Let the debate begin!
27 April 2012
Is François Hollande the “darling of Brussels” lauded by left-wing daily Libération, or the “rather dangerous” man, feared by the liberal weekly, The Economist ? One thing is certain: with his pledge to demand a growth pact if he is elected on 6 May, the socialist candidate for the French presidency has launched a debate that has inspired many Europeans, and elicited a positive response from a number of leaders, who, until now, had kept their silence under the watchful eye of Angela Merkel. On 25 April, the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi’s allusion to a “growth compact” met with support from the German Chancellor. But the fact that two major proponents of debt reduction and budgetary discipline are employing the same terms as those used by the French presidential candidate does not mean that they agree with his programme; rather that the lines are being drawn by two camps preparing for a battle that will be fought over the next few months. On one side, François Hollande is advocating infrastructure projects financed by European “project bonds”, a greater role for the European Investment Bank, a tax on financial transactions and the utilisation of European structural funds that have not been spent. On the other, Mario Draghi is insisting that budget policies “must be subject to mutual surveillance and corrected if required”, and that “structural reforms to facilitate entrepreneurial activities, the start-up of new firms and job creation” are necessary, even if they are painful. Supply or demand, liberal reform or Keynesian kick-start: this is not a new debate, but it is one that had almost disappeared in the EU. Which side will prevail? If he wins on 6 May, Hollande will enter the arena with the legitimacy of an elected representative which some of the other key figures lack. Having said that, it is not certain that he will be able to turn the tables in an ensuing power struggle. We should bear in mind that only two months ago, 12 european leaders called for stimulus measures. But the proposals outlined in their open letter – labour market reforms, opening up the internal market for services etc. – are closer to the vision favoured by Draghi and Merkel than the one espoused by the French presidential candidate. In this regard, the Chancellor’s approach to Mario Monti strongly resembles a manoeuvre to isolate Hollande, who will need support from another European heavyweight economy, even if he is counting on a win for the Labour Party in the next Dutch elections. It appears that that the European Council will soon be characterised by a genuine left-right alternative, which should encourage a real debate on the socio-economic orientation of the Union. After two years of crisis, it will not hurt to have a frank discussion, and even a touch of democracy.