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February 20, 2012

Bruxelles: l’union fait–elle la force?

Grand-PlaceI spent last week, just another ‘crucial’ week for the Greek issue, in Brussels. It is not a city I particularly like. I have visited it often, but always for short, and always with the same grey indistinct weather, worse even than English weather, where it may rain more, but there is some variation on the theme at least. Maybe it's just because most times I just visit its two most soulless and immoral bits: the surroundings of Gare du Nord, with its 1970s World Trade Centre, the red-light district and the European Trade Union House (the reason of my visit is the last), and the European institutions – in whose corridors, last week, the default of Greece was taken as granted, with much shoulder shrugging.

The city centre is pretty, but not as much as other Belgian towns. Since Belgian independence, art is mostly restricted to concept rather than beauty, from art nouveau to surrealism and BD, the cartoons – the new Hergé museum in Louvain-La-Neuve is architectonically impressive but I didn’t have the time to see it and check what they made of Tintin’s reactionary and colonialist tendencies.

Herge MuseumNeither am I a fan of Belgian cuisine. Its large portions and generous fat-intake are comforting, sure, but I think it is largely overrated, overcooked (including the mussels), oversweetened (including the chocolate), and, of course, overpriced. Belgium has just been found to be the most expensive country in the Eurozone, after Luxembourg (I am not sure how Finland can be behind – mystery of European statistics). Of course, there are exceptions, the trappist beer and Pierre Marcolini’s chocolates, but even there, I prefer the less fussy British ales and the bitterer French chocolates (Christian Constant...).

Overpriced, I was saying. This is the headlines in Belgium, which is going through its own little sovereign debt crisis thanks to its debt at around 100% of GDP and a fresh downgrading by the visible dirty hand of the market, the rating agencies. The kingdom has been forced by external pressure to find itself a government after a year and a half of surrealist anarchy. Fortunately, it is a centre-left government, and not a technocratic one, but the pressure is here too on public expenditure, privatisation, and especially wage indexation, on which high prices are blamed.Chocolat

One thing I would in theory like of Bruxelles is bilingualism (or even more than bi-, given the penetration of English and 30% foreign population). I am fascinated by bilingual places, whether Montreal, Südtirol, North Wales or Catalunya. But apart from the cacophonic nature of Dutch (but Catalan is not much better), here bilingualism is more divisive then enriching. The new Prime Minister Di Rupo (who speaks Italian and English) is now taking Dutch lessons, but his faux-pas (like saying ‘recreation’ instead of ‘recession’) confirm Flemish perception of the Walloons treating Dutch as a second-class language, and thereby their refusal to answer in French. Similar fights occur in all bilingual countries and regions (Latvians just voted on Sunday to refuse Russian an official status), but here the division is deepest, with clear geographic borders between linguistic groups. One Dutch word I know is "apartheid"... and without making silly comparisons with South Africa, I am afraid the state of Belgium resembles right now the state of Europe as a whole: dialogue between deaf and façade agreements to satisfy external demands. The Belgian motto is l’union fait la force, unity is strength – which does not sound convincing whether in Belgium or in the EU.


December 13, 2011

4 countries, 4 views of the Eurocrisis

The taz title on Saturday was brilliant, as usual: Merkel rettet Euro-krize taz_2011_12_10s1.pdf(Merkel saves Eurocrisis). Like a soap opera, it never ends, and it should not. To be precise, what started in 2008 does not deserve the definition of “crisis” in the κρίσις sense of moment of decision, because so far there has been so far little choice and little rupture: we actually have more of the same (more power for financial institutions, more inequality, more neglect of democracy, in short more privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses). It would be better defined as ‘shock’ perpetuation in Naomi Klein of Shock therapy, whereby every month or two we are faced to a new disaster, delivered with good timing by rating agencies, wits a There Is No Alternative message – the opposite of a crisis.

