x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Spare us the doom over Europe and look to its success

Euro Zone: A few weeks ago the elites of Davos exuded confidence the European crisis had passed, but recent events show how ephemeral such certainty can be.

The prospect of Silvio Berlusconi's return to power in Italy poses a risk to reforms. Above, customers at a market in Milan. Paolo Bona / Reuters
The prospect of Silvio Berlusconi's return to power in Italy poses a risk to reforms. Above, customers at a market in Milan. Paolo Bona / Reuters

After a six-month lull, panic over the fate of Europe has flared again. A few weeks ago the elites of Davos exuded confidence the crisis had passed, but recent events show how ephemeral such certainty can be.

The easy resumption of dark prognostications is just that: easy. The siren call of European-wide pessimism should be ignored. It was wrong in 2010 and it will be wrong now. Europe faces hard years with no clear path, but that is not the same as dissolution and chaos.

So what changed? The British government spoke with atypical candour about the possibility of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Scandals rocked the Spanish government and the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was accused of accepting illegal payments.

In Italy, one of the larger banks, Monte dei Paschi, revealed that it had lost close to US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in hidden derivative transactions.

More worrisome, looming parliamentary elections that have contributed to the incredible (for anyone outside of Italy) resurrection of the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has managed to surge in the polls even while on trial for allegedly paying an underage woman for sex. The prospect of his return, coupled with a crippled Spanish government, has raised the prospect that neither country will succeed with structural economic reform.

The reaction of financial markets has been swift and predictable. Bond yields on Spanish and Italian debt jumped after months of calm. Soaring costs of borrowing led to a sell-off in Europe's stock markets. As we saw in 2010, 2011 and again last year, once that cycle begins, it can deteriorate quickly.

Now Cyprus has asked for financial assistance from Europe and small as that country is, it was enough to further unsettle an already unsettled situation.

The sudden reemergence of fears for the euro says something about how easily the financial world and its media slip into pessimism. Signs of stability and the ebbing of crisis are viewed instead as false dawns and head fakes. Hints of crisis and deterioration, however, are given oracular weight and accorded the greatest respect.

Yes, unemployment is high in Spain, with official figures at 26 per cent and rising; Italy still feels more complacent than urgent; France more sourly perplexed, and Germany still adamant about fiscal rectitude above all.

The EU remains more toothless than it should be about pressing matters such as pan-Europe banking regulations, and more powerful than anyone wants about minutiae such as sports policy.

And yet the union prevails. The point of the Nobel Prize that the EU was awarded last October was to highlight how remarkable an achievement this has been, and what better time to highlight that than now.

Seventy years ago, European nations were annihilating one another, and they had been fighting wars almost without respite for centuries. Now worst-case scenarios have Greece returning to the drachma; Catalonia becoming independent; and London taking leave of the EU, of which it has never fully been a part.

Even those scenarios appear unlikely. Analysts all have opinions here, and they are just that.

The Citigroup economists who boldly predicted last year that there was a 75 per cent chance that Greece would depart the EU at the start of this year also just had an opinion, however numerically expressed.

Yes, the EU with the euro as a unified currency is fraught to the point of existential angst in its current form. But as has been true at each juncture over the past years, there is no way out of the current impasse except through it. There is no exit strategy; the pain of trying to move forward is a better trade than the agony of dissolution.

And that, truly, is the only litmus test for what will happen: Which alternative is worse? That is not the stuff of dreams, but it is often the axis of struggle. The EU was born of hope for security and prosperity sealed by common bonds of currency and government.

It has achieved that. Now all are searching for the next formula for a different demographic and global future. It's a hard struggle, but a worthy one.

 

* Reuters