European Union policymakers like to make the point that, had the euro not existed, Europe would have suffered far more from the financial crisis and recession. Without the euro, there would have been a riot of competitive devaluations, causing angry recriminations among governments. Without the euro, countries such as Greece and Italy would have had nowhere to shelter from the storm. Without the euro, Ireland would have gone belly up and Dublin would be known as Reykjavik-on-the-Liffey.
All this is doubtless true. But if the euro is so successful, why is it unlikely to emerge from the economic crisis with an enhanced status in the global monetary order? This is a question asked, and answered very convincingly, in a new book, The Euro at Ten: The Next Global Currency?
The heady aroma of power without responsibility is wafting through the corridors of the European Parliament this week as legislators prepare to slap a blanket ban on the trading of seal products throughout the 27-nation bloc.
It seems little short of ridiculous that the assembly is poised to take this step just as the EU is about to hold a summit with Canada to mark the launch of negotiations on a comprehensive free trade agreement. If the European Parliament goes ahead with the ban, the Canadians have made it clear that they will start an action at the World Trade Organisation. Not exactly the best climate in which to pursue a liberalising trade deal, one might think.
While European Union leaders fret about whether to shake hands with Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president since 1994, the wily 54-year-old leader himself stole a march on his critics on Monday by popping up in, of all places, the Vatican for talks with Pope Benedict XVI. What’s more, he was due later on to be welcomed for dinner by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister.
This is Lukashenko’s first official visit to a western European country since 1995 – although I am reliably informed that, since the EU suspended a travel ban on him last year, he may have made at least one private trip to western Europe. According to Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, the purpose of no longer treating Lukashenko as a polecat is to encourage democratic reform in Belarus and the gradual acceptance of EU norms of behaviour.
The European Parliament adopted a report calling for tougher action to crack down on the millions of infections that are picked up every year by patients in European hospitals. Among the measures proposed in the report, which was passed by a vote of 521 to 6 with 5 abstentions, are the recruitment of specialised nurses and more widely available information for patients.
The parliament’s vote expands on a previous initiative of EU governments by setting a target of a 20 per cent reduction in hospital-related infections, or 900,000 cases a year, by 2015 in EU member-states.
The European Union is truly a weird and wonderful thing. Take the question of enlargement into the western Balkans (an area once known as Yugoslavia and Albania).
As is well-known, France, Germany and other western European countries have been reluctant to move the enlargement process forward as long as the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty remains blocked. Among their concerns is the fear that their electorates will not take kindly to the prospect of yet more eastern Europeans piling into the EU at a time of extraordinary economic crisis.
If you think the economic news is grim in the US, the UK or Germany, spare a thought for the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All face the prospect that their gross domestic product will collapse this year by 10 to 12 per cent. Moreover, all operate a so-called currency board regime, or peg, which restricts the movement of their currencies against the euro and prevents them from stimulating economic recovery by means of exchange rate depreciation.
One answer, as the International Monetary Fund pointed out a few weeks ago, would be for the European Union to relax its rules and let the Baltic states swap their currencies for the euro without formally joining the eurozone. This would in principle ease their foreign debt problems and restore confidence among foreign investors. The alternative – severe government austerity programmes, followed by a sharp drop in living standards, social unrest and political instability – seems far too harsh and risky a solution.
Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, sounds like a man who intends to enjoy the next two months. In an interview last week with the Czech newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, he merrily poured scorn on US and European Union measures to fight the world financial crisis and recession by suggesting that they drew on the spirit of 20th-century eastern European and Soviet communism.
Last month, he grabbed the headlines by engineering the downfall of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek’s government right in the middle of the Czech Republic’s six-month EU presidency. In February, he prompted a walk-out by angry members of the European Parliament when he told them in a speech that their assembly did not encourage freedom of thought. As for his opinions on climate change (misplaced alarmism), they are quite simply unrepeatable in polite European society.
For anyone interested in European energy security, and especially the long-suffering Nabucco gas pipeline project, there was a fascinating piece of news on Monday. The Obama administration appointed Richard Morningstar, a former US ambassador to the European Union, as its special envoy for Eurasian energy issues.
Morningstar has a career background not only in EU affairs but in the energy diplomacy of the Caspian Sea area. As such, there is no one better placed to give the Europeans the benefit of US advice on Nabucco, a project some energy analysts think may be doomed to failure unless resolute action is taken soon to finance it, secure the necessary gas supplies and get it up and running.
There can be few more terrifying sentences in contemporary English than: “The Treaty of Lisbon is not the last word.”
The sentence appears in “Saving the European Union”, a new book by Andrew Duff, a British Liberal Democrat who sits in the European Parliament. It’s certain to raise the hackles of anti-Lisbon campaigners, who have said all along that the EU can never resist the temptation to keep tinkering with its institutional arrangements, no matter how strong the evidence that European voters are thoroughly turned off by the whole process.
Tony Barber is away. The Brussels blog will return soon.
The headquarters of the Council of the European Union, in Brussels