Yet at the EU-level we have now reached a sort of crisis, not so much on socio-economic issues (the agreement solves nothing and more austerity will only dig us into a deeper hole), but on UK-Europe relations. I had the luck to observe the last three weeks, building up to the agreement of last Friday, from the four largest EU countries, while travelling between Paris, Coventry, Milan and Hamburg. Despite information being increasingly transnational, reports are quite different country by country. In the UK (except for FT and Guardian) the summit was a British victory (!!!), in France and Italy, a German victory, and in Germany, a German half-defeat, because already in January Italians and Spaniards will come asking for more cash and Germany has gained no new excuses to say no. These differences of perception make a Euro-polity still difficult to imagine, but at least shows that national political spheres still matter, and at least at that level some debate could take place.

In European politics it happens what I always tell my English students when I try to raise in them at least some interest in international issues and foreign languages: Europeans know much more about Britain than Britain about Europe, which is a competitive disadvantage for the Brits, for instance in the hierarchy of multinational companies. This fact has perhaps a more flattering side for the British: Europe is fascinated by the extravagant British, while Britain's interest in Europe is limited to sunshine and little else. In any case, reports of British politics in European newspapers are much deeper and better-informed than British newspapers’ reports of European affairs, except perhaps for The Economist and FT, which are more global than British. Le monde, die Welt, die FAZ have published detailed analyses of Cameron’s stance, although opinions differ: for Le monde and die Welt Cameron is authentically anti-European and will eventually bring the UK out of the EU (you can see the happy smile of the journalist through the lines at this point), for der Spiegel he is just an opportunistic tactician, who embraced anti-Europeanism only to get elected as Tory leader in 2005 and now simply avoids at any cost any treaty renegotiation, which would break up his government and his own party. By contrast, British medias’ analyses don’t go beyond stereotypical portraits of Merkel and Sarkozy, failing to spot that within a year or two both Germany and France will be much less Anglophile than today. At the SPD congress last week-end many spoke up to wish a British exit, to finish off with free riders and with obstruction. Le monde has regularly wished the same for very long (I suspect, since 1973). Italians have to keep a low, penitent profile nowadays, but Repubblica still hopes that Clegg will one day grow up, leave the coalition and send Cameron, rather than the whole country, out of the UK. By the way, even in the new member states, its natural allies, Cameron finds few sympathetic voices except in Hungary and the Czech Republic, due to his decision to combine with nutty populist righting parties from Central eastern Europe in the European Parliament.

The funniest reports are certainly the British rightwing press triumphal reports of a ‘victory’ and a ‘veto’: according to them, 26 countries have remained isolated. Indeed the agreement of last Friday does not change much. Read for instance the interesting interview with Sarkozy in Le monde, where a new 85%-majority voting system on the European Solidarity Mechanism is mentioned, which would give the UK, France, Italy (and if they were there, the UK!) a veto power. In the short term, the new EU-26 financial regulations cannot go against the single market and punish the UK for its non co-operation, especially on a possible Tobin Tax. But over-time, excluding the UK from all new ‘enabling’ financial regulations may isolate and damage the City of London, that 28th, non democratic EU country (see the analysis by George Monbiot in the Guardian). Maybe the next UK elections would be a moment of crisis for British voters: the time to choose between staying with the EU-26 or with that 28th country (by then 29th: welcome Croatia).


November 08, 2011

Berlusconi's decay and the rise of debtocracy

Sixteen months ago, with the majority of Italians, I celebrated Berlusconi’s loss of control over a parliamentary majority - but with a bitter aftertaste. Since then, he has further weakened by more scandals, more economic difficulties, more international pressure, more electoral defeats and more defections. Yet he managed to scramble through a number of confidence votes and instead of his end we have witnessed a long agony, a revolting process of rotting and regurgitating parliamentary defectors on either side.

Today he has finally announced his intention to resign soon, immediately after the new budget law. It cannot be excluded that, after having survived all possible political near-death one can imagine, he might survive again. Over the next weeks he will certainly not spare efforts or money in order to re-buy some MPs, for a further extension of his rotting process in government, whether still as prime minister personally, or (no substantial difference) through his formal replacement by the loyal Angelino Alfano.

