Picture this: The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, sits down this week to write an open letter. The new year unfolds before him in his mind. Its challenges are vast, existential. Only the truth will serve.
My Fellow Europeans, (he might write)
It’s not the fashion, as in the United States, to quote from the Bible. But, now, it feels appropriate. The line that comes to mind is “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” We in Europe have sown good seeds. No more war (the Balkans in the ’90s aside). The championing of liberal democracy. The maintenance (with strains) of social health and welfare systems. These are good crops.
It’s my job to lead the Commission, the business end of the European Union, drafting the plans, policies, programs. But I think it’s time not just to boost the EU (which I do a lot), but to face the bad choices made in the sowing department. If we don’t, we’ll end in the ditch which our many critics already think we inhabit.
It’s increasingly obvious that the creation of the Euro was a bad idea. Joseph Stiglitz, the U.S. economist who got a Nobel and who likes to criticize everybody, insists in his new book that either the currency must be broken up, or a “northern” zone of states that benefit from the euro be separated from a larger, “southern” circle which don’t.
Of course, I and others pooh pooh-ed the idea, especially as Stiglitz had written that I was trying to hold the EU together through the use of threats and fear after Brexit; and by calling me, a former Prime Minister, the proud architect of Luxembourg’s massive corporate tax-avoidance schemes.” Since this is truth-telling time, I have to admit - given the leaks from closed-door EU committees showing I fought to kill any robust measures on tax avoidance - he has a point.
The euro was more a means to closer political integration than a mere common currency. But we have to ask ourselves: do we really want it? Britain is leaving us, and that removes a constant critic of both the Euro and closer union. So we can leap ahead! But who’s proposing it? There’s a way, but where’s the will? The Guardian economics editor wrote recently that if we carry on with the euro we will need “a single banking system, a Europe-wide treasury, and a democratically elected finance minister with the power to raise money in Germany and spend it in Greece.” Any takers? Mrs. Merkel?
I’ve been too imprecise about immigration. I gave a talk last August in which I said that we should show solidarity to refugees, and added that borders were “the worst inventions ever made by politicians.” Sounds like something said after too good a lunch. I’m for solidarity - these people are truly the wretched of the earth - but we can’t go on adding more and more thousands to those already here – not with fears of terrorism, not with mass unemployment, not with Europeans, including first generation immigrants now citizens, rebelling. We have to look the issue in the face, and determine what is politically possible. Solidarity isn’t just taking in endless numbers. It can also be making the countries from which they come safe, habitable, developing. Might that not be better for all? And yes, it would be a big shift.
Some seeds we haven’t sown have been in the defense department. Most of our members assign less, sometimes much less, than the two percent of GDP they promised. Some, as the Spaniards and the Belgians spend less than one percent. And – truth will out again - my dear Luxembourg spends less than half a percent, and it’s the second-richest country in the world. Talk about free riding!
The soft power we are so proud of is possible only under the hard power umbrella of the United States, which pays for most of NATO. We’re now faced with an aggressive Russia, and though a number of my fellow leaders take something of the Donald Trump line that Vladimir Putin isn’t so bad, we should be clear that he’s trying to disunite us (as if we needed the help!)
And we should stop pussy-footing around the Central European states like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, which pour scorn on the EU’s policies, in some cases cozy up to Putin - but gladly take the EU’s subsidies. As the German political scientist Claus Offe said recently, they are developing ethnically exclusive nationalism and populism, which “do not fit the image of liberal democracy. Worse still, they are spreading (these ideas) in the old member states as well.” We thought we were missionaries of liberal democracy. Instead, we are learning from them how to be illiberal. We have to stop pandering to these countries, if we want to retain the values we talk about so much.
In March the Netherlands will hold a general election: will Geert Wilders of the anti-EU Freedom Party, currently the most popular party there, emerge as the new prime minister? In April, the first of the two rounds for the French presidential election is expected to show Marine LePen of the Front National as the winner, but polls show that she will be beaten by a centrist candidate in the May run-off. Could she do a Trump (no-one thought Trump could?) In the autumn, we’ll see if Angela Merkel can survive as leader after the German elections: and how well the anti-immigration Alternativ fur Deutschland will do. I make no predictions, but I guess the nationalists will do well.
The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which created what’s become the EU, is on March 25. I don’t foresee a joyful, all-European party. Our Italian hosts are talking rather of a “relaunching” of the EU project. I’m for that. But it has to be one hell of a relaunch.
If 2017 isn’t to be a disaster for the Unloved of Brussels, we have to make clear what we will and won’t do about the currency, how we can staunch the immigration flood and assist the wretched while keeping the trust of our citizens, how help the states to tackle the terrible dearth of jobs, especially for the young - and ditch all the dreams. At 60, it’s about time to stop dreaming, no?
Yours in Europe