Defending Europe in Hénin Beaumont
10 Fév

Defending Europe in Hénin Beaumont

A significant town in the north of France – Hénin Beaumont, 26.000 inhabitant-strong – has recently decided to shift from seventy years of socialism to Front National (FN), France’s extreme right anti-EU party. The 2014 Municipal elections gathered 64% of voters and 50,3% of their ballots went to the new FN Mayor, Steeve Briois. No second round was needed.What caused that conversion? Where is Europe’s responsibility? Think tanks Atelier Europe and the Martens Centre went on the spot to listen, hear Henin’s complaints and exchange views. The first source of discontent turned out to be the former Mayor’s fraud scandal and budget mismanagement, yet the debate revealed a deeper feeling of abandonment: « after World War II, French governments took a lot of taxes from our coal, textile and steel outputs and when all that closed down, nobody invested in our region to transform it ». Workers, engineers were left with the choice of unemployment or migration to other regions in France’s East-central areas. When asked about Charlie Hebdo and the recent terrorist attacks, the answer is quite blunt: « all of this is very Parisian here, far from our concerns. We want jobs ». The European Union is perceived as being unsupportive of those violent social changes: « Europe forgets the young and the old, […], Europe only brings more austerity to our problems, […] Europe is breaking up social achievements and serves the interests of free marketeers ». Others complained about the difficulty of filling FEDER’s paperwork, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), in small towns where none are trained for it.For many citizens of Hénin, despite their proximity to Belgium, Brussels is perceived as a cold place where few of them are at ease. Bringing a case or a project to the EU is « simply distressing ». Panelists answered back that Europe actually brings more opportunity and solidarity. The example of a participant’s close friend was mentioned: Italian born, she studied in France thanks to Erasmus and later on found a job in Sweden, learning two new languages in the process. One listener interjected that « she also sent her kids abroad, to Germany, and Europe requires a lot of efforts, a lot of contortions to reach employment. Eventually what you see scares you; the lack of activity is everywhere in the south, in Spain, in Italy ». And Europe’s institutions are « just confusing ».Hénin residents believe they have accepted a lot of compromise and adapted to the best of their abilities. Many left their families and region to find work elsewhere with very limited support from Paris and Brussels, in their view. They wonder where all those economic and political disruptions are leading them to, for what Europe ? This is where Front National plays its best cards: you are making sacrifices for a Europe that accelerates that instability and favors immigration […] bring back your energy to a project you can control and understand: your nation and your community.Combating that fatigue, and the egoistic temptations conveyed by far-right parties, reminds us of the challenges that awaits political representatives and all of us: Engage citizens in towns where participation at EU’s elections is low or negative; Persevere in explaining Europe and the direction of its policies; In a nutshell: make Europe a frontier that can be reached again. Michael Benhamou This paper was originally published on the Martens Centre for European Studies website. Please read our article on that debate...

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Merkel, Tsipras, Adam and Eve
05 Fév

Merkel, Tsipras, Adam and Eve

Chancellor Merkel faces a solitude Germans have known in the past. One that is quite familiar to the ongoing Greek problem. In the XVIIe century, Europe argued notably over « the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall« , i.e. Adam and Eve’s eating-the-apple-sin strikingly followed by the promise of redemption. Milton gave a powerful interpretation of that sequence in Paradise Lost (Chapter XII, 1667). Adam speaks here: Full of doubt I stand, Whether I should repent me now of sin, By me done or occasioned, or rejoice Much more that much more good thereof shall spring — To God more glory, more good will to men From God — and over wrath Grace shall abound. Catholic priests in France or in Italy gave explanations for the contradiction of Adam « rejoicing » for a sin paired with such a positive outcome: death for mankind but greater redemption through eternal Paradise. German priests saw this rewarding mechanism as irresponsible and dangerous. Many refused to mention it in their sermons. Should Greece and Prime Minister Tsipras be rewarded today, in spite of their budgetary sins? A part of Europe seems to believe so. France, Italy, Spain, do not feel legitimate in sermonizing Greece as they also share the burden of a significant debt. French President François Hollande hailed the victory of Syriza while his Minister of Finance confessed a 4,4% deficit for 2014 a few days before. Where is this bankrupted self-congratulation taking us? The Adam and Eve lesson that evil necessarily turns into good has a certain mystical charm, yet today’s economy plays by different rules: interest rates, growing deflation, loss of influence. We need Germany’s moral resilience to remind us of Europe’s need for fiscal responsability and at the same time we should recognize that Greek families have paid a price for their mistakes those past two years: families lost between 25% and 40% of their monthly revenue, inflation spiked, unemployment rose to 30%. That social shock is harsh. If debt could be alleviated over time, how far should we go in restructuring current austerity measures? Greeks may deserve some redemption but not Paradise.  Michael Benhamou Source: Wiki...

