We’re going to pay a very high price for this populist and xenophobic drift that is spreading through the European Union. We are destroying more than five decades of peace and development. And the rich nations of Europe have a special responsibility.
Angela Merkel’s words about Portugal, Spain and Greece can only be understood in the context of the customary frivolity of election campaigns. The German Chancellor threw some wood on the fire that is already burning far too enthusiastically and dangerously.
The German Chancellor’s message on Tuesday was frightening. Merkel said that people in countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece couldn’t have more holidays, work less and retire earlier than Germans. Even if what she said were true, she shouldn’t have said it. Because this is not what matters for the success of the single currency [euro] and because it only fuels the unwillingness that is growing in some countries to help countries in the euro zone that are in financial difficulties.
Weakening the euro
When we go and check the statistics to see if what Merkel says corresponds to reality, we find that, in fact, nothing she said is true. The Germans are the European champions of holidays. The Greeks work the longest hours. And the Dutch are the ones who retire latest, but the Portuguese are not far behind: they are fourth.
To say that a monetary union requires everyone to have the same number of days’ holiday, the same number of working hours and the same retirement age is to add to ignorance, the best friend of populism and xenophobia. These equalities are consequences, not conditions, for the success of the euro.
What weakens the euro are decisions such as suspending the Schengen agreement, which guarantees freedom of movement of people in the single currency area, or the lack of common resources, a budget, fund or mechanism that can tackle the asymmetric shocks that we’re experiencing.
Suspending Schengen because of immigration from North Africa does more harm to the single currency than the debt of Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland combined, and it helps to delay even further the equalities in the labour market that Merkel is so worried about.
There is no agreement to provide credible support to the euro countries in financial difficulties – in the language of economics, “affected by an asymmetric shock” – is more of a threat to the euro than those questions that are the delight of populist talk.
Feeding the populist monster
The cold facts are that countries like Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are the victims of an asymmetric shock within a monetary union. The reasons why these countries, rather than other, are in this situation are many and varied, since it is the responsibility of all the members of the euro for what has happened. If it were Holland, for instance, facing an asymmetric shock, it would be like this, with this rationality and without Merkel’s populism, that the issue would be being discussed.
We don’t want to believe that there are countries in the euro that would like to salvage that old theory of a Dutch minister who, at the end of the 1990s, did not want the southern European nations – the Club Med, as he called them – to join the euro. We don’t want to believe that the aid programmes in fact amount to expulsion from the euro. Angela Merkel has to honour the memory of Konrad Adenauer and the legacy of Helmut Kohl, who just this week offered some serious advice.
Feeding the populist monster that is growing in the Europe of the euro is a Pandora’s box, it is provoking the most dangerous spectres of the European past. The Germans know that the European project is worth far more than populist impulses. Angela Merkel knows that an election is worth less than the life of the euro.
Don’t get it mixed up, Mrs Merkel
Far from impressed by her remarks on the duration of holidays and the retirement age in Southern Europe, the German press has taken Angela Merkel to task. Among them Die Welt, which headlines "European hotchpotch" and explains why the Chancellor is not sending out the right signals: "The Chancellor’s remarks have highlighted the direction in which the European train is headed: the keyword is ‘harmonisation’. For example, the Irish have been asked to raise corporate taxes to German levels. Although it is true that indebted countries should do all they can to put their finances on a firm footing, that does not mean that they should all be prescribed the same medicine."
"Perhaps Greece will find other solutions to reduce the cost of the welfare state than those adopted in Germany," adds Die Welt. Retirement at age 67 is just one possibility among others. Population ageing is much more significant in Germany than it is in Southern Europe, which is why we need to keep seniors in the labour market, but that is not the case in Greece. As for Ireland, its attractive tax regime is perhaps the country’s most competitive advantage, and its best chance of resurrecting growth."