Europe’s Leaders-In-Waiting Face The Mess Ahead

HINDSIGHT. It’s a wise and beautiful thing. And there’s a lot of it about Europe at the minute.

In Britain, the Murdoch kids believe, with hindsight, that Rupert shouldn’t have handed Rebekah Brooks the reins at News International. Much of the rest of the country reckons, in hindsight, that Rupert shouldn’t have actually been given the keys to their media to trash.

At Downing Street, David Cameron also has 20-20 clarity after the event. He now says he shouldn’t have accepted the secondment of Murdoch’s placeman, Andy Coulson, at Number 10. And perhaps, Mr Cameron, it probably wasn’t a good look to frolic around Oxfordshire house parties double-air-kissing Rebekah and her luvvy friends. In hindsight.

Meanwhile, at the august London School of Economics, hindsight has made its pursuit of the oleaginous Saif Gaddafi a very bad idea. And, still with Libya, hindsight holds that it wasn’t clever of MI6 bigwig Sir Mark Green to lavish the Gaddafi regime which had allegedly tortured the militia leader who now runs much of Tripoli and who is now suing him.

Banking’s Big Bang of the 1980s was a Big BooBoo in hindsight because it permitted staid but solvent old banks to become racy hedge funds, with consequences taxpayers will fund for generations. And then there’s Sir Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin, the former boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland that he trashed. It wasn’t smart – in hindsight – to hand him a knighthood. With RBS now in the British state’s intensive care, Her Majesty has rescinded the Goodwin gong. With the benefit of hindsight.

Across the channel, the Continent veritably fizzes with Monday’s experts; it was a mistake, mea culpa, for Italians to elect – and re-elect – the vulgar Silvio. In hindsight, Greece perhaps shouldn’t have been invited into the Eurozone. Actually, make that the EU. To many Europeans, the single currency was a disaster, in hindsight, while to others it was a blunder, in hindsight, not to press for deeper political union while Brussels was advancing monetary and economic federation. Oh, and as the long-suffering Anne Sinclair and French voters know only too well, DSK clearly isn’t a typo for YKK.

In hindsight, experts say it was plain dumb to allow Eurozone states to maintain competing sovereign bond markets when a combined, stronger Euromarket would’ve better ballasted the euro. In Paris, Jacques Delors, the French economist most closely associated with the single currency project, says it was a mistake for politicians to manage it. Far better, he says with hindsight, to leave epochal matters to technocrats.

But of the many mea culpa being bandied about, a personal favourite comes from one Andrew Gowers. Who is he? Well, at the time the euro entered circulation in 2002, Gowers edited that venerable business bible, the Financial Times. Gowers was a passionate advocate of the euro and, indeed, argued to readers that a euro-sceptical Britain should also join the party.

A decade on, Gowers recently devoted 3,661 words of a recent Sunday Times article to confess “I now believe I was wrong.” After he got hounded out of the FT, he turned up at Lehman Brothers at its main PR flack in London. When Lehman failed – Gowers wrote a hindsight piece about that experience too – he bailed to BP, only for it to be immersed in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a PR disaster nonpareil.

For his next gig, Gowers could present himself as a Leading Market Indicator, his career moves telegraphed as a clairvoyance of calamity to be cited on the evening’s news bulletin alongside the latest market-moving trade figures or employment data. Whatever company he surfaces at would become an immediate short-sell. It would be transparent and would help clear up Europe’s wider outbreak of hindsight, too.

(The Global Mail emailed Gowers for his input. To his credit, he responded. “If you think such a tired and hackneyed observation will amuse your few readers, please go ahead!” Given Gowers’s recent efforts at crystal ball-gazing, we at an ambitious start-up take his remark as heralding a brilliant future.)

WITH SO MUCH hindsight about, foresight in Europe is in short supply, as rare as a job in Spain, uncommon as a taxpayer in Athens. So TGM journeyed to Belgium in search of sagacity, not to the EU capital Brussels but to Bruges, to consult some of the people likely to be tasked with fixing Europe’s mess: the Bright Young Things studying at the exclusive College d’Europe.

