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How low can you go?

Dr Simon Usherwood

Perhaps it’s been the two weeks of unrelenting rain here, but it’s been hard to be too optimistic about the EU of late.  David Cameron’s remarks at the weekend about being less than halfway through the Eurozone crisis have only been reinforced by the poor economic figurestetchy ECOFIN meetings, potentially deeply problematic elections in Franceand Greece, not to mention the fall of another government (this time in Romania).

The temptation, as always, is to engage in a pseudo-Rorschach exercise to join up the dots in the way that reflects what you want, to produce the picture you’d like to see.  Thus eurosceptics see simply the inevitable collapse of the Union that they have long talked of and hope for; federalists see an opportunity for strengthening integration, to overcome the shortcomings of member states.

The reality of the situation is – obviously enough – much messier than that.  The one lesson that we might take from all of this is that there isn’t a grand plan, nor even coordination between political actors.  The impact of economic downturn, tight financial markets, further falls in public trust, rising concerns about immigration and the nature of public action have played out in myriad ways across the continent.

This is not however to say that we’re all on our way to hell in a hand basket.  Grand plans are very rare indeed: even when we might espy them with hindsight, they were not so obvious at the time. Thus in a decade it might be evident what was going to happen next, if only because it happened and the alternatives didn’t.  But at the present time, the issue is somewhat different.

To look around Europe, the agendas are primarily holding ones; they are about securing past gains and protecting against future threats.  The German-led austerity drive is the classic of the genre, applying a diagnosis of the past crisis into a future solution.  Likewise, resistance to liberalisation of labour markets in countries with 20%+ unemployment because of popular disapproval also springs to mind.  Ultimately, such strategies cannot give us a way forward, at least not in a positive sense.  Either, they are succeeded by new, creative strategies or by a directionless vacuum.

Those creative strategies do exist, in part.  The rise of a growth agenda has been noticeable in recent months and can only get stronger if Francois Hollande wins on Sunday.  However, until the German federal elections in Q3 2013, it’s hard to see Angela Merkel moving to a more accommodating position on that front, and by then the double-dip might have shifted the economic landscape once again.  Likewise, it’s possible to see a more protectionist and isolationist agenda emerging, as witnessed by the growth of votes for radical right parties in many countries: Dutch elections will the touchstone for this, given the VVD’s role in bringing down the previous administration.

Alternatively, we risk getting more of what we’ve got, i.e. not much.  My greatest surprise at the Eurozone crisis has been that it’s taken as long as it has to see a response that still strikes too many people as half-hearted: even theCanadians (not the world’s most forceful types) waded in yesterday.  It’s hard to see what further disaster might need to happen to get people moving forward, but until they do, the weather’s not going to be the topmost concern on their minds.

Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.

Twitter: @Usherwood and @surreypolitics



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