Europe's mid-life crisis

19th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

Editor Paul Morris attended a debate on mid-life crisis. Not his own, yet, but that of Europe herself as the Economist asked, 'Is the EU just like any other 50-year-old?'

In advance of the EUs 50th anniversary, the Economist has compiled a special report, 'Fit at 50?', the gist of which is that Europe should set aside institutional reform and concentrate on the economy, dummy. In Brussels, the paper invited an august panel to discuss: Self-doubting, fearful of the future, increasing in size. Is the EU just like any other 50-year-old?

mirror, mirror...

Between the learned men in the panel there was surely more than 200 years worth of knowledge and experience: John Peet, the report’s author, Joaquin Almunia, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Klaus Haensch, MEP since 1979, and Jean Pisani-Ferry, member of the Commission’s Economic Policy Analysis group. 4 mid-life crises against 1. The odds were not fair.

In 1956, in the union’s early stages, it was more a case of mid-wife crisis. A UK observer was sent to the planning meetings and left half way through, claiming, "I leave happy. They will never agree. And if they do agree, nothing will result from it. And if something does result from it, it will be a disaster." And so that union within a union - together since 1707 - which discovered everything from the telephone to computing, can also add Euro-scepticism to its long list of inventions.

Joaquin Almunia

Haensch admitted that the EU lurches "from crisis to compromise". That sounds like life really, which makes this "project" - as Peet calls it - entirely human and evolving in much the way we do or at least aspire to. If today is the crisis then roll on the next compromise. And that could well be, as the report points out, the need to leave on the back-burner the constitution - without which current EU president Angela Markel claims "the Union cannot function properly" - and focus on prosperity, on the euro in the pocket and deal with "vested interests" such as the Trade Unions.

This latter point smacks of another blunt instrument from the UK, taking a spade to the soufflé that is continental Europe’s love-hate relationship with their syndicats. Big business is another vested interest that has done very nicely thank you from a successful Europe that once spent so long in the doldrums. "The 50 years since have brought peace and prosperity on a scale unimaginable in Europe‘s history,’" the leader comment acknowledges. The "since" refers to the previous 50 years. No peace, no prosperity, lest we forget

So this is a mid-life crisis, a time to revisit the dips and troughs of a life, a time to crack open a bottle of whisky and sit on the beach, feeling sorry for oneself and crying with hope and despair in equal measure. A moment to ask the big questions like what have I achieved, what does the future hold and where did I park the car? But the union cannot afford these luxuries. It is the member of the family who always has to be the responsible one. Hitting fifty is just another day at the office. There is no time for reflection, it seems. If she does indeed fade slowly like other great empires then, in 300 years hence, 2007 may be seen rather as the year Europe stopped wearing pigtails.

Listening to a debate that was not as lively as the report itself, I felt for the first time that these powerful figures were talking of the EU as a country, not a project, not as a bunch of states still attached by that umbilical cord from the old Iron and Steel Union, itself the progeny of years of appalling wars and disjointed economies. They are talking of scrapping the rotating presidency and having a real President, a spokesperson for all of us, one person representing perhaps 50 - why not 100 - countries. They are talking of inviting North Africa to join. Is this the Roman Empire wearing a toga cut from a different cloth?


Will this President’s head be embossed on all the future euro coins to satisfy another cult of the personality. An entire region would be reduced to what the world thinks of our equivalent of a Reagan, a Bush 1 or, God forgive, a Bush Mark 2 as Our Leader straddles the continents, attempting to represent what Haaensch says is "already the biggest player in the world." And from which country would this Leader come? A US Presidential style battle would do no more than add another crevice to a region whose land mass already has enough fault lines. Perhaps we should give the job to an American; they’ve been doing it for years and that it would give us a handy fall-guy when another quake strikes. Or perhaps we simply need a high powered Ambassador, a hand-shaker who would be welcome abroad in times of peace and war, feast and famine, crisis and compromise.

 Pisani-Ferry was the pessimist at the table, relying on a French phrase that is difficult to translate, 'Il faut que tout change pour que rien ne change'. Basically, you have to throw the baby out with the bath water and fill it up again with the same dirty water, presumably returning the baby to it as well. The French are talking of a 'Europe à la carte'. And they could be right. I am never one to overcook a weak metaphor but rather than force feeding everyone to choose the All You Can Eat Buffet for 9.50, let them scan the beautifully embossed menu and choose something that excites their national taste buds; at any rate, the British will only arrive in time for the dessert menu.

200,000 continental circulation

This Economist report is invaluable. Someone from outside the institutions - a newspaper, as Peet reiterated with his tongue firmly removed from his cheek, with "a generally pro European stance" - is setting the debate, asking some very pertinent questions. It is exactly this sort of report that, while not exactly slowing down the European juggernaut, will at least force it to reflect on its feet.

Personally, I think this 50-year-old should be given a day off next Sunday, to sit on the beach, nursing a good single malt and watching the sun go down on five decades of achievements. She can pat herself on the back for a job well done, all the while knowing that in the morning the whisky will bring a hangover that may last another fifty years. 

Paul Morris
Expatica Belgium

19 March 2007

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