Bruges is the perfect setting for an academy whose very raison d’etre is to advance European unity. With its chocolate-box canals and quaint 12th century cobblestoned streets named for the guilds and artisans trading here, it’s hard to imagine a place that’s more quintessentially European than this UNESCO-listed city. Beautiful art and music was inspired, made and displayed here. The bistros are excellent, and so was a 2008 film set here, the well-known In Bruges. The commercial capital of the world in mediaeval times, Bruges is the town once ruled by a man dubbed Philip the Good.

Conceived in 1948, as war’s ashes still smouldered across the continent, the College of Europe has been described as “an elite finishing school for aspiring Eurocrats” and for the European political elite – “what the Harvard Business School is to American corporate life.… a hothouse where the ambitious and talented go to make contacts”, the Financial Times, which has traditionally preferred its complement to be Oxbridge-derived, and preferably Oxford’s Balliol, portrays the college as “an institution geared to producing crop after crop of graduates with a lifelong enthusiasm for EU integration.” Its first – and, at 22 years, longest-serving – director, the Dutch Euro-federalist Henrik Brugmans, imagined the college’s purpose as “to train an elite of young executives for Europe.”

And that it has. From EC presidents, myriad ministers, technocrats and MEPs to a UN deputy secretary-general, its roll call is luminous. Of the current leadership generation, Britain’s Dutch/French/Spanish/German/English-speaking Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg met his Spanish lawyer wife, Miriam González Durántez, here. Denmark’s PM, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, hooked up with her husband, Stephen Kinnock, son of former British Labour leader and long-time European commissioner Neil, at the college. It isn’t just Europeans who study here; the outed CIA operative Valerie Plame is a graduate, and today there are Palestinians, Chinese, Azeris, Armenians, and 15 aspirational Turks, the college’s sixth biggest national group.

But 238 of the 315 students are from the 27 EU member nations. And, if the college’s alumni are a guide, a good number of them will be running Brussels in 15 to 20 years time.

So what do they think about Europe? Where might they take it?

TGM sat down in Bruges with eight 20-something College of Europe students: Elena Faloutsou from Greece, Christophe Christaenes of Belgium, Spaniards Juan Gargallo and Rodolfo Navarro, Briton Louise Larnach Day, Ilenia Ventroni of Italy, Percin Imrek from Turkey and Annabelle Marxen from Luxembourg.

They envisage a Europe that will meld ever deeper politically, where member states must deliver up more of their sovereignty to survive and prosper, a single market that must become a genuine political union to ensure that the economic union, and the euro, prevail. They realise that theirs is a Europe where, for the first time in generations, a job will be hard to get. It’s a Europe that will embrace new members across the Balkans and east beyond Poland – to Ukraine and possibly Belarus, but not Russia. Their EU will include Islamic Turkey and won’t exclude Greece. But it won’t tolerate Germany telling it what to do, an EU that must have Britain at its core if only for bureaucratic discipline and a union that will bail each other out of crises, albeit at the cost of the European welfare state.

As we convene, the Europe crisis descends ever deeper. EU leaders meet in Brussels for yet another arm-wrestle over who bails out who and by how much, while in Madrid, the new Mariano Rajoy government announces unemployment has reached 22.8 per cent, the highest in 17 years.

It’s all very grim, but Europe is much more than the economy. What strikes me as I’m talking with this group is that though the EU is in a dire crisis, they are adamant that Europe is more about ideals, enlightenment and liberalism – the essential values, forged from conflict, that Europe exports. It’s very deep, and it’s culturally ingrained.

We interviewed them in two sittings, asked them the same questions and edited their answers into a single Q & A. This is what they said….

TGM: Is Greece the problem here in Europe?

Illenia/Italy: How can we say that?! They [Greece] might have a problem, but have you seen Italy? If they fall, it’s manageable but if we fall everyone falls, so I do feel a bigger responsibility than the Greeks might have. We all have issues in our finances, the problem comes when you ignore them for ages and you also have a big responsibility in Europe, and that’s not fair at all.

Rodolfo/Spain: It would be worse if we leave them out. The EU couldn’t afford that. And they are nice people.