But whether he ends within weeks or a bit later, the bitter aftertaste of last year has become stronger, and nobody really is celebrating in Italy today – despite a multitude having waited for years for this day. The end of Berlusconi is not necessarily a move to something better, even if it is difficult to imagine something worse. It looks more and more, in Italian history’s terms, like a 25th of July rather than a 25th April. The reference is to the 25th of July 1943, when Mussolini was forced to resign by his own party’s Council and was arrested – but while millions of Italians celebrated the apparent end of the war and fascism, there were more almost two years of further, and more horrific, war, fascism and Nazi occupation, and Mussolini, having been liberated by the Germans, only ended on the 25th April 1945 (the Italian national day, which part of the Right wants to cancel).

Just as fascism could go on after the 25th of July, thanks to German troops, it looks like Berlusconi might be replaced not by a democratic turn, but by a technical government supported by large part of his party and of the opposition, under direct control from EU institutions, and possibly led by Mario Monti, former Internal Market Commissioner. I listened to Monti at a Conference in Warsaw three weeks ago, when he said that, ‘in a way’ what is happening to Greece and Italy is actually ‘the biggest success of the Euro’. By this point the Polish audience was checking whether their simultaneous translation headphones were working properly, but Monti went on explaining his original idea of ‘success’: without Euro, it could not be imagined that Greece and Italy would ever undertake the difficult, long-needed reforms they are undertaking now...

After many governments (starting from Bush, and until Slovenian Pahor last September, but still counting) have been taken down by the crisis, Berlusconi’s would be the third taken down specifically by the Euro crisis, in just a month. The Slovak government fell on the Euro-rescue, but as Slovakia is not itself in a debt crisis, Slovak democracy is proceeding on its course and Radičová will be likely replaced by Fico, who with all his limits is probably the best the weak Central Eastern European left has produced in many years. The problem is what is happening to Greece and Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain.

The fact that the ‘markets’ and the EU could not accept the idea of a referendum in Greece and forced, after the approval of new austerity measures, a new coalition government to be led by, surprise, the former deputy president of the European Central Bank says it all about the degree of democratic governance. Sure, a referendum on fiscal issues is inherently absurd (because taxes are not a binary matter of YES-NO) and it is even unconstitutional in Greece (and in Italy), but a general address referendum on the Euro is useful if reforms are to be carried out with the people and not against them. As Chatzistefanou and Kitidi have put it, the birth country of democracy has now shifted to debtocracy. Politically, Italy is following exactly the same path, even if economically it is still not in the same mess.

Over the Summer, the European Central Bank sent two confidential letters to the Spanish and Italian governments, stating the conditions for its intervention in defence of their sovereign bonds. Now, creditors do have the right to set conditions, but those letters went much further than anything creditors can ask. They even included the requirement of constitutional reforms, violating this core of democratic sovereignty. And they included labour market liberalisation measures with no link to public debt and with no evidence of economic benefits – in fact, if Italy liberalises dismissals, Fiat will save a lot of money when shutting its factories down, but unemployment and public expenditure will go up. In Bruno Amable’s words in today’s Libération, this is new European absolutism: replacing elected democracy with neoliberal bureaucracy.

Last Friday, it was the round of the European Commission to send a letter to the Italian government, setting up, with an insultingly arrogant tone that I would never be allowed in my feedback to even the worst students, 39 corrections or additions to the plan Berlusconi presented in Brussels last week. I am not defending Berlusconi: he really made a fool of himself denying that Italy is in any crisis (given that ‘restaurants are full’) and even recycling measures already passed or promised in the past. I am not defending any national honour – that has been destroyed by Berlusconi before the EU. But the tone of the letter, asking for full responses within a week (!) and thereby factually keeping him in power for longer shows who has the power now. It is not Berlusconi, in advanced state of decomposition. The Italian centre-left, which is pleased by the EU’s and the markets’ treatment of Berlusconi, has nothing to be pleased about. It may have to deal, soon, with a much more difficult opponent than Silvio – maybe, we will miss the times when we had such an easy opponent as him.

Not all is lost. As Philippe Schmitter said at last week’s conference on the public realm in honour of Colin Crouch, there are still elections, and governments still lose them. Italy and Greece (and Slovakia) will have elections soon. But unless we rebalance, globally, the powers between creditors and debtors (in the old language, between rich and poor), and European institutions remain unelected, those elections will not matter much.


