Europe in the Trap


Claus Offe in Eurozine:

Europe finds itself in what may well be its worst crisis since 1945. More and more historically aware commentators are reminded of the situation prior to 1933. If this crisis cannot be overcome, then the political project of European integration will suffer serious harm, as will the European and even the global economy – not to mention the far-ranging social harm that the crisis has already caused in the countries of the European periphery.

The crisis is so serious because of the seemingly insoluble contradiction it presents. In simple terms: the course of action so urgently needed is extremely unpopular and thus cannot be implemented by democratic means. Nor does the post-democratic, technocratic option present a feasible solution. Experts are “in principle” agreed on what is required – namely a long-term debt-sharing agreement, or other grandiose transnational measures to spread the burden – but it is difficult to make electorates in the rich nations listen.

The situation in the countries of the periphery is similar: they must quickly become more competitive and remain so, while driving down labour costs to achieve some semblance of a sustainable balance of trade and a half-way manageable budget deficit. The experts and elites regard all this as “necessary”, but it is clearly unattainable without seriously damaging these nations' democratic sovereignty, since their populations “demand” exactly the opposite. Thus the mismatch between what is economically necessary and what is politically feasible can be seen on both sides of Europe's north-south divide today. If the eurozone collapses because it proves impossible to square that circle, this will most likely mean the end of the EU as well. Chancellor Merkel is quite right to warn of this outcome.