nice big crisis will certainly do the trick. You should never let a good crisis go to waste. And no matter how much he denied it, that also seemed to be the tenor of M. Piris's presentation: we've got a big crisis on our hands, so let's see what we can do with it. But that raises the question: are we there yet? Are we sufficiently panicked to carry out whatever reforms are necessary to save the EU?

Personally, I doubt it. In most European countries, I see very little evidence of politicians risking anything substantive for the greater good. In the PIIGS countries, sure. In two of them, political elites have already appointed technocratic prime ministers, while in Ireland and Spain the incumbent governments committed political suicide. But those are not the countries that will have to carry any proposed reform. In places like Germany, France and the UK, as well as in the smaller relatively health Member States like Belgium, Finland and Austria, things develop based on their own internal electoral logic. The Belgians favour more Europeanisation for the same reasons that they always have, the Finns are responding to the rise of the True Finns, Cameron has to be seen as being tough on Europe without actually being tough on Europe, in France even the conservatives are socialists, and Mrs. Merkel can't be seen willingly spending money or being soft on inflation. And so we're all doomed.

Conclusion: outside the PIIGS countries no one is prepared to do whatever it takes to solve the Eurocrisis. If Merkel was properly scared, she'd bite the bullet on the one thing that scares her even more than spending hundreds of billions of euros: inflation. Germany needs higher inflation. The Eurozone needs higher inflation. The ECB needs an inflation target of 3-4%, and Germany needs to aim for the top of that range. The only way to restore the balance between the centre and the periphery in our lifetimes is to increase inflation in the centre. PIIGS deflation is not going to do it. Inflation in Germany is the only way to make PIIGS-austerity not completely self-defeating. And yet Merkel cannot do it, won't do it, because the German's aren't scared yet. At this point in time, if Merkel proposed more inflation - or any ECB policy change that would result in more inflation - her voters would have her taken out back and shot.

In France, too, it's business as usual. Both the Socialists and the Sarkozists are lying through their teeth, as usual, explaining to their voters that the whole crisis is the fault of all that horrible Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism, and that France will escape the crisis unhurt. Sarkozy is standing by the ESM - of course - and Hollande is saying he will renegotiate it without saying how. Beyond that, no one is talking about a structural solution because, in true French style, they don't even dare admit that there is a problem. So no, they're not scared yet.

As for the UK, which is the opposite of France in that in Britain even the socialists are conservative, they're too busy congratulating themselves with having had the "wisdom" to stay out of the Euro - as if rational deliberation had anything to do with that decision - to pay attention to their interest in pushing for a structural solution. In the meantime, they too are solving the problem of austerity-induced budget deficits with more austerity. So no, they're not scared yet, at least not about the right things.

The Dutch are scared about Muslims and Polish, the Flemish are worried about Walloons, the Walloons are worried about the Flemish, the Scottish are trying to figure out whether they want to be independent, the Lithuanians are arguing with the Polish, the Hungarians are arguing with everybody, and nobody shows any real signs of being worried about anything. Or, to be precise, they're worried, but not about themselves. They're worried about others. They're trying to save the Greeks and the other PIIGS, but no one realises they're also trying to save themselves. And until they do, no real reform proposal will ever go anywhere.

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