August 19, 2011

Back to the continental crisis

The EU crisis is deepening. Italy is succesfully managing to get its "I" back from Ireland in the PIGS group. It may be an opportunity to finally move on with fiscal and economic union, or a negative one where capital exploits a good crisis to weaken labour and democratic prerogatives - as it is happening with the Italian reforms apparently forced, in the middle of the August holiday, by the European Central Bank.

In any case - the situation is foggy and Stirling is definitely not a good observatory for the European crisis. So tomorrow I am flying back to Spain, sorry, Catalunya, for a couple of weeks. On my way back, I will stop for a week in Switzerland, for a conference and hopefully some good mountain hiking, but don't take this as a run to the Swiss Franc.

Stirling castle


August 03, 2011

EU or USA: who is worse at facing the financial crisis?

In rapid succession during the last two weeks, EU and US have faced their own ‘five minutes before midnight’ crisis. Both have managed to find a way out, although it is not sure for how long: European markets are in crisis only few weeks later, and the US rating may well still be downgraded in a few months.

Politically, the interesting thing is that the EU solution (the Greek rescue deal of the 21st of July) came to many as a positive surprise: the EU and EMU were already seen as dying. By contrast, it came to many as a negative surprise that the US would be in such a dramatic situation ahead of this week’s deadline to raise the debt cap. This is because the EU has had for a long time a very bad press: in many regards it acts as a political scapegoat, an unelected body used to relieve national elected politicians of their responsibilities for anything that goes wrong. Just to the contrary, the US are often idealised, even by those who dislike it, as a ‘superpower’ able to decide and to act, unlike the headless EU. In fact, the crisis has shown that both EU and US are politically very dysfunctional. And economically in crisis: actually, despite all that has been said for about thirty years, the US are in a worse situation. Their debt is much bigger than the aggregate EU or EMU ones, and their economic and social fundamentals are also worse: higher unemployment, higher debt, worse trade deficit. In fact, once one looks at America, the ‘disastrous’ EMU problems strike for their small nature: all the fuss about Greece, but the whole Greek debt amounts to just 2.2% of the Eurozone's GDP. Even rescuing the whole of it would not be such a big cost for the EU, in the broader order of things and of the whole money spent to rescue the banks. The EU problem is political more than economic: it does not have the tools to face the economic problems.

If both EU and US are politically dysfunctional, they are so in very different, and sometimes, surprising, ways. Let’s look at the ways they have faced the crisis.

First, the EU deal. For an institution that has near-universal bad press, it was surprising to see, in the immediate aftermath of the last Greek rescue, a near-unanimous praise. This time, the Greek rescue was approved by all EMU countries, including the previously ‘refuseniks’ (and hyper-Thatcherite) Slovaks. The Greek rescue seemed in fact to achieve many things. First, it was bigger than the previous ones, evoking even the memory of the Marshall Plan. Second, it included a reasonable share of private sector contribution: about one third of what had been asked, but still substantial enough considering that banks wanted to pay nothing, as proven by the fact that the share prices of the contributing banks have been hit quite hard. Third, it reduced significantly the interest rates that Greece and the other rescued countries were paying, which at above 5% were making it impossible to get out of the hole. Fourth, by re-lending money over a period up to 40 (!) years, this was quite an ingenious way to cover up what looked like a default – or at least to stick it under the carpet. If one adds to this the plans for a long-needed European rating agency, the rescue package looked like a major step towards EU-level economic governance and fiscal federalism: with some fifteen years delay, the necessary political spill-over of EMU is starting to be conceived. This was positively surprising, considering the conflicts and divergences of the previous weeks - something we actually should be used to in the multi-level horse trading political system of the EU. Even more surprising, considering that only in Spring 2010 Merkel was still ridiculously defending the no-bailout article103 of the Maastricht Treaty – a ‘wishful thinking’ article which could have equally well declared ‘the EU does not use the umbrella, so it will never rain’.

