Europe’s Moment of Truth Is Obviously About Debt

The COVID-19 pandemic may have provided the impetus toward European construction in a changing geopolitical landscape.
European Union, European Union news, EU news, news on EU, EU debt, European Union debt, European debt, Ursula von der Leyen, Europe, Peter Isackson

© Marian Weyo

May 29, 2020 12:30 EDT

Since 2016, the year the British voted to leave the European Union and the US elected trade-war baron Donald Trump, Europe has had its share of political and economic storms. The EU’s lack of unity and coherence and its fragility as a geopolitical institution have never been more obvious. The euro was already under threat as the economies of the weaker nations of the union were floundering and the stronger ones were clinging, as best they could, to neoliberal orthodoxy. Eastern Europe increasingly embraced xenophobic populism, distancing itself from Europe’s official cosmopolitanism.

Germany and France stood relatively strong and somewhat united as the union’s powerhouse leaders. They endeavored to provide a sense of possible future stability at least at the center. But many could feel the ground shaking east of the Rhine as Angela Merkel’s prestige and electoral base began to fray. Then, in November 2018, more than a year before the arrival on European shores of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new coronavirus — a potent pandemic broke out in France: yellow vest fever.

Who Will Write the Storyline of COVID-19?


The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively postponed every other drama, including Brexit, which appeared to be approaching its final but still inconclusive deadline four and a half years after the referendum. The pandemic has already changed people’s perception across the globe of how nations and economies function, though the lingering hope that it’s just a temporary interruption of normal life in today’s consumer society keeps alive the idea that we will soon be able to return to our old debates on the same terms as before.

There are, however, some serious indicators of possibly seismic change. Matina Stevis-Gridneff, the Brussels correspondent for The New York Times, reports on a new proposal put before the European Commission that, if confirmed, would constitute a truly significant event for the future of the union. The author sums it up in the article’s subtitle: “Adopting the proposal would make history for the bloc, vesting authority in Brussels in ways that more closely resembled a central government.”

This time we know it’s serious because it’s about money, the one thing that matters more than mere attributions of authority. “The plan, which still requires approval from the 27 national leaders and their parliaments, would be the first time that the bloc raised large amounts of common debt in capital markets, taking the E.U. one step closer to a shared budget, potentially paid for through common taxes,” Stevis-Gridneff writes.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Shared by everyone with enthusiasm when what is being shared is positive, but when it is negative, shared only by the common people

Contextual Note

The key idea explained in the article is the creation of “common debt,” which highlights the ambiguity of the adjective “common.” In phrases such as “commonwealth,” the “common good” and “common interests,” the notion of reciprocity and mutual respect dominates. In the European tradition, however, there has always been the distinction between “the common people” (or commoners) and the elite, the aristocrats. This ambiguous cultural heritage will be playing out in the debate around the current proposal.

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The proposed common debt aims at making it possible to coordinate the European Union’s response to the manifest difficulties that are now spread across the continent by a borderless virus. It specifically means the allocation of €750 billion ($835 billion) “on behalf of all members to finance their recovery from the economic collapse brought on by the virus, the worst crisis in the history of the European Union.”

The commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, generously described the proposal as something that will make the members of the union more equal than before. “This is about all of us and it is way bigger than any one of us,” she said. “This is Europe’s moment.”

Such a proposal will undoubtedly obtain the adhesion of a majority of nations. But to pass, it requires the unanimous backing of all EU member states. And it appears that “a handful of the richer and less affected ones, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, consider joint borrowing and grant distribution to be unfair,” Stevis-Gridneff mentions.

One comment by Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, sums up the dilemma: “We need to take everyone’s interests into account and there are very different interest groups: the southern countries, who fundamentally always want more; the East Europeans, who have an interest in preventing everything from flowing south; and, of course, those who have to pay for it all, the net payers.”

Kurz reminds us of the meme at the heart of neoliberal thinking, which in the US takes the form of making the nonsensical distinction between “makers” and the “takers.” This distinction is far more radical and cruel than the distinction between aristocrats and commoners. Kurz offers some valuable precision when he invokes the idea of “net payers,” since in any common venture, some will inevitably end up spending more for the common good than others.

That’s the whole point of a common good, just like an insurance scheme. The point about being common is that everyone is equally protected, even though those who need it less will contribute more. But, as the current pandemic has demonstrated, the health of the collectivity is vital to the protection of its individual members.

Historical Note

The idea of “common” in European history contains some interesting sociological complexity.  Throughout most of Europe’s past, aristocrats were the small minority who were distinguished from commoners. Their status was legally separate from that of the common people. The gentry — commoners who had a right to a family coat of arms — thought of themselves as the upper tier of the commoners, but they clearly could not be confused with nobility.

When over the past two centuries, the entire Western world accepted the idea of democracy as the standard model of national governance, the traditional aristocracy lost all of its legal privileges, though some nations persisted in preserving some of the social prestige attached to titles, especially for monarchs. Once democracy had taken effect, traditional aristocrats — even those who insisted on conserving their titles — effectively became commoners, with the same right to vote as any other citizen. Only British exceptionalism and the culture’s obsession with tradition allowed such an institution as the House of Lords to have a marginal and an ever-diminishing role in government.

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With the triumph of the global capitalist economy, the only serious factor for assessing the interest of anything is monetary. Sebastian Kurz is technically correct in identifying a new aristocracy: the supposed dominance of “net payers” over the eventual beneficiaries of a mutualized program.

That reflects the underlying logic of neoliberal capitalism with its irrational belief in the supposed virtues of “win-win” negotiations. If one side feels it may lose in terms of net outlay vs. accountable gain, the deal must be avoided. But that is not how “common efforts” work, where the gain may be measurable in terms of environmental stability, the production of sharable resources and the intangible but highly productive value of harmonious relations.

Ursula von der Leyen is right. “This is Europe’s moment,” even in the Spanish bullfighting sense of “el momento de la veridad.” It’s the point at which either the matador or the bull will be eliminated from the contest. Spain, of course, along with Italy, will be one of the “takers” that the “net payers” will have to pony up for. But without the risk to the matador (whose odds are much better than the bulls), there would be no bullfight.

Europe’s health, future prosperity and potential impact in a rapidly reforming balance of geopolitical power should motivate the “net payers” not just to contribute to preserve the stability of the poorer nations in a time of general crisis, but also to ensure the long-term payback they themselves will get from their investment if Europe ends up strengthened on the global stage.

The New York Times article explores in some detail the complexity of the issues and the long-term context in which decision-making will be made. Despite its ambiguities, the case seems very strong. The principal obstacle noted by a Dutch diplomat is that von der Leyen’s “plan would still meet resistance in the continent’s wealthy north.” 

The new neoliberal aristocrats clearly haven’t given up their fight to maintain their privileges.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]

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