A sideways look at economics
As the current holder of the coveted accolade of longest self-isolating Fathom employee, I feel I’m in a good place to shed some light on some notable changes that have happened during this period. The staggering rise in the dubious content flying in and out of my WhatsApp chats betrays a clear longing for broflake infused social interactions somewhere beyond the confinement of domestic walls, ideally a boys’ trip (Brian, can we go on another stag please?). The compounded overload from booming work, 24/7 parenting and home-schooling duties has been nowhere near offset by the lack of commuting, close proximity of the drinks cabinet and more ‘flexible’ arrangements on personal hygiene. Truth be told, the one thing that I’m genuinely missing is a good rant. The type that’s purposely punctured by hyperbolae and turns a friendly pub chat from a ‘one last drink’ into all-nighter session at someone’s house. So indulge me, pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple and let’s get worked up together.
Out of my rather long list of go-to topics to rant about, there’s one I’ve procrastinated about for too long and I feel now is the time to air it in the open: Europe. At this point, I might have lost some of you, either because it’s the last thing you want to read about on a Friday evening or because you got up to double down on your favourite tipple. To the former, I don’t care, but understand; to the latter: cheers!
Before I start, a disclaimer. I‘m staunchly pro-European, probably brainwashed from a tender age by the European School I attended in my final secondary school years. I have seen, lived and touched the benefits of the euro. I eagerly lapped the utopian and progressive vision on offer and witnessed the clear sense of purpose that people brought to the early incarnations of the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. I’m nostalgic, but I’m also a firm believer in tough over unconditional love.
Today I see a leadership born out of bean counting, paralysed by a fear of actually inspiring people, constrained by a dire imagination deficit, easily enthused by cheap self-referential rhetoric and constantly hiding behind paper-thin rules and seemingly impenetrable processes. More gravely still, grass-root support for Europe appears almost non-existent and the lack of effort to garner any is worryingly reminiscent of the grandest of ivory towers. If European ‘leaders’ were modern reincarnations of Roman emperors they would resemble more Charles the Great than Augustus: badly faded copies of the real thing. They may have been anointed with a grand title, but everyone knows who is truly in charge. And therein lies the problem. Europe has abdicated any effectiveness to the ephemeral comforting blanket of leading by consensus while herding cats. The diagnosis is damning any way you look at it: either those in charge live in wilful ignorance or they don’t care. The net result is that they’re irredeemably devaluing European institutions by making them the lightning rod for the collective bad decisions of each member state. Domestic politicians in member countries have become extremely adept at taking credit for anything that goes remotely their way, while sprinting faster than Usain Bolt on steroids to blame Europe for the world’s ills. Overall, the incentives to become a Eurocrat appear so skewed to the downside that they resemble a sadistic market for bureaucratic lemons rather than an attractive long-term career prospect. Yet, it would also be too convenient to reduce Eurocrats’ responsibility to a cheap blame game. These perverse incentives have gone unchecked for at least the past 20 years, making Europe’s inability to find an effective counterweight to each country’s domestic political games nothing short of diabolical.
If this wasn’t enough, it seems that every ten years the opportunity actually presents itself for Europe to finally prove its worth and secure the love it so desperately seeks, only to completely bottle it like a teenager afflicted by stage fright. I’m talking about Greece in 2010: why not introduce a European-wide free lottery with easy prizes redeemable against a holiday in southern Europe for a total cost no greater than the Greek bailout (or TARGET2 German surplus)? I’m only partially joking. The point being that a more creative, cost-neutral, solution might have at least had the added benefit of portraying Europe as an endearing and charming white knight rather than a patronising, finger-wagging scrooge disdainfully throwing some change to a beggar. Ten years later, this also applies to the current COVID-19 pandemic. In most developed countries, the party in power seems to have consolidated its popularity by some healthy margin as a result of the epidemic, boosted by rally-around-the-flag sentiment. In the Eurozone, however, a recent poll put Italian support for Europe at 51%, 20ppc lower than the previous poll.
There’s really not much more to add except for weeping in disbelief even as Ursula von der Leyen issued a “heartfelt apology” to Italy yesterday. The cynical would say “too little too late”, the optimist “the penny has finally dropped”. I would argue for a more sobering “once bitten, twice shy”, but I do have a more constructive and pragmatic proposition. On the one hand, I’m genuinely encouraged by the apology as change starts with recognising that there’s a problem. On the other hand, it would be foolish to set expectations too high. I think I would happily settle for Europe acknowledging its huge PR deficit. Redressing the decade-long imbalance in perceptions would be a good start and it would allow it to regain the initiative on the narrative Europe wishes to set in individual Eurozone countries. Nothing drastic, but I feel that Europe ought to be able to monopolise national headlines at least as well as Heathrow did here in the UK for months on a marginal issue such as the third runway. If not, maybe Europe should consider poaching the Heathrow PR team. Come think of it, “Europe’s third runway” has a good ring to it as a first PR campaign.
I could go on, but I feel better already. I hope you do too. Rant over and out.