The road not taken?
17 December 2010
A big step for the EU proved to be only a small one for Europeans. The amendment to the Lisbon Treaty approved by 27 European leaders on 16 December will establish a permanent stability mechanism to help member states in difficulty. Starting in 2013, the European Stability Mechanism will take over from the European Financial Stability Facility, launched with a budget of 440 billion euros (€750 billion with the contribution from the IMF) in response to the crisis in May this year.
In other words, as the headline in Austrian daily Die Presse puts it, the EU has established a European monetary fund – a measure that would have been unimaginable only a year ago. Little by little, pressure exerted by a succession of crises has ushered in a sort of informal federalism at a time when member states have continued to put national interests and agendas ahead of the European Commission. Born out of this paradox, the new stability mechanism will provide Europe with an essential means to minimise future emergencies. A fund of this kind would certainly have enabled it to avoid, or at least attenuate the damage wrought by financial market attacks on its more vulnerable member states earlier this year.
However, that does not mean all the outstanding problems have been solved. As Süddeutsche Zeitung pointed out this week, Europe’s leaders don’t seem to convey the impression that they are sure of which way they are heading. Earlier this month, their divided response to a proposal to create eurozone bonds was discreet, but it nonetheless highlighted divergences between the expectations of member states and the European Central Bank, which could add to the vulnerability of Eurozone countries that are the most exposed to hostile treatment on financial markets.
Finally, the amendment of the Lisbon Treaty was a political act of major consequence that failed to take into account the views of most of Europe’s citizens, who are now forced to contend with the grim reality of economic crisis and austerity policies. For the Greeks and the Irish, the bailouts authorised by their European partners are a source of resentment because they will mark the advent of a period of sacrifice. For many Germans, European solidarity has amounted to little more than a means to extort their hard earned euros. And in other countries, the result of prolonged negotiations between European leaders, however useful it may be, will have little impact in the lives of those who have to cope with unemployment and declining standards of living.
Is this a matter of deficient communication or an inadequate political reponse? In 2011, Europe’s 27 member states will have to provide an answer to this question, because the bid to overcome the crisis will not be possible without the support of Europe’s citizens.