European Union: Myth of equality at an end

17 January 2012 – Gazeta Wyborcza (Warsaw)

Whether it’s the planned European treaty, the S&P downgrade of nine eurozones states or reprimands issued to Hungary, recent events in the EU have highlighted how powerful countries are now imposing their law on their smaller neighbours. Polish columnist Jacek Żkowski aims to set the record straight.

The events of the last three weeks have definitively put an end to EU hypocrisy that would have us believe that member states are equal albeit different partners.

First and foremost, the members of the eurozone have decided to meet, deliberate and take decisions as an exclusive group, without the others and thus without us [the Poles]. This has limited and undermined the role of the European Commission, which has always operated on the principle of equality between states, and also the role of the European Parliament whose seats are distributed among member states in proportion to their populations. If the European stability pact is adopted in its current form, we will have created a new union within the Union, and on a wide range of issues this new union will dictate its conditions to the others, just as "Merkozy" does today.

Secondly, the decision to cut the credit ratings of nine Eurozone countries will not necessarily affect the cost of their debt (the downgrade of the United States had no impact of this kind, while Italy’s debt is now cheaper than it was when the country had a better rating). However, they will certainly have an influence on the informal hierarchy between member states and their clout within the union.

As a result, Germany’s leadership along with its policy of prudent austerity have clearly been reinforced. All the indications are that Berlin will now be able to stimulate the market and borrow at even lower rates, while increasing its economic advantage over the rest of Europe.

Orbán no more anti-libertarian than Sarkozy

As a consequence, the quantitative criteria of the Lisbon Treaty (the calculation of a qualified majority in the European Council on the basis of the number of states and their demographic weight) will be relativised by increasing importance of qualitative criteria (the quality of states and their economies). We will even see the decline of the Merkozy couple, which has been made unstable by the weight of a Merkel who has become too powerful for Sarkozy. And it will be even more difficult to undertake any initiative in Europe without Germany. As for the other 26 member states, they will not be able to do anything to counter the Germans (apart from blowing up the union).

Procedures for decisions and voting in the European Parliament, Commission and Council, which were laboriously negotiated for the Lisbon treaty have now been shattered. We are entering a period where EU affairs will resemble football in the era when everyone played but the only country that ever won was Germany.

Thirdly, the tough rhetoric and the political decisions that target Hungary have demonstrated that within the union, some countries can allow themselves more leeway than others. That is not to say that Orbán does not indulge in appalling rhetoric or that his economic policy is not stupid, but in terms of state institutions, he has done nothing that would not be tolerated on the part of other countries.

His assault on the media is no more anti-libertarian than Sarkozy’s power plays in French public television, or what Berlusconi previously did to the Italian media. As for the BBC, its directors have always been directly nominated by government. The same applies to the Hungarian National Bank which will be no more dependent on government than the Bank of England or the American Federal Reserve.

Significant international tensions

The international community has calmly tolerated and continues to calmly tolerate such manouevres in France, Italy, the UK, and the United States, not because these go unnoticed, or even as a result of timidity with regard to major powers, but quite simply because it does not see them as reprehensible. Just like German bonds, longstanding large democracies benefit from a capital of trust that is not accorded to their younger smaller peers.

To a certain extent, these differences have always existed and always weighed in the balance. What is new is the fact that they are now openly expressed, and institutionalised without hesitation. We do not know what the long-term consequences of this will be for Poland or for the EU. In general, the adaptation of form (ie. institutional form) to content (for example economic content) has a rationalising impact on institutions. However, today we are dealing with emotions, that is to say with politics.

Differences that are amplified emotionally and politically, and differences that are divulged and institutionalised become uncomfortable for everyone. Many countries will have difficulty accepting Germany’s stronger position within the union, while Germany will have trouble sustaining efforts for solidarity and self-imposed restrictions.

In effect this means that along with economic and internal political tensions, we can look forward to significant international tensions and major issues with regard to decision making. And this will remain the case until a new logic replaces the hypocrisy of the founding myth of the union. This is likely to be a painful change and not one that will happen anytime soon.

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