Illenia/Italy: For we Italians, it would be a total shock not having Greece in Europe. We grow up knowing that our culture comes from their culture so for us, it’s a trauma. Their exit is not an option. We are ready to hold onto them.

TGM: But everyone’s pointing fingers at Greece for not paying taxes. Are they secreted away with Annabelle in low-tax Luxembourg?

Annabelle/Luxembourg: There’s a big difference between having different tax rates in member states and illegal tax. I don’t think the solution in Europe would be complete tax harmonisation, and that’s not the aim.

Juan/Spain: I want to make a very clear statement. Southern Europe is not the cause of the problem of Europe. We had an arrangement among all EU governments – the Stability and Growth Pact – and the first ones to breach it were Germany and France! It was impossible, in political terms, to punish them for breaking these rules. From that point, there was no incentive for any government in Europe to comply with their budgetary obligations. That is one of the biggest reasons why our finances are so bad now.

Illenia/Italy: Juan is right, after these breaches [by Germany and France], everyone started to play for themselves. Tax-collecting is a cultural problem, it’s not about law, it’s about the sense of the state that a country has; that’s historical and you can’t change that in a day.

TGM: Elena, do you Greeks still want to be in the EU?

Elena/Greece: What is at stake here is where we really belong. We lived under Turkish occupation for 400 years and that has left us with many problems. This “Ottoman tradition” is the cause of many of our problems now. It’s important that we be in the EU for Greeks to adjust themselves to European culture. I think they can. We cannot live without Europe any more. It’s not about the market any more, it’s about the citizenship, labour mobility. This is a world of opportunity now in Europe.

TGM: Is the solution genuine political union, the abolition of the nation-state?

Elena/Greece: In order to have an efficient, effective economic and monetary union, you need political integration first. But things in Europe happen vice versa.

Illenia/Italy: I totally agree. It started backwards … It’s a difficult step but even a crisis like this could boost more integration, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to jump too much. It’s about sovereignty, and many countries had to struggle a lot for that. The citizens need to be involved … so many citizens feel like they haven’t been asked anything for ages … they need to own.

Rodolfo/Spain: Yes … in the near future we will be more likely to operate like one country, all Europe together. Spain is a model. Yes, we are considered European but we are also Spanish and each of us belong to a region. We don’t want to lose our nationality or our identity just because we belong to the EU.

Annabelle/Luxembourg: You can have both at the same time. The more I feel European, the more I feel Luxembourgish.

Juan/Spain: Until 1975 we [Spain] were under a dictatorship and in 1986 we joined Europe, so our modern history cannot be explained without this relationship to Europe. Now we have European standards in a very short period. We can’t face the modern challenges of the international economy without being together, we just can’t.

Illenia/Italy: The values of the EU are written on paper and sometimes in some states we do forget about them, what it means to have a real liberal democracy, to have everyone able to speak their mind. I like that we can remind each other what happened to us in World War 2 all the time.

TGM: Will Europe be a Christian-only club?

Elena/Greece: The idea of Christendom is inherent from the Middle Ages, but now, in a multicultural environment, I don’t think it’s the basis of European values.

TGM: Turkey’s economy is booming, your economy is not, but it’s a different culture, a different religion. Are they welcome?

Juan/Spain: No! I don’t want them because it means a lot of their workers competing with ours and that means lower wages. Our domestic economy is damaged enough.

Annabelle/Luxembourg: I don’t agree. We of the original six could’ve said the same of Spain. The religious argument is how Europeans would perceive it. I don’t know if it’s an economic or political problem.

TGM: Here’s a referendum. The simple question is: Turkey in or out? What do you tick?

Annabelle/Luxembourg: Blank!

Rodolfo/Spain: They see society in a different way so maybe we should try and avoid this situation. I will allow them but under certain conditions.

Illenia/Italy: Juan was worried about them coming to work in Europe. I want to go there because their economy has the jobs for young people and in my country there is no more!

Percin/Turkey: Its like going to a party at 2am, half are drunk and the other half have gone home. The main reason Turkey is not in Europe is that it is too big to swallow. It’s a power struggle, nobody wants 60-70 Turkish parliamentarians (which would change the balance in the European parliament), the second biggest. I believe, historically, we are very much attached to Europe.

