Northern Europe is flat and well-rivered and so countries there can achieve efficiencies and economies of scale. Southern Europe is rugged and lacks rivers and so cannot. Exceptions abound in a continent as varied as Europe, but the bottom line is that Southern Europe will never be able to compete with Northern Europe economically, just as Northern Europe cannot hope to compete with Southern Europe when it comes to sun, fun, food and flair. (France has a foot in both worlds which is part of what makes the French…well…French.) Anywho, the bottom line is that there is no European Union without both parts of Europe, so the question becomes how to keep it all stitched together without either the American-led Order or the ability to access markets from far beyond Europe?
There is no good answer. Even more problematic, what might prove a good answer for Ireland would be hilariously inappropriate for Croatia. What most everyone can agree on, however, is that Europe as a combined entity will be better able to get what it needs than the EU’s constituent members acting independently. And so Europe has been limping along since the 2007-2009 financial crisis, economically suppressed, strategically adrift, politically riven…but with no one (save the Brits) willing to pull the plug on the whole project.
In my new book, Disunited Nations, I’ve got a whole chapter on called “Superpower, Backfired” on the hows and whys Germany ended up in this situation and where it is likely to lead.
And then there’s the coronavirus.
Just as there are differences in European financial and economic structures on a country-by-country basis, so has the virus impacted EU members differently.
It comes down to vectors and weather. Most of the cases in Germany originated at a series of Alpine ski parties for 20-somethings. When the virus started to spread, it spread among the population most able to survive it. In addition, late-winter and early-spring in Germany isn’t exactly tourist season, so most elderly stayed locked up at home. Germany was able to address the virus outbreak relatively quickly and move on.
Not so in Italy. Patient zero went to a massive outdoor soccer game and became one of the first COVID superspreaders. Elderly Italians are also more likely to live in a multi-generational household than elderly Germans because…well… sun, fun, food and flair. It wasn’t long before the Italian health care system was overwhelmed.
Finances matter too of course. Germany has been whittling away at its national debt for twenty years, and so had plenty of dry powder to apply to the crisis without needing to ask anyone for help. Italy…hasn’t. When the crisis exploded upon the Italians they almost instantly ran out of cash and had to turn to the EU hat-in-hand for help.
The response was underwhelming. The Germans – backed up by the European Central Bank (ECB) chief – told the Italians that saving Italy wasn’t their job. As a point of comparison, across the Pond the Americans slapped together humanity’s largest-ever stimulus program in a matter of days.
It didn’t take long for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to realize that the situation was untenable. It wasn’t so much that Italy and others were facing fiscal collapse because of COVID (although they were), it was that Merkel knows full well that the road the EU is on means that Italy and others would inevitably face fiscal collapse. COVID just brought the end forward by a few years. The question Europe has been struggling with since 2007 – now that we are certain this is unsustainable, what do we do? – had moved from the hazy future to the here-and-now. And Merkel simply didn’t have an answer. If she had, she would have produced it. Years ago. And so the demurring and dithering continued.
Ironically, it took events within Germany itself to force the issue. On May 5 the German Constitutional Court ruled that methods the ECB were using to keep some of Europe’s weaker states on life support were unconstitutional. Specifically, the ECB can only purchase government debt if it does so proportionally to the size of all eurozone economies. Since the Germans have been paying their debt down, there wasn’t much German debt left to buy. And since the Italians were in a COVID pickle, the Italians needed to issue more debt. The ECB did the logical thing and put its resources where they were needed. The German court ruled that the ECB’s logic violated European law in general and the German constitution in specific, and that the German government must cease all cooperation on the issue within 90 days.
Running the European Central Bank without the participation of Europe’s largest economy would open up a hilariously huge barrel of worm-ridden monkeys, taking us down paths so convoluted and impractical as to be positively Venezuelan. But those monkeys and paths all take us to the same place: no European bond market, no European currency, and – very likely – no EU.
A world without America. A Europe without the EU. Germany left to look after its economic and security issues on its own, likely in competition with its current EU partners. That is nothing less than Merkel’s worst-case scenario, and so she did the only thing she felt she could:
On May 20 in a joint presser with French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel proposed the EU’s first mutualized debt. For those of you not in finance, that’s a fancy way of saying that not only will Germany co-sign for some Italian borrowing, but that Berlin will agree up front to use the EU’s common budget to pay for some Italian spending. Simply put, Merkel committed Germany to paying for the ongoing existence of the EU in general and the EU’s weaker members in specific in the hopes of buying more time to find a better solution.