Make no mistake: the rescue package was no political turning-point, which also explains the near-universal praise from Right to Left. The main source of re-adjustment still comes from public sector cuts. Banks still get more than what they pay for. The Eurobonds, as probably the best long-term solutions are still not in place, for the opposition of the Germans although probably they would cost them less than the continuous rescue packages may do. And there was only additional wishful thinking in the declaration that ‘Greece is exceptional’ and all other economies are fine. In fact, the speculative markets are now addicted to the drug of public rescue they have been intensively dispensed over the last 3-4 years, and after a short ‘high’ following the Greek rescue, have as usual come back wanting more within weeks – this time, from Italy and Spain. Nonetheless, a major step in policy-making capacity was visible from the deemed policy-making incapable EU elites.

Let's move to the US. If the complex EU policy making, requiring all member states’ unanimity for most issues, seems blocked, the US has done worse. With mid-term elections regularly punishing the president, it has been by now common to have at least one chamber in the hands of the opposition, and to make any meaningful political reform near-impossible. Only wars abroad can be still decided rather quickly. In addition, an electoral system that privileges the median voter, and that keeps half of the population away from the polls, distorts the whole political representation in favour of a mythical ‘middle America’. Add to it complex constitutional restrictions such as the debt limit itself, and populist practices like the recall vote, and the US found it dramatically difficult to take a decision even smaller than rescuing Greece: letting debt increase until they find a way to reduce it.

The eventual deal of the 31st December has been seen as a Republican triumph and thereby an Obama’s defeat: America has changed Obama, instead of Obama changing America; and ‘no, we can’t’ has become the sentence he is associated with. Sure, it does not increase tax, so the US are stuck with the unbelievably regressive system inherited from G.W. Bush (and punctually criticised by Hacker and Pierson in their works). In fact, the deal is not necessarily that bad for Obama. First, it postpone all meaningful cuts to after the elections of 2012 – so he will not pay too high a price for it, and if he wins, he may well abandon them subsequently. Secondly, the cuts include military expenditure – they may be even be more damaging for the Republicans. Third, the Tea Party is now officially in the establishment – their anti-establishment rhetoric, therefore, is from now empty.

So we have two mixed and messy decisions on both sides of the pond. Some deductions go against the common sense. First, unlike what we used to think, the EU is not less politically dysfunctional than the US. Second, neither is it more economically doomed. Third, however, on the economy the US are actually more democratic than the EU, in the sense that the debate is politicised and takes place in parliament and under close public scrutiny, unlike in obscure intergovernmental negotiations or through unelected bodies like European Central Bank and the European Commission.

These deductions could be seen as a vindication of the ‘technocratic’ nature of the EU: obscure technocracy, not democracy, is the only way to govern a complex economy like the European one, and it is proving more effective then the messy, populist US one. But there is a different conclusion. The EU’s legitimacy is actually lower than Obama’s, and unless it reduced some of its ‘democratic deficit’ (and not just the public finances’ one), it is doomed. But also, economic democracy is not something easy to build, and if it collapses into tax populism in the US, it is even more difficult in an international body like the EU. It requires institutions, public spheres, associations, starting from the local community and the workplace, up to the financial issues. But as Jean-Paul Fitoussi had written in 1995 (on the eve of the EMU), the debate on European political economy is ‘le débat interdit’. Let's try to start it.


November 25, 2010

The European Parliament's film prize: great art, worrying politics

In Berlin, like in all EU capitals, three movies were shown to the public last week: the finalists of the European Parliament’s LUX film prize(you can see the trailers on the website). What does the European Parliament have to do with cinema? Not much, but cinema is very important in European culture, and it is a “good” that cannot be left to the market, as the trade liberalisation would like. No European country can compete, in terms of market size, with American producers: languages are natural barriers. This is why we would need, for a level playing ground, quotas on the number of American movies on TV, or at least, strong public support to European cinema. And the best way to do it is to create synergies among the different European countries, increasing mutual interest.

The European Parliament’s prize privileges, in particular, films about multicultural dialogue that are to some extent multilingual, to get the public more used to hearing different speaks in the cinema – just as it happens now in European streets, after all. It will also produce 27 versions of the three shortlisted films, with the subtitles for each EU language. Indeed multilinguism can be very powerful in cinema, even more than in novels. I loved the recent idea by Godard to present a multilingual movie (“Film socialisme”) with unintelligible subtitles at the last Cannes, for the anger of monolingual Anglophone reporters – a very good point, but in the meanwhile subtitles are already one step further than dubbing, monolinguism and English domination.

