Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Democracy or Europe? Trichet's call for a European Finance Ministry

Jean-Claude Trichet, the sitting President of the ECB, called for a European Ministry of Finance (a European Department of the Treasury) this week. This is an important proposal that needs to be looked at carefully, for there is both opportunity and danger. Even if it is unlikely to happen, by the very act of proposing it, Trichet has put Europe in a do-or-die dilemma.

What Trichet argued for was a Ministry of Finance that could do three things: put the regulation of financial markets in the hands of a politician (rather than a committee of professional technocrats); push the member states to reform their economies to make them more competitive (rather than protecting existing jobs and businesses); and most importantly of all, to control the budget policies of the member states.

No federation on earth allows full control of the second and third goals, because no self-respecting state in the union would allow its powers to be so radically cut and controlled from outside. It would end the democracy on which the federation depends. We're talking about tax policy, budget policy, economic development policy, social policy, welfare policy and regional development. Competitiveness policy sounds harmless, but in Europe, it explicitly extends to unemployment insurance benefits, training, and social welfare generally as disincentives to work in new kinds of industries.

The European Commission, which is something like a federal bureaucracy, but must constantly push to achieve that status, has never dared to make the case for a European Ministry of Finance, because it knew the member states would not support it. It tried for a short time between 2002 and 2004 to take a tough line with the member states and act like one. This was a pretty simple job in theory. Member states had entrenched rules in the treaties on which the EU is based, and had to respect those commitments. All the Commission had to do was insist that the rules be obeyed. Moving a little beyond that, the Commission tried (unsuccessfully) to get the member states to devote more than the 1% of European GDP that it gets in tax revenue.

If you read the Treaties, you'd expect the Commission to succeed. The only problem is that the Treaties only work if the (powerful) member states want them to. Germany, instead of respecting Europe's economic constitution, drove a sword through it. Together with France, it led a revolt against those rules in 2005 that other countries joined until the Commission backed down and negotiated. The only thing that saved Greece and Portugal from being attacked at that moment was that Germany and France, facing the same fate, had told the Commission that hell would freeze over before they accepted punishment and control. European law, effectively, was what it and the other member states in the Council of Ministers (of the member states) said it was. Greece and Portugal simply got lucky. France was never fanatical about forcing national governments to restrain themselves, and Germany was afraid of being exposed for exercizing a naked, all-out power play in which it flouted the rules but insisted they be applied to others. That is no way to drum up support for even a rump Ministry of Finance, a rump that could only tie the hands of the member states but not actually help anyone. And so the idea faded into the background.

What remained was the realization that there were very real limits to European integration, limits that still exist today. One of these is the clash between democratic demands and the treaty-based rules that say what goverments are allowed to do. Other limits are national pride, and the very simple fact that Europe is not a country. Europe is not a people. Europe does not share the sense of common destiny that allows citizens in other countries to put up with a government they disagree strongly with, because the majority of their fellow citizens voted for it fair and square. And none of that is likely to happen soon. There is such a thing legally as European citizenship, but there is no common citizenship in the minds of European electorates. On the contrary, Northern Europeans and Southern Europeans, regardless of how much they might like each other personally, are busy demonizing one another as if the apocalypse were already here.

Trichet's proposal is well-meant and should not be demonized. A European Ministry of Finance, if it were a fully-fledged office on par with that of the American Secretary of the Treasury, and the other Finance Ministries of China, India, Brazil, Russia and so on, would indeed be a very good thing. Money could be moved within the EU to where it is needed most. Agreements could be made with other world leaders on all the things we need so badly, from regulating financial markets to averting economic collapse when the next bubble bursts. But Europe's national governments won't allow it, and that is why he didn't propose it. It wasn't an oversight. He explicitly said he didn't want to suggest it.

So what does this mean? A European Ministry of Finance, as Trichet presents it, will do all of the smothering and none of the nurturing. It is pre-destined to say no and rarely to say yes. It will insist on the right to control member state finances without the responsibility of helping to make things better, and without the democratic representation that citizens deserve and expect. And worst of all, the clash between democracy and a European Ministry of Finance will be directed squarely at nearly all of the countries that have been democratic for only a generation. All of these countries will have traded one dictatorship for another.  That is no way to run a union. It would be better to admit that the differing wishes of the member states can't be contained within the same currency.

One day, when Europe's national leaders get over themselves, when they allow European Ministers to be elected, and when they agree that they will bow to the rule of law rather than institutionalising might makes right, and when European voters see themselves as Europeans rather than Prussians and PIIGS, a Finance Ministry would be a fine idea.

But until that day, an EU Ministry of Finance will re-introduce authoritarian rule in Europe, at least for the South, and then surely for the East. That can't be what we want.


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