Many many details remain.
How big of a fund are we talking about? At present the combined floats of the Germans, French and the EU Commission total something around 1.5 trillion euro. (Right now that’s about $1.65 trillion US, so, you know, real money.) That’s roughly ten times the current total EU budget. That would probably cover the EU’s current needs this year, but only this year. And all the proposals to date are nothing more than one-offs designed to counter COVID impacts. This doesn’t actually help the EU survive in the long-run. For this to work and for the EU to function as a true superstate, the EU needs a full transfer union of at least these volumes annually.
Who would get the funds, and who would pay the funds back and how? At present the idea is to funnel everything through the European Commission, with funds being dispersed into (suddenly engorged) EU programs, while payback would come from the various member states who fund the Commission directly. Needless to say, that would be wildly inefficient and cumbersome, although it would wildly strengthen the EU’s administrative core and take Europe a few big steps down the road to full federalization on the American model.
Can this – institutionally – happen? It doesn’t look great. Big things like this normally require a treaty, and the EU has rarely managed negotiating and ratifying a treaty on anything less than a decade timescale. Moving forward without a treaty would still require unanimity, and several EU states have already voiced their vociferous opposite to the plan.
But, again, let me be clear here. Between the Americans’ withdrawal and Europe’s demographic implosion, the very existence of the European Union is at stake. This was always true. This was always inevitable. But COVID and the German court ruling makes the crisis imminent. In a Europe without either America or the EU, Germany must reorganize into a form that enables it to protect and further its own interests without outside support. This isn’t “simply” an existential crisis for the Germans. It is an existential crisis for all Europeans.
And historical annihilation tends to focus the mind.
So let’s take a brief look at the four hard-nos in this debate: Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.
The bulk of Austria’s population lives on the southern watershed of the Danube. The entirety of the Netherlands lies atop the delta of the Rhine. Those two rivers are core Germany population, industrial and transport zones. The Austrians and Dutch have zero geographic insulation from Germany.
Neither country may like the financial implications of where the debt-mutualization path leads, but both are deeply, painfully aware of precisely where European collapse leads: a Germany forced or induced to seek out German national interests to the detriment of its neighbors. Historically speaking, once the Germans get rolling, maintaining an independent Austria or Netherlands is pretty much impossible. The Austrians and the Dutch know this. Both can be armtwisted into accepting Merkel’s (costly) logic.
And that assumes Merkel doesn’t do her traditional thing. Unlike most leaders, Merkel tries to shun the spotlight and instead lead from behind. She allows her opponents to stake out bold positions, and then unobtrusively steps back from the shouting and quietly cobbles together a majority position that doesn’t include the troublemakers, leaving them with the option of joining the crowd or screaming into the void. She’s done this (repeatedly) to consolidate control of her political party in Germany. She’s done this (repeatedly) to defang troublesome governing coalition partners. She’s done this (repeatedly) to guide Europe through the financial crisis. It is highly likely that the Austrians and Dutch will be Merkel’s next void-screamers.
Denmark and Sweden are a different sort of challenge. Sweden doesn’t border Germany, while the bulk of the Danish population lives not in peninsular Denmark, but instead on the island of Zeeland. Culturally, economically, and above all strategically both only have one foot in Continental Europe. In particular, both have historically been closer to the United Kingdom (and dare I say, the United States) on defense issues than to Germany. As such neither are even members of the eurozone. That makes the pair less likely to be cajoled into participation, but it also means there is another potential path.
Rather than run the funds and the debt through the EU budget, the funds could be kept aside as a purely eurozone project which could exempt any EU state that didn’t also use the European currency. (In addition to Denmark and Sweden, this list also includes a variety of Central European states such as Poland, Hungary and Romania.) It’d be messy organizationally, and arguably unnecessarily so, but the EU does tend to excel at spawning unnecessarily messy organizational structures.
Anywho, lots of details to work out. What Merkel and Macron are attempting on the fly is the first real step towards federalizing the European Union. Europe has a common currency (which not everyone is a part of) and a common foreign policy (which requires unanimity) and a common market (regulated by national governments), but until it has a common budget it is most certainly not a superstate and it is most certainly not pooling its national resources into a more powerful, more cohesive whole.
That more powerful, more cohesive whole is the only thing that matters if the EU is to persist through contorting geopolitical and demographic circumstances. There is no guarantee the current plan will be adopted, much less work, much less expand into something that would make the EU a true, durable power. But the fact remains that for the first time in years I have a faint glimmer of hope that this thing we call the European Union might, just might, survive.