x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The EU's winter of discontent cannot be its undoing

Europe is in crisis, that much is true, but now must be the time for temporary decoupling rather than full-scale severance.

Consider for a moment these words on long-term commitment from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières's successful 1994 novel that later became a more leaden, less lucrative film starring Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz and John Hurt.

There is, among the two hours and more of stodge dished up by director John Madden in that 2001 movie, a genuinely affecting scene in which one sees Dr Iannis (played by Hurt) attempt to pass down his wisdom to Pelagia, his bright but fiery daughter (Cruz).

Iannis tells the impulsive Pelagia that love is a "temporary madness", that it "erupts like an earthquake and then it subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part." Indeed, if you have been to a wedding in the West in the past decade and more, you may even have listened to those words.

These sentiments returned to me recently when I read Nouriel Roubini's most recent op-ed for the Financial Times. In a piece entitled A Divorce Settlement for the euro zone, the eminent American economist asserts that while the European Union has recently avoided another calamity (thanks largely to the unceasing efforts of the European Central Bank), the single market's woes will not lessen until it makes some tough decisions - namely to get rid of those problematic nations at the single market's periphery who continue to complicate matters for those countries at its core.

"Splitting up may be hard to do," Roubini writes, "but it can be better than sticking to a bad marriage."

Roubini and his co-author Arnab Das go on to outline an "amicable" divorce settlement that would see the distressed five (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain) being sent from the union, but not before they've collected a legacy payment (think of this as maintenance) to help ease the pain of facing the world alone.

Having received Roubini's wisdom, let us for a moment now return to Iannis and his daughter: "Love is not breathlessness," he concludes, "It is not excitement ... love itself is what is left over, when being in love has burned away."

So where do you stand on the question of the EU? Do you believe that the single market is so distressed, that the differences within it are irreconcilable, that the only thing for it is to get a "quickie" divorce and move on? Or are you like Iannis, who might look at the current crisis and say that this is what happens after the "earthquake subsides", that this is just what it means to be in a long-term relationship with all its peaks and troughs?

That the beautiful project of Europe has now turned ugly is beyond doubt. That commentators can now find the fractures that existed within the union from the moment it was forged, is of no great surprise either. A form of "temporary madness" helped create the single market  - blinding its participants to its weaknesses - and a similar chaos is pushing it towards a messy break-up.

But let's pause for a moment. Faced with a similar challenge in a real-life relationship that may have progressed from desire to disappointment, a marriage counsellor would advise that a trial separation might help cool the situation.

A similar solution seems apt for Europe. The union needs remodelling rather than ripping up. Indeed, Jean-Claude Piris has already suggested this in his recent book The Future of Europe: Towards a Two-Speed Europe (reviewed in these pages earlier this year).

Piris, a staunch advocate of EU, believes that its weaker nations should be allowed some short-term flexibility to get their houses in order before being brought back into the fold when conditions and markets improve. Europe is in crisis, that much is true, but now must be the time for temporary decoupling rather than full-scale severance.