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Europe's solidarity trap

17 avril 2020 Actualité
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The true division runs not between North and South, but between those who spend the others' money and those who pay the others' bills.

In late March, old Jacques Delors made a brief appearance back on the public stage to sound a somber warning: If Europe fails to demonstrate solidarity in these difficult times, it will be headed toward "mortal danger."

It is hard to argue with this.

At Easter, Pope Francis himself weighed in: "This is not a time for self-centeredness… After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again, thanks to a concrete spirit of solidarity that enabled it to overcome the rivalries of the past," he said. The pontiff specifically invoked the European Union, saying it was "facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world."

Again, it is hard to argue with this.

And yet the continent's leaders find themselves confronted with a choice between two highly unpleasant alternatives. For not only does the lack of solidarity pose a serious danger, but solidarity itself is steering Europe toward "mortal danger."

The seemingly endless recent meeting of the European finance ministers wound up April 9 having produced a mere notional agreement, which felt very much like the postponement of any real decision. This compromise (and the reactions it provoked) demonstrated that the "microbe is back," as Delors put it, using a metaphor sadly appropriate to the current situation. The "microbe" – for him as for most of the French, but also for the Italians – is precisely the lack of solidarity of Europe's "North" toward its "South."

The overused reference to North/South opposition, however, feels more like a call to arms designed to make the (supposedly selfish and self-centered) Northern countries give in, rather than a representation of reality. From 2014 to 2019, thanks also to the generous policies of the European Central Bank, several European Union member countries rolled up their sleeves to reduce their public debt: not only Germany and the Netherlands, but also Portugal, Spain and even Cyprus. In short, everyone but Greece, Italy and France. The true dividing line in Europe runs not between North and South, but between those who continue to spend knowing that others will eventually pay their bills (their notion of solidarity), and those who pay the others' bills, Germany above all.

"Sources close to the Élysée," writes Libération, have been delivering the following message: "If we start to say that Italy should have done more in the past (in order to) refuse all solidarity, the political cost will be enormous… If Italy finds itself back in a total economic depression under Europe's indifferent gaze, we will have again Salvini in power."

Those "sources close to the Élysée" are certainly right; from an electoral viewpoint, the theme of a Europe insensitive to the immediate vital needs of its weakest members is a gold mine, and Matteo Salvini exploits it well and with greater coherence than any of those who, by repeating his words, corroborate his arguments. But it doesn't take any particular political intelligence to realize that, when these sources speak of Italy and Salvini, they are actually thinking of France (whose debt has risen even more rapidly than Italy's) and of Marine Le Pen (who in recent times has become 'She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,' like Lord Voldemort).

Again, the sources are right, with one slight difference: While the "sovereignists" in power in Rome can, with some difficulty, be managed by a closely-knit Europe (meaning France plus Germany), having "sovereignists" in power in Paris would probably spell the death of the continental union. Thus making the different European countries the object of passive competition between the great powers which, at least by default, will remain great powers even after this crisis.

Here is the catch: Almost everyone seems to realize that a lack of European solidarity with Italy and France could propel Salvini and Le Pen to power. What most people tend to overlook, however, is the opposite scenario, but one which would produce the same, or even a worse, result: European solidarity with Italy and France could propel the "sovereignists" to power in Germany. If it is true that Italian and French voters can easily be roused to turn against Europe, and in particular against Germany, should the money to finance their governments' expenses not materialize (and "without conditions," if you please), it is equally true that German voters can easily be turned against Europe, in particular against Italy and France, once they see that they are being called on, yet again, to pay.

History has taught us that Germany can only exist by fusing itself into larger economic, political and military entities, in order to dilute its own strength and to avoid provoking the rise of hostile coalitions; but it doesn't mean that German voters know it or that they consider it a priority, now. In fact, Germany is the only country that in theory would have the ability – if one overlooks its geopolitical constraints – of living without the Union: in 2019, it was the world's fourth-largest economic power, the third-largest commercial power, the third in foreign investments and fourth in the UN's Human Development Index.

The German voter might easily deduce from this that, without the weight of Europe holding it down, without repeatedly having to clean up others' messes, the country could be even more prosperous than it is at present; and, to be sure, that it could work its way out of this crisis better than others.

There is no reason to believe that the virus of "My-Country-First" thinking might not infect German voters, too. For even in Germany (and especially during this transition to the post-Merkel period) plenty of politicians would be only too happy to exploit and fan the growing popular resentment over Germany's role as Europe's Zahlmeister, or treasurer, called time after time to bridge the gaps created by the budgetary carelessness of other EU countries.

An April 9 survey by the Politbarometer Institute of Mainz, Germany, found that 68 percent of Germans were favorable to providing European aid to the countries hardest hit by the crisis, ''to which Germany should be a major contributor." However, if the current crisis is dealt with, as we hear more and more frequently, with "wartime" economic measures, there is little chance this percentage would be as high. For wartime economic measures would mean raising public debt to stratospheric levels. And beyond a certain limit, there are only two ways to support such levels: one is a spectacular increase in production (an objective that appears out of reach for France or Italy); the other is to print more money, with the inevitable consequence of destroying a large part of people's savings.

In Germany, memories of the hyperinflation of 1923 (but also of the June 1948 decision to replace the Reichsmark with the Deutsche mark, reducing the nominal value of the currency by 90 percent overnight), is now deeply rooted in the national psyche. Considering that the number of people with substantial – and potentially devaluable – assets has grown exponentially since World War II, it is easy to imagine what would happen if the specter of a new hyperinflation should loom on the horizon.

France, for its part, is tiptoeing along a narrow and slippery path between two abysses. On the one hand, the risk that its voters pull it out of the Union, condemning it to political and economic irrelevance (and thus to suffering even more dramatically the effects of the current crisis). On the other hand, the risk of provoking a similar reaction among German voters, leaving France not only without the Union, but plunging it 100 years back in history, when its mortal enemy was – precisely – Germany.

To be sure, none of these scenarios has yet been written. Geopolitics, as Robert Kaplan puts it, is a "battle against fate". Assuming, that is, one knows which fate one needs to battle against.

By Manlio Graziano (Translation by Brian Knowlton)



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