As Benjamin Franklin remarked, ‘Experience keeps a dear school, yet fools learn in no other.’ He was brilliant enough to invent the lightning conductor but could not predict the formation of the European Union, where no one learns by experience.
When consulted directly, Europe’s peoples reject free trade, yet the European parliament has just approved a new free trade agreement, with Canada. Its principal measures will be applied right away, whether or not it is ratified by national parliaments. Even hardened fools should have been enlightened by the case of Greece: since May 2010 it has been bled almost dry by the drastic remedies prescribed by the Eurogroup, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, and is close to yet another default.
Dirty syringes are being used to inject its bruised flesh, while the German right decides whether to throw Greece out of the eurozone hospital. And there is more. Welfare budgets are under pressure in several EU member states, which are trying to outdo each other in finding imaginative ways to pay the unemployed less and stop giving medical treatment to foreigners. Yet everyone seems to agree that defence spending should be increased in response to the ‘Russian threat’, though Russia’s defence budget is less than a tenth of the US’s.
Has the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, finally realised that these priorities are indefensible? Drawing inspiration from the wisdom of his friend, the French president François Hollande, he has announced that he will not be seeking a second term. On taking office three years ago, he warned that his presidency would be a ‘last chance’. Yet he is now spending ‘several hours a day planning the withdrawal of a member state’. We can understand why he said last month: ‘There’s no future in this job.’
Juncker, as candidate for the European right, was known chiefly for his defence of Luxembourg’s fiscal paradise before he became president of the Commission in 2014, thanks to the support of a majority of socialist MEPs. ‘I don’t know what makes us different,’ his Social Democrat rival Martin Schulz remarked; Juncker admitted that ‘Mr Schulz is largely in agreement with my ideas.’ The same ideological closeness explains the approval, on 15 February, of the free trade agreement with Canada (CETA): most social democrat MEPs voted with the liberals. And when it came to Greece, one of the biggest mistakes in 60 years of European policy, Germany’s refusal to discuss the amount of Greek debt though it was unsustainable, was backed by France’s Socialist government, and seconded with near-fanatical arrogance by the president of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a Dutch Socialist (1).
Before elections, there is often talk of reorienting the EU. That sounds a laudable aim, but we should learn from experience… It allows us to identify who we can count on, and so avoid a fresh disappointment in an area on which nearly everything else depends.