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In or out: getting the facts straight
13 Déc

In or out: getting the facts straight

Eurosceptics, and euro opponents, usually argue that euro area members would be so much richer had they not joined the common currency a decade ago. They often base their reasoning on comparisons with countries such as the UK, Denmark or Sweden, the three EU members which did not join the currency in 1999 and which are allegedly stronger economies than most Eurozone members. Is that so?  Well, actually, not really. If we compare GDP growth between 1999 (creation of the euro) and 2010, it is correct to say that growth was stronger on average for Denmark, Sweden and the UK than for the twelve other members (1,8% vs. 1,5%, not weighted by GDP). But does such a comparison make any sense? What does it mean to compare Greece and Denmark, France and the UK…such different countries, which differ by so many more elements than a simple currency? Not much, any honest analyst would reply. Assessing the euro impact means isolating the “euro factor” from other parameters, and therefore comparing countries which do not have the same currency, but which share a significant number of characteristics. For instance, no one would deny that Ireland and the UK have a lot in common : flexible labour laws, an appetite for free trade, a services-oriented economy…and so do Nordic countries such as Denmark and Finland: a flex-security model, a high level of public expenditures and homogeneous societies. But in both cases, these countries do not share the same currency: euro vs. pound sterling or Danish crown. So this comparison makes sense: here we do not compare pears and apples, but different kinds of apples, which mostly differ by one parameter. And the results? Over the 1999-2010 period, Finland grew by 2,3% on average, against 1,1% in Denmark ; Ireland grew by 3,9% (a strong figure, which takes into account the severe slowdown of the crisis), and as for the UK, guess what, not even half of that (1,8%) This certainly does not mean that these countries grew faster thanks to the euro. But this certainly undermines the very weak argument that the Eurozone grew slower because of the euro.  ...

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Europeans: stop lethargy, prepare for 2014 elections!
25 Juin

Europeans: stop lethargy, prepare for 2014 elections!

