After a dramatic year, the final pages of the EU’s saga for 2012 can reluctantly be given the title ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’…sort of. If one thinks that the Cassandras foresaw the end of the EU project, then it seems that EU has saved its skin – at least temporarily.
The fear over a worsening crisis and the lessons of the current European turmoil are functioning as a catalyst for further integration and for important steps in risk management. The Banking Union along with the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) are part of the plan to ensure financial stability, confidence in the European banking sector, and the long-term consolidation of European economies towards the completion of the monetary union. The decision of the Council of European Finance Ministers to yield key supervisory tasks of member states’ banks to the European Central Bank is a clear step towards the establishment of the Banking Union.
The signals that EU leaders want to send out to the wider world translate to ‘yes we are united, we are going to withstand this crisis and emerge stronger from it’ – whether this message gets across or not is a different issue. The truth is that a considerable proportion of European media has played a role in convincing European citizens otherwise. This is closely related to the lack of genuine effort from politicians in portraying the whole truth about the financial crisis, its root causes, and the interdependent and systemic nature of the continent’s economic problems. Instead there has been a simplistic depiction of the problem including its culprits and victims. The blame game has worked well. Stereotypes were reproduced and certain nations became scapegoats. Populism has been applied wherever and whenever possible by politicians and journalists. Additionally, scaremongering is not helping government decision making, the markets, nor the already fraught public. For example, the European media’s has been repeating the obsolete suggestion of an imminent civil war in Greece.
Currently the impact of the media is one of the key reasons why solidarity amongst Europeans has been eroded, and this solidarity is the most central of the EU’s fundamental ideals. The absence of substantial and politically expressed solidarity, where there is shared participation in goals and risk, creates a vacuum in the EU mechanism. The issue of solidarity is fundamentally problematic and not resolvable in the short term, as not all Europeans feel they share a common identity and therefore there is no feeling of sacrifice for the sake of the Others.
The EU leaders are taking small steps to support the viability of the Eurozone. However there is no clear message about the long-term future and no feasible plan for further substantial integration. Also, the methods for facing the crisis and the medicines prescribed to vulnerable countries (e.g. Greece, Portugal, Spain) are considered by many analysts to not be the appropriate ones. The focus on austerity solely has not brought any results. For example in Greece, the accompanying malaises of austerity such as negative growth, lower tax revenues and a generally receding economy have caused social disorder and lack of hope. The forbidding unemployment numbers do not give young people room to breathe. Even if Standard & Poor’s has upgraded the country six notches from ‘selective default’ to ‘B-’ and the possibility of a Grexit seems to fade away, this has not altered the climate of despair and devastation.
Along with this contrasting image, there is a wealth of other antithetical messages coming from the EU. On the one hand, the EU is trying to survive the crisis and on the other hand its members are dying a slow death, like the mythical Cronus devouring his children; a united Europe, but highly diverse opinions on how to handle the situation; frequent EU summits with multiple goals, but slow steps and insignificant achievements; an EU that is concerned about its position in the global arena, but a poor example currently. The EU exerts a certain soft power by communing policies and values, like sustainable growth, democracy and cooperation under the community acquis. However the idea of the EU as regional model is brought into jeopardy.
Each EU summit of the past year has been characterised by EU leaders and the media as of desperate importance. Citizens have witnessed many a press conference, consultation of special committees and significant summit. However they have not been witness to a turning point in EU history, where real political will could not only resolve the current financial crisis, but also unite Europe to face the challenges of globalisation and the concomitant short-comings of this neoliberal economic system. This is the main failure of European leaders at the moment – that they haven’t addressed this crisis as a systemic one. The spasmodic decisions, including the further supervision and regulation are at the moment a drop in the ocean.
Valuable time has been lost. The ineffective policies applied after the realisation of the crisis in combination with the hesitant stance of the Germans for radical changes to the core of the EU underline the absolute necessity for a comprehensive and ground-breaking solution. The absence of a coordinated fiscal policy and of mechanisms to finance debt via the ECB, are main reasons for the failure to address the crisis in a rapid and effective way.
The EU’s complexity, its core philosophy and most importantly its problems do not allow a short term and opportunistic solution to the current crisis. This means that the present imbalanced measures, such as the strict imposition of austerity to peripheral EU countries, are proving to be self-defeating. 2013 will be a demanding year for the EU, with tensions arising from elections in Germany and Italy, and further difficult decisions on potential bail-outs. The key challenge is whether we seize the opportunity that the crisis offers for further integration.
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