It’s a digital debate. My friend Jean-Marcel Bouguereau, the journalist, makes our mutual friend, Stéphane Rozès, an excellent French political scientist and pollster read my paper from last week on Facebook. Stéphane reacts immediately. To my irony about the efficiency lent to the Chinese regime, about the flood of criticism poured on the European Union and about the so paradoxical denunciation by the Europhobes of the German refusal of European bonds, he replies, straight to the point, with the following text which he has authorised me to reproduce.
“As a European federalist”, he tells Jean-Marcel, “Bernard generally supports the governance of the Union, which pursues policies aimed at enforcing uniform economic disciplines, free trade and free competition, in order to bring the peoples of Europe closer together at the cost of diluting their nation-states…
“This was the first episode of what the European institutions had become – notably since the fall of the Berlin Wall – under neo-liberal logic.
“Bernard represents the left-wing side of this European federalism: we must have a European social policy, and it will come, just as inevitably as a political unification and “a Europe of power”.
“This federalist wish is based on a Marxist and liberal vulgate according to which the economy would make the societies…
“Alas, it couldn’t have slipped Bernard’s mind that the second episode of this beautiful enterprise was both an economic regression of Europe and – in reaction to that – political regressions because people have been thrown into the arms of many nationalists responding to the primary need of every human community: the mastery of its destiny: national sovereignty which prevails everywhere.
“Then comes the current, “pandemic” episode that tragically shows the weakening of many national health systems when European policies are not in conformity with the Imagination of their peoples, and the lack of minimal, instinctive, European solidarity to deal with the coronavirus.
“With a pirouette, Bernard amuses himself with the criticisms from all sides against this of a non-existent Europe for which the only solution then to become more federal…
“In a word, things are going badly, not because we’ve taken a wrong road, but because we’re not going fast enough.
“On the Titanic, we should have accelerated the speed.
“Bernard didn’t miss an episode. Since the beginning of the story, he’s been wearing the wrong glasses… and he’s obviously not willing to change them, no matter what happens.”
It’s perfectly polite. It is well argued, but Stéphane is mistaken about my approach to European issues because, no, I do not support the Maastricht criteria and this Stability Pact which has only become “stability and growth” out of political politeness or, rather, hypocrisy.
I do not support them because the only common policy for States with the same currency cannot be, or at least should not be, strict respect for budgetary balances and the capping of public debt levels. A single currency must be accompanied by common economic, social and taxation policies because otherwise we would end up with the aberration of fiscal and social dumping from which the Union suffers today – the scandalous competition which some Member States are exercising against other Member States while at the same time enjoying the advantages of the single market and the massive budgetary redistribution organized by the European Treaties and by the solidarity which is the foundation of the unity of the 27.
These fiscal rules are, moreover, all the more absurd in that it is simply not true that budget deficits and indebtedness are always to be outlawed. The tragedy of this pandemic proves this all too well. In the face of the coronavirus, absolutely no one protested against bypassing the fiscal rules; but then why did I defend the Maastricht Treaty so much before I became such a constant advocate of European unity and have now presented myself and been elected to the Union’s Parliament?
It is very logical that Stéphane will ask himself this as he is reading my article, but there are three reasons for that.
The first is that I never believed that these rules would be immutable, “carved in stone” as they say, because the treaties only express a certain moment in the debates and the balance of power before they are forgotten or modified by the evolution of things, as we can see today.
The second is that those States whose accounts were the most balanced were understandably entitled to make it a condition for the launch of the single currency that each of the countries in the euro area reduce their deficits and debts.
The third, and by far the most fundamental, is that it was a very clear majority of Member States who wanted to enshrine these rules in the Treaties because we were then in the midst of the political triumph of neo-liberalism, of Reagano-Theaterism, to put it simply, and this ideology was about as undisputed as Keynes had been in the post-war period.
So it is not the European Union, a Union that is only the sum of its Member states, that would have imposed these rules on the States. On the contrary, it was a clear majority of the national and democratically elected governments, a majority of the Nation-states that had imposed it on the Union, for far too long but provisionally, and had made it so well established as its economic creed that many had come to confuse European unity with Thatcherism.
Just as the liberals and Hayek could not defeat Keynesianism at its height, so the Keynesians, including myself, could not defeat this ideology, which for so long had been dominant but is now fading away before our very eyes. As the Liberals and Hayek had done in the face of post-war Keynesianism, we could and we had to discuss this almost generally accepted idea in order to lay the foundations for better days, but we could not hope to defeat it for a long time to come. All in all, we were obliged to accept what was the law of the majority but not an iron law because, in continental Europe, the conjunction of the left-wingers and a large part of the Christian Democrats made it possible to limit the impact of the Chicago boys. In almost all the countries of the Union, social protection and redistribution through taxation survived the liberal era but, yes, the Keynesians, the left, the centre-left and the social right, had to deal with the air of the times, just as the liberals had had to deal with interventionism and the progression of social benefits during the “Trente Glorieuses”.
“What! How, they will say, did you accept rules that you knew were wrong”? Well, yes, I did it, not by hiding what I thought – on the contrary, I did say it – but I accepted them because I knew that realities always overcome the rules and because there was, above all, a commanding imperative to do so.
It was in Moscow, seeing the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the post-war order with it, that I became an activist for European unity. I told myself at the time that the world would need a strong Europe to which to hold on. I didn’t think then how right I was. I did not imagine in 1989 the state of chaos that we would reach, but I sensed international anarchy and a restoration of the money-king system that had to be countered by the European model – social compromise, the rule of law and permanent political compromise – which was the model on which the unity of our countries was based.
The fact is that I have not changed my mind, not one iota. On the contrary, Mr Trump and Mr Modi, Mr Bolsonaro, Mr Salvini, Mr Orban, Mr Xi and Mr Putin, the AfD and the also Rassemblement National are cementing my conviction that we Europeans must unite in the respect for our political values and our social protection. And what are we witnessing today?
I am sorry to have to tell you, Stéphane, but I am pleased to be able to say that we are not witnessing the break-up of the Union. One hundred billion euros of Community guarantees for national part-time employment schemes and the growing and ever stronger idea of a common recovery plan is not exactly nothing. If this is not solidarity, I do not know what is and, at the risk of repeating myself, none of our national central banks could have matched the sums that the ECB has mobilised to stem the panic on the markets.
The question is not whether everything is perfect in the Union.
Not everything is, and certainly not everything was perfect in its initial reactions to this crisis. In Brussels I keep thinking back to what a Jesuit friend once said to me: “If you want to keep the faith, don’t go to the Vatican!”. Many things, the essential things, remain to be done, but the real question is quite simple: “Is it better to be united or disunited”?
For me, the answer is clear. At a time when all the great powers want us to disunite because the affirmation of our strength worries them, we must defend our unity and I believe, that overall disappointment or not, and despite the disappointment, rage and anger that I share, the vast majority of our fellow European citizens think so too.
Yes, Stéphane, I did say “fellow European citizens” and I believe that there is even a European nation in the making, but no! Don’t choke with indignation. As you are going to answer me, I know you, you are not a man to stop there, we will have plenty of time to discuss it.