The next European Council (28-29 June 2012) might provide a new step towards deeper EU integration. The French President and some Southern allies will fight hard to get from the Germans the possibility, at least at some point in the future, of Eurobonds. In response, the Lady Chancellor and Herr Schäuble will fire back by claiming for further political integration. “Do you fancy more political integration or are you just interested in German cash? ”, asked the latter in a straight-forward German style! Berlin is right – it’s high time for the European partners, including traditional Europhiles like Italy or Spain, to state clearly whether they would accept a federal step. And every Europhile can be satisfied that, at last, the Hollande-Merkel opposition (Homer or even Merde as The Economist called it a few weeks ago) will remove the Germans from the shyness they had when the unbalanced couple, the so-called Merkozy, was on tour. And force the French, among others, to be more accurate on their real intentions (see past article: Que veut la France?). Cards down! Our leaders are now entering the danger zone. There is no certainty that the right decisions will be taken, or even decisions at all, and recent history does not allow any optimistic mood. Far from it. However, there is a sense that a page needs to be turned, it seems that status quo is not possible anymore. Will it be enough? Nobody can predict it, and even the best intentions might not be enough in the current crisis if facts are not consistent with willingness. For instance, François Hollande might be more pro-European than Sarkozy, but the French left’s reluctance to reduce the public spending (and the inability of the right to do it significantly) could be the burial of the Eurozone (by failing to match the Commission’s targets on deficit reductions and increasing the gap with Germany to an unsustainable level). But, for once in European affairs, let’s be positive and think that the leaders will answer to Mario Draghi’s message on being creative and courageous. Even if that happens, proving an incredible swift on European politics, a new Westphalia without the war, that might not be enough. Indeed, whatever EU leaders call for a federal step, now or in the near future, there will remain a political gap to fill. You don’t build in abstracto a political space. There is still a huge schizophrenia between the political speeches before and after the elections. Once in power, politicians tend to become more pro-EU, but campaigning is always on national solutions. As said in a recent article by Shlomo Ben-Ami (The triumph of politics in Europe), the situation cannot last forever without the risk of a huge backlash from voters. Everywhere on the continent, Pro-European forces are in a terrible condition. The Christian democrats will soon be like pre-euro crisis species and the liberals and moderates from the political centre are vanishing (except in some rare heavens such as Poland, one of the rare crisis free countries). And it’s not just about crisis. Don’t dare to think that people will accept losing their (national) identity in the hope of money; that’s the common mistake of fallen empires. People need pride and belief, they want to be part of a project where they would feel like stakeholder. Furthermore, in a democratic system, people need to believe that they decide, and nothing can be worse than the current impression that citizens can change leaders but not decisions and/or roads. We are dealing with tectonic forces, so what could one do? The structural changes facing us are a formidable threat if we don’t decide to commit for our convictions and finally stand up. Time has come for voluntarism. Not just general statements about our common love of stability and prosperity together. Politics is not just about speeches, but time. We need to set objectives where we could gain field. All our energy should be directed to exposing the public to what is really at stake, and how we can get through it. Every opportunity lost increases the risk of failure – in politics, ideas and projects need an awful lot of time to grow. In that context, one obvious objective for pro-European forces should be to focus on the next battlefield, e.g. the 2014 European elections. The current silence on it is a bad sign. Once again we’ll concentrate on it at the last minute, when it will be too late. Organisation is also key, and this time the clumsy last minute tribute to the European project won’t suffice. Atelier Europe has proposed (among 10 propositions for reforming the Union) to create a platform of federalists gathering independent organisations and political parties to formulate an ambitious program and prepare the ground for the campaign.  Whatever the shape it could take, unifying pro-European movements and forcing political parties to take, at least part of, their view on board is a priority. Let’s take the risk to be innovative, being in minority is better than not being at all – and that’s the destiny of any great idea before reaching the majority. It is obvious that national politicians will need support from external views and organisations to build a proper vision of Europe’s future. Once again, the last elections have sadly shown the inaccuracy of many politicians’ positions. It would be a terrible mistake to consider that people are not ready to hear a different song than the national liturgy. It is the responsibility of leaders to avoid the catastrophe where we are heading towards if we don’t clarify the message and, frankly, if we keep accepting the hiatus between speeches and facts (or national solutions for European issues). The great responsibility of the pro-European movement is to speak loudly and to do so within the political spectrum. Too often we have been too shy, like the good moderates we are. Indecision is lethal in the face of history. We need to push harder and to force the solution right onto the political stage. If we fail to do so, Europe is heading straight towards a dead end – even if the political leaders decide to move on. Then they might be sanctioned by voters who refuse that decisions are taken elsewhere but in the poll station. European politics needs to touch base, to connect with people. And there is no miracle to achieve that. Campaigning, again and again, is the only solution. 2014 is tomorrow, let’s start as soon as possible, it is only by doing so that we refuse to be the spectators of our own fate. Never again, we used to say.  ...

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The F… word

It is astonishing to watch, especially from the EU leaders, the intellectual constructions and reconstructions, not to mention the rounds about, to avoid the F… word. No, not this one, the other one: Federalism. As the Euro zone crisis deepens, as the world is asking European leaders to find a breakthrough solution to strengthen the Monetary Union, as any solution is seek to find an exit to the current financial mess, most of European politicians keep refusing to use the F word. That so extreme (listen to the interviews, when asked about federalism "euh not exactly", "not really", "yeees… but maybe in 20 years" and so on) that it would have been funny if the consequences of that circus would not be even more troubles for Europe. We have built a single currency, we have federalized a certain number of powers at the EU level. It's difficult if not impossible to go further with the old recipes. The so-called step by step policy is over. No time left. Now it becomes urgent to improve consistency among Member States and, above all, to improve the governance which lacks efficiency and clarity, EU leaders try everything they can to avoid the only true substantial move forward. They might be afraid to be considered as treators, like Madison for some people in his home State, Virginia, or perhaps they are just willing to keep their business and see Europe as a threat to it. Or they are just scared to jump into the unknown because they don't get the vision. Whatever the reasons, they all play a funny dance around the fire of federalism, trying to get the warmth of it without being burnt. But where is the exit? Can we really go further into the intergovernmental, or national, way? As time passes way, it is childish to imagine that you'll fine the miracle construction where all will be fixed and everything will be again business as usual. This will not occur. Wake up, we have touched the limit of the good old system! Either we go back to the national level, and the Euro will die, or we decide to achieve the political union, whatever you call it. Both choices can be defended even if we have obviously quite our preference. But time has come for a decision and the worst political choice would be, and that exactly what we are doing just now, not to take any decision. It is not just wrong politics, it is dead end...

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Is there anybody out there?

