Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Piris (3): Should We Be Scared?

One of the facts that M. Piris took as his starting point last week was the proposition that it is time to act boldly because we are faced with a Very Big Problem. The Eurocrisis, he argued, was a problem for the European Union as such, well beyond its immediate monetary implications. Yesterday, I argued that we are not actually showing any signs of being at Monetary DEFCON 1. Today I will challenge M. Piris's assumption that the Eurocrisis is a significant threat to the European Union as a whole.

I should start with that word "significant", which I added for a reason. Discussions of the legitimacy of the EU tend to rely heavily on output-legitimacy, and any Euro-induced economic crisis is therefore going to hurt the legitimacy of the EU, and with it its ability to function. This is trivially true: Any EU-level screw-up is a threat to the EU. When Italians mess around with EU money, that's a threat to the EU. When the External Action Service seems unable to launch any actual External Action, that's a threat to the EU. However, none of these things are a "significant threat", since none of them will actually cause the whole edifice to come down. The EU will continue to exist despite all scandals, despite the often conspicuous lack of evidence of actual competence, because ultimately it has enough legitimacy to survive.

The source of that legitimacy is not the EU's output, of which its citizens know quite little, but rather the Member States. EU legitimacy is borrowed; as long as the Member States say it is OK, it is OK. No amount of incompetence or crisis is going to change that. Instead of the EU being in any way threatened, the worst-case scenario is a "lost decade", a period of muddling through similar to the period of the Luxembourg Compromise. It is interesting to consider that Eurocrats - even otherwise realistic ones like Piris - consider such a thing to amount to a failure of the EU, when in fact it is the very opposite: it is the EU-actors working through their differences within the framework of the Treaties, even if their solutions are occasionally a bit creative.

If the Euro fails with a big bang, the political cost of supporting the EU rises. The Member States will still lend their legitimacy to the Union, but at a much higher domestic price. As a result, they will have to get tougher on Brussels, which in turn will mean that less will get done. But less getting done is not a failure of the Union. The quality of the functioning of the Union should not be measured by the number of pages it adds to the Acquis Communautaire every year. If the Euro fails, no new Constitutions for Europe will be proposed for a decade or two. The French will continue to keep foreign Ski Instructors out. Fidesz will stay in power in Hungary until the turn of the century. Nobody will ever find out what exactly the EU position on Kosovo is. So what? All of these things are bad, but none of them constitute a threat to the EU. There are many reasons to worry about the Eurocrisis, but concern for the future of the EU is not one of them.

Just like the leaders of the European Member States show no signs of being well and truly scared of the future of the Eurocrisis, they show no signs of considering all the options in the area of their relations with the EU. Until people start talking about unilaterally leaving the EU, there is nothing to worry about. And not even the Greeks want to do that.

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