Friday, March 23, 2012

EUROPE IN WINTER

Upon my arrival in Brussels I was looking forward to detecting some tangible indicators which might show that the worse of the monetary and political crisis was over. Returning to the United States I became, unfortunately, more pessimistic. I fully realize that the present political climate in America is also mediocre. The narrative has been hijacked by the Tea Party and the news from the Afghan/Pakistan/Iran/Middle East Hydra is bad. The disconnect rules at all levels. I do not want to dwell here on the mediocre aspects which result from this socio/moral wreckage but I need to point out that the American downturn is a matter of conjuncture, while the European malaise remains for the unforeseeable time structural if a new set of proper amendments is not made and monitored along the way.

The American economy will recover in time and the political discourse will return to normal. Thinkers abound who will tell you what to do with regard to the missteps which occurred during the last decennium. The ill-chosen strategic priorities can still be reversed. A sophisticated smart power strategy (see Joseph S. Nye Jr’s “The future of Power”) can correct the gross miscalculations that were made under the cover of a half-baked preventive war/coercive democratization doctrine.

The EU has nothing in common anymore with the ambitions of the Treaty of Rome. Cohesion has been displaced by bureaucracies and the pursuit of divergent agendas. The foundation of what was supposed to be more than a single market or currency, a real harmonious concert of nations with transparent institutions and a streamlined foreign and defense policy, is gone. The Greek debacle is more than the sum of its aberrations, it set the clock backwards and became a dangerous wake-up call for feelings, prejudices, dysfunctions which continue to proliferate under the mantle of endless repetitive summits and meetings between partners who were often more unreliable than not. The EU is faceless. Neither Jose Barroso, President of the Commission, Herman Van Rompuy, a decent and intelligent statesman, president of the Council, or Catherine Ashton, the hapless EU high representative have clout. The Franco-German (opportunist) axis rules under the stewardship of the German chancellor and her anti-inflation/austerity mantra. One can question this more dogmatic attitude of Mrs. Merkel. There seems almost no room left for growth for Germany’s partners if they strictly adhere to Berlin’s Diktat. Sometimes a zest of controlled inflation and Keynesian measures can help. This stalemate results in resentment and in unpleasant reminiscences. The EU is becoming an albatross with three flaps (North, South and East) resulting in a loss of balance. After the euro almost expired, we can imagine the next obituary for the Schengen Treaty. The EU External Action Service meanwhile is in hiding, while defense and foreign policy remain the threat of a few rather than the responsibility of all. The United Kingdom must not regret having kept its distance versus all those macro ambitions which looked desirable on paper but became a nightmare when reckoning knocked at the door, bringing with it all the perverse consequences of unregulated immigration and fiscal policies, and one can go on.

The new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti gives an irrefutable example of how things can sometimes be better managed, sur mesure. Turkey is a different case but Prime Minister Erdogan, who is one of the most astute statesmen of the moment, will certainly choose for the Britsh way, a la carte, in case he were still interested in joining the chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth. The reality is that what was supposed to be, will not be, and that this EU hybrid is becoming rudderless when left in the hands of its present claimers. The “intergovernmental” method has proven its might, to the chagrin of the European Parliament which is nothing but a roving voice in the wilderness. One might regret that former ambitions remain unfulfilled, but the world since the early days of the Common Market has changed. Today Germany is courted, instead of the Commission we knew under Jacques Delors. America, the remaining superpower, has no equal whatever its flaws might be, and it realizes that success will require partners from now on. Richard Haass mentions new networks that involve emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil.

The Iran “unknown” might be a test, but it better not be because the combination of military might and Islamo-fanaticism can make the nuclear cloud even more ominous. The EU will do what it does best, talk and come up with sanctions with more bark than bite. Let us hope that a confrontation can be avoided but let us not be na├»ve. Behead the snake before it bites, but make equally sure that you are not alone while you attempt to kill it. Obama might have to make a difficult choice at a time of overall war fatigue in the United States. They will leave Afghanistan which will return to where it stood 100 years ago. The public opinion in the US is aware of this costly, useless war, coming on top of the Iraq disaster. There will be few takers for another military operation in a terrain which becomes exponentially more hostile by the day. I am afraid that, unfortunately, in the absence of accountable transparency, there might be no other alternative than a strike against Iranian nuclear installations , with the consequences thereof. Individual European nations might act in conjunction, but the EU risks preferring a coffee break instead.

The EU has mainly soft power and is unable to reverse course on short notice. On top of this disequilibrium The Greek melo drachma might reappear. The random racist killings in Europe are a further indication that there is something rotten in our societies, which requires urgent therapy. It would be yet another poisonous gift if all those tragedies were to lead to populist, right-wing reactions, which start to appear, not only in European (and to a lesser extent, American) public opinion but also in governments and political parties. The last thing we need is a historical repeat.

May be the EU could find a raison d’etre in a more moral repositioning as a consensus builder, rather than as a supra-national imaginated power intra pares, a role in which it failed. The world has lost its moral compass. It is in need of “the great architect”. The part needs to be filled fast, since existing formulae such as the quartet, special envoy have failed; otherwise the winter of our discontent might last much longer than a mere couple of months and the so-called Arab Spring might become a geographical brushfire. Syria is not a show, it is another tragedy. What might follow might as well be apocalyptic if not contained or surgically removed. The EU can read the signs on the wall. Its relative weakness can be its strength because its suggestions do not carry arms. The peacemaker ex machina needs to be found. That is the question ! It reminds me of Churchill’s wicked comment that “one stands for a place – the other sits on it”.

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