April 29 2010, Philip Stephens, Europe unravels in a tangle of national interests

April 29 2010, Philip Stephens, Europe unravels in a tangle of national interests
The Financial Times
Watching the slow-motion train crash that is the Greek debt crisis invites the question as to whatever happened to European solidarity. Listening to politicians in Berlin explain that parsimonious German voters will not stomach a bail-out of their spendthrift continental cousins offers only half an answer.
There is more to the story than an angry collision between Greek profligacy and German moral superiority. Behind the proximate threat lies a more unsettling truth. The crisis is symptom as well as cause. For all its upheavals, there used to be something reassuringly ineluctable about the European Union. Now the enterprise is beginning to unravel.
Greece’s predicament, and the response of its eurozone partners, holds dangers on many levels: a sovereign default within the single currency; contagion as markets test the resilience of Portugal, Spain and Ireland; and a breakdown of the political trust and mutual support mechanisms on which the monetary union depends.
As my FT colleague Alan Beattie observed in a searing commentary earlier this week, recent events have underlined also the sheer incompetence of those charged with stewardship of the eurozone.
Given Angela Merkel’s central role, perhaps we should not have been surprised at the vacillation. Berlin’s stumbling response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers provided a template for the ineptitude that has again left the authorities playing catch-up with unforgiving markets.
Lest I am accused by my German friends of taking the side of the sinner against the sinned against, Ms Merkel has right on her side in saying that Athens must not be rewarded for disdaining its solemn obligations to its partners. It is no use writing cheques unless Greece has a credible fiscal plan.
As Berlin should have learnt, however, there comes a point when finger-wagging becomes self-defeating. The price of righteousness turns out to be chaos; and chaos does not discriminate – as the German banks holding billions of euros of Greek sovereign debt well understand. We sometimes have to live with moral hazard.
More worrying is what all this tells us about the fundamental cohesion of the Union. Until quite recently if someone asked what the EU would look like, say, 20 years hence my reply was that its essential contours would be pretty much unchanged. Sure, my argument would have run, the guiding purpose had changed with the end of the cold war, the reunification of Germany and enlargement to central and eastern Europe. But a collection of middle-ranking powers with common borders, values and interests had sensibly concluded that they were better together than apart.
The rise of new powers – China, India, Brazil and the rest – presaged a much diminished role for Europe on the global stage. Proud nations such as France, Germany, Britain or Spain would not surrender their identities; but they would pursue their interests collectively. Maddening as it could often be, “Europe” would always be around.
That is what I used to think. Even now, I still believe the logic is compelling. Look at any problem touching the peoples of Europe – from crises in the international financial system to global warming, from terrorism and uncontrolled migration to a newly assertive Russia – and they tell the same story. Europeans must act together if they want to exert influence.
For all that, Europe no longer carries the stamp of inevitability. Quite suddenly, it has become almost as easy to foresee a future in which the Union fractures. The risk is not so much of a great rupture – though if Greece defaults the immediate shocks will be profound – but of the atrophy that flows from the absence of political leadership.
European governments still pay lip service to the logic of co-operation; they are no longer willing or able – sometimes both – to admit its implications. They know where their national, and the continent’s, strategic interests lie, but they lack the purpose to marry them.
Germany relishes instead the chance to become a “normal” country, separating what it sees as its national from the European interest. Helmut Kohl’s historical insights are forgotten in the insistence that German taxpayers should not be asked to remain the continent’s paymaster. So too are Berlin’s long-term interests in European-wide political stability and in open markets for its exports.
France struggles with the dynamics of a Union in which more Europe no longer necessarily means more France. Nicolas Sarkozy’s admirable energy is unconnected to strategic purpose. Britain, as ever, stands half on the sidelines. Italy, led by Silvio Berlusconi, has removed itself from influence.
There have been moments of stasis before. But the rules have changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism have turned an enterprise of necessity into one of choice. If the Union falls into disrepair everyone will still be the loser; but the threat no longer seems an existential one.
The EU has become a victim of one of the awkward paradoxes of globalisation. Even as it robs nation states of power, global interdependence increases the domestic pressure on national politicians to shelter voters from the insecurities of a borderless world.
The response of Europe’s politicians has been to sacrifice the strategic to the tactical. They boast that they can “reclaim” power from the EU – and promise they will not be pushed around by Brussels. This explains Ms Merkel’s Germany-first approach to the single currency; and the reluctance of other leaders to match pieties about Europe’s role in the world with anything resembling common policies.
There is nothing strange or wrong about politicians pursuing national interests. That is what they are paid for. The problem for the EU is that governments now see this as a zero-sum game.

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