This year, the festival’s topic was particularly interesting for this blog: migration. The three finalists were the Belgian Illégal (by Masset-Depasse), the Greek “Akadimia Platonos” (by Tsitos) and the German “Die Fremde” (by Aladag). No space for three reviews here, but let’s just say that they are three masterpieces, making full justice on one clear superiority of European cinema above the American: the capacity to be about real life, instead of mere evasion from it. The three stories are very different and deserve to be summarised.

“Illégal” is about a Russian woman living illegally in Belgium with her 10-yo son. One day is she found without documents and interned. To avoid expulsion, she refuses to reveal her identity and origin, knowing that after six months they will have to release her, and she will be able to reunite with her son. But life in a detention centre alongside other similarly desperate souls proves much more inhuman than she expects – can she endure what amounts to psychological torture for so long? Those who appreciate, and can stomach, tough claustrophobic movies about prisons (for instance two recent worthy European additions to the genre: “Hunger” by Steve McQueen, on Northern Ireland, and “Un prophète” by Jacques Audiard, on France), this is for you. I personally found the choice of a well-educated educated Russian as victim slightly over-the-top: if her desperate refusal to return to Russia is not totally implausible (she wants the son to stay, and the son will need her), it feels like a trick to get the viewers’ sympathy, as if more “average” illegal immigrants were less deserving. But indeed it is another powerful denunciation of the inhumane treatment of “illegal” immigrants.akadimia_platonos.jpg

The second movie is, instead, extremely funny. It portrays the middle-aged Stevros, spending day after day sitting outside his kiosk with his three friends on a little Athene’s square, drinking coffee (the picture of the four make a perfect image of the state of the Greek economy and of Greek gender relations). With no much else to do, a privileged discussion topic is commenting on the Albanian and Chinese workers (who of them works more? why do they do it?), and rewarding their “Patriot” dog for barking at any Albanian passing by. But one day, Stevros’s old mother, who sits equally motionless nearby, stands up and hugs an Albanian worker, speaking to him in Albanian and calling him her son. It appears that she had left him behind in Albania, when fleeing with newborn Stevros… Poor Stevros tries to minimise the event and to confirm, first of all to himself, his Hellenicity ("ok, my mother speaks Albanian, but it's because she had a heart attack"), but his friends start doubting he is still one of them… The first hour makes unstoppable laughing. After then, the joke starts running out, and some sentimentalism creeps him, but overall the film is a very good way for Europe to laugh at itself (not just Greeks; Italians too saw the Albanians as the source of all evils in the 1990s, but now that Albanians have integrated so well into Italy, they shifted their target to the Romanians; to some extent, all other European countries have their favourite targets, be it Moroccans, Pakistanis, Turks or Russians: there could be 26 EU remakes of this movie).

The final movie, “Die Fremde” (The stranger), tells of a Turkish young woman from Berlin, escaping with her little son from her violent husband in Turkey, searching refuge with her family in Berlin, but being then rejected by them too for bring shame on the house. In terms of structure, it is the most coherent and accomplished of the three, and the Kreuzberg district is very well portrayed. It dramatically says what I have heard often in Berlin: "I am not German for the Germans, I am not Turkish for the Turks".

The European Parliament chose the winner this week. As MEPs do not know anything about cinema (and some do not know anything about anything, as the UKIP Godfrey Bloom who yesterday was ejected for shouting “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"), I expected their choice to be not on artistic merit, but on political calculation. Leftwingers should prefer the social denunciation of “Illégal”; liberals should like the ridiculing of the bigot masses in “Akadimia Platonos”; and the populist Right would fall for the topic of Muslim honour killing in “Die Fremde”. But the Christian- and social-democrats, i.e. the largest groups? Eventually, “Die Fremde” won, which is a sad political sign about the feelings in the European Parliament. For MEPs, honour killing is a more urgent problem than the human treatment of undocumented migrants and of xenophobia - and probably just because for honour killing they can blame somebody else. I wish "Die Fremde"  had won the artistic prize it deserves, instead of a political one.


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