How the desertion by national politicians of the EU is feeding the citizens’ feeling of a European political vacuum. There is something wonderful about European politics. First, it doesn’t really exist in itself since most of the political power remains at the national level, but still the first target is always « Brussels! ». Second, the more perilous the political and economic outcome of the crisis is likely to be, the more urgent a radical solution becomes, and the more the national political classes seem to be ignorant if not indifferent to European issues. It is amazing to see how the EU has evolved and deepened during the last decades. But, at the same time, national politicians have still followed their provincial paths towards power without a glance towards the cold bureaucratic world of Europe. The so-called gap between the EU and its citizens is in fact a gap between national politicians, who strongly hold the power in their hands,   and where a significant part of our democratic power is exercised, e.g. Brussels. Such politicians reflect a true and complete inability to understand the EU, which makes their natural recipients, the electors, feeling pretty uncomfortable when it comes to judging how the EU is managed. Who could blame them? Actually, the strong rise of populist speeches if not ideas (the two are probably not the same since populism is more about reaction than action) in Europe is clearly fed by this fundamental inability of the political elite to understand the EU. It gives a feeling of big issues being out of the control of elected governments. That impacts strongly on the credibility of what moderate leaders could express. It also becomes easy for populist divas (there is an intriguing proportionality between lack of political maturity and the size of the egos) to point to the inaccuracy of decisions when there is indeed a lack of coordination within the EU for reaching consistent and efficient policies.  Hubris, or possibly shyness, prevents leaders from talking about the reality: for large-scale issues such as the economy, foreign policy and defence, none of the Member States have any longer the means, if not the will, to act alone. European convictions have long been the consequence of a personal path for leaders of the continent (Adenauer, de Gasperi, and so on). But Europe has never been a royal way towards power. Quite the opposite. As a result of it, except if you had strong convictions, which is not always the key quality to be a successful professional politician (at least in times of peace), you have no incentive to get involved in European affairs. It is therefore all the more logical that now that the generation of leaders who had experienced the War have stepped down, Europe looks like a naked king. For instance, can you mention a major French politician under the age of 60 who is publicly known for his or her long and permanent commitment to the EU (except from a general sympathy thankfully many of them have)? The consequences of this are well known. When going to the Commission or the European Parliament, politicians feel in exile. Either you go there to wait for a more prolific time, or as a final prize for good services towards your party. But never for the right reason: to act. The European project in itself can be blamed for it. Monnet and his fellows, probably by cautiousness towards traumatised national opinions in the gloomy time after the War, did not integrate the political dimension at the Community level (the elected Parliament came later on). They only focused on the bureaucratic and legalistic dimensions, letting the political consensus be reached between national governments, which is workable at 6 and with post-War leaders, but which is impossible to achieve efficiently at 27. For citizens with strong European convictions, it’s something very sad. The true damage is however elsewhere. If politicians keep sticking to the national tracks, there is a clear dead-end ahead of us. You can think that the responsibility for the current mess lies with the bankers, the greedy capitalists, and so on, but still there is something you can’t escape: the crisis makes obvious the failures of our European political system. The unbalanced nature of the EU, federal in some ways but politically almost purely national, makes it unsustainable in its current shape. This is nothing new, though. For instance, when the Euro was created, many economists and politicians claimed that you needed budgetary coordination (the famous policy mix) and enhanced capacity if you want to make Europe work. The call of the head of the European Central Bank for a EU Finance minister is all about that issue, but it is still incomplete. Indeed, you won’t get such a European Minister without an embryo of what could be considered a European Government (as the Commission should be), with a decent budget, if you want him or her to have enough power and, above all, legitimacy to regulate the all system. It’s the politics, stupid. We are now facing a turning point. Nationalist and populist forces are still in the minority but are rising almost everywhere in Europe. They may never reach the power but still their impact on our institutional system could be irreversible. The crisis has created a situation where leadership is not only about efficacity but also about survival, at least for the EU. It is high time for our politicians to have a look at it. If not, the euro zone, and subsequently the entire system, will be threatened with collapse and nobody can predict the consequences of it. That’s maybe not about winning the next election. But nobody will win if citizens follow the wrong road and History could be a harsh judge. At the end of the day, the issue of reforming the EU could be complex when it comes to implementing it. The European level needs now its own political heart, but huge debates are being held on how this would work. Either through parliamentarism, the Spinelli option (the Commission being the political emanation of the majority group/coalition in the PE) or the Blair option (through a directly elected leader). However, the triggering factor could be much more simple: would national leaders accept the political price of the Union, e.g. having a clear and legitimate leadership at the top of the EU?  I can hear already the comments « never, politicians are too conservative! ». Yes, they are, but sometimes change happens even if you refuse it. In particular when the next generation is waiting and pushing hard.  ...

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