Much of the construction of Europe had been in the hands of France and Germany until Sarkozy and Merkel erupted on the scene. These are two politicians more interested in their own political fortune than in the idea of a United Europe. I should say the ideal of a United Europe that was born after World War II: a brave attempt to prevent once and for all the return of the wars that devasted the continent and pushed Europe to the rank of a third-rate power, behind America and the Soviet Union.
Politicians have changed, and people with vision, the likes of Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet or Robert Schuman, the founding fathers of Europe, are no longer around. Now the new generations have no direct knowledge of either those politicians or those wars - and, alas, no empathy: to them, it's all past stuff, buried in the history books. The young are concerned about employment, about making money, about building the good life for themselves - and who can blame them in these recessionary times? Even older people have stopped being concerned about Europe. Savvy politicians like Merkel and Sarkozy have been quick to latch on to the new zeitgeist. Their political future depends on it: they are both facing re-election. Neither is willing to defend the European idea, it would cost them too much in terms of votes.
Or so they think.
Music for the Pigs Image by Bergen Public Library via Flickr
If you believe I'm exaggerating, just look at the recent news: the bailout of Greece first, and then Ireland and now Portugal. A scandal! Every time the Germans dragged their feet, until (in Greece's case) it reached the point of near-collapse for the Euro. And for the moment, nobody's rushing to save Portugal, and everybody's saying things are getting worse in Greece (but austerity programs famously make matters worse). The Germans don't want to pay for the "sins" of their "profligate" Euro partners. They have forgotten, or pretend to ignore that Southern Europe's economic woes has its source - or at least one major source - in Germany's insistence on establishing the Euro as an exact replica of the Deutsche Mark. I'm sure those of you among my readers who lived through the introduction of the Euro in Southern Europe in 2000 will remember how we all suddenly felt poorer. The Euro caused an immediate loss of income for the average consumer (particularly pensioners and fixed-income earners), while giving intermediaries (distributors of consumer goods and services of all kinds, from restaurants to fish market stalls) an unexpected boost, as they played on everybody's confusion about the real value of the new money. That did not happen to Germany, and so far Germany has been the real winner from the introduction of the Euro.
It's simple: before the Euro's introduction, Germany had a small trade deficit; now it has a huge surplus. This is not an opinion of mine, it's a statistical fact: Thanks to the Euro, German exports have remained highly competitive and that's why they've soared. If those exports had been priced in Deutsche Mark, they would have been hard to sell because the Deutsche Mark would have risen. But the Euro hasn't risen, so prices for German exports were kept down. And if the Euro didn't rise, that was because of the other (ailing) Euro-partner economies...
It would be about time that Germany consider repaying the moral debt it has incurred with its Euro-partners. Instead the Germans have invented a "carrot and stick" approach: they will help rescue the Euro, provided all 17 euro-partners commit themselves to "more fiscal rigor". We'll help you, ya, if you tighten your belts! That, of course, is easy to say when you yourself have a roaring economy and no belt-tightening to do...
Or consider another recent event: the wave of illegal immigrants that has flooded Italy, over 25,000 since January 2011. What could Italy do? They came in by the boatload, some of them sinking and losing their lives. Should one shoot them? Put them back in boats and push them out to sea? Of course not. A minimum sense of decency and Christian charity require that something constructive be done. Not easy, and an expensive proposition, no matter what solutions one might come up with: short-term (for example, find job openings suitable for immigrants and not in competition with Europeans) and long-term (invest in new industries in the immigrants' home countries in order to create jobs for them).
Confronted with such a problem, you'd think the European Commission would make constructive proposals. But no, nothing has come out of Brussels except for references to European rules etc. Because naturally, the European structures in Brussels have no solutions to offer, even though the immigration problem is nothing new. All we have is Frontex, a very small and essentially negative start, based on the idea of "border security management" - read: control and rejection of immigrants.
Making matters worse, France, instead of helping Italy, has flatly refused to sort this problem out, beyond of course the usual assurances of helping Italy patrol the seas etc. It has even done worse: it has threatened to suspend the treaty of Schengen - not exactly a perfect arrangement since to cross borders in Europe you still need a passport, but nevertheless a start with the removal of customs barriers. France's refusal is something close to a moral scandal: it simply ignores that it is the natural target destination for most of the immigrants since they are Tunisians, speak French and often have family in France. No surprise considering Tunisia is an ex-colony of France and its middle class has been brought up in the French language and values of freedom, fraternity and equality.
Today Sarkozy met Berlusconi in Rome to discuss the immigration question (and a few others, like the French "hostile" Lactalis OPA on the Italian Parmalat). The results of that meeting have been just as expected: our great politicians have agreed to ask Brussels to "reform Schengen". Sarkozy told reporters with a straight face: "We want Schengen to survive, but to survive it must be reformed." Reformed? It is already quite insufficient as it is (imagine how Americans would feel if to travel from New York to Connecticut they had to take their passport). But now, as Berlusconi added, under "exceptional circumstances", the Schengen treaty can be "suspended" - all in the name of the "rule of law"...
Ha, where is freedom, where is equality, where is fraternity, WHERE IS EUROPE?
My only hope is that a new generation will wake up to values other than making money...
How do you feel about this? Are Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi right? Shouldn't these "exceptional circumstances" be the reason to move forward on Europe rather than backwards? Shouldn't we work on creating common policies to deal with immigration and budget deficits rather than dismantling the few European structures we have?
To tell you the truth, I'm indignant!