Louise/UK: Why not? Definitely, yes … there’s not many arguments against it … economic benefits, cultural similarities, expansion of the EU… there’s plenty of Muslims in all the different European countries. This is an identity question … why is the EU inherently Christian? I’m of the opinion there shouldn’t be any religious connotation to the EU because its united in diversity, and that means diverse religions as well.

Christophe/Belgium: Not at the moment, for practical and institutional reasons, but let’s say in 10-15 years, why not?

Juan/Spain: They have many structural problems.

TGM: Juan, you are saying that but you really mean the religion is the real problem, no?

Juan/Spain: Cultural things are very important too.

Illenia/Italy: In Europe, I don’t think religion is that important any more. Culture is not about religion, it’s more about liberal values and democracy. They are working very hard to reform, however they are not there yet. Our Turkish friends here say they’d like this process to go on as much as it can.

Elena/Greece: We should make the distinction that there is Istanbul, and there is the Turkey of the east. The official position of Greece, and also mine, is that for security reasons Turkey should be in the EU because we spend thousands of euros per day deterring the Turkish (military).

Illenia/Italy: Turkey is a great missed opportunity. Right now there is the Arab Spring. If we had Turkey in Europe before the Arab Spring, probably the opportunities that are about to be lost in some of those countries wouldn’t have been lost.

Elena/Greece: I’m not convinced that Turkey really wants to join the EU.

TGM: Which leads us to Britain. Will they stay in the EU and do you want them there? And in the euro, too?

Illenia/Italy: Definitely.

Rodolfo/Spain: Yes, sure.

Juan/Spain: Yeah, if they want to.

Illenia/Italy: Britain brought an administrative revolution to Europe, more transparency, a more efficient and specialised bureaucracy. They could’ve had a positive influence [in the euro] but never used the leverage they could’ve had. We waste so much money in the way in which we organise in our own countries.

Elena/Greece: Britain and Turkey are more emotional questions. Even if everything were perfect [all entry criteria were met], still we ask, ‘Do I belong with them, and do they belong with me?’

Illenia/Italy: Yes, our education system in Italy really gives us the incontrovertible conviction that we are part of a bigger thing.

TGM: You all will be paying for the mess of this generation … how can it be fixed?

Illenia/Italy: My generation will not have a pension because my parents’ generation have behaved in a completely crazy way. They haven’t been thinking about their children in Italy. We are still ruled by the same class who ruined everything and there is a total block about the new generation. Our president is 86 years old. There is a huge cultural gap between us and our parents. So people are just going away and never coming back. Our mind is more open than them, we don’t understand each other at all, so the danger is that we will all go away. Our generation feels more European because we feel more welcome elsewhere in Europe than at home.

Annabelle/Luxembourg: At some point we have to accept and say, ‘OK, we cannot change it we have to find a remedy for it.’ People should have a bit more faith in Europe, a bit more patience. Economies have always been cyclical, and sometimes we make it worse than it is and we aggravate it. So we should first calm down … and then work through it patiently.

Juan/Spain: We won’t create jobs for at least five years … people will move away … we won’t be able to sustain the welfare levels … the financial reforms that have been undertaken is not sufficient at all. And this is why if we don’t strengthen it now, we will have the same problem in 10 or 20 years, another financial crisis. This must be done with America, China, Russia … that’s globalisation.

Elena/Greece: We cannot do it alone. The very essence to fix it is co-operation, at three levels: global, the eurozone and national. Fix the global financial system, regulate the markets, decide what kind of investment product will be allowed, the bonuses, all these things…

Illenia/Italy: The last thing we should do is treat the citizens like we don’t understand. We should really bring them on board… But we really do need a political change everywhere, a change of guard … when you don’t care about politics, politics is going to care about you. Conspiracy theories are very damaging … when you don’t trust your fellow citizens, you don’t trust your government, what can you build on? You have no hope.

TGM: The Germans are the bosses now. This is what they always wanted, no?

Rodolfo/Spain: Actually, we have to consider that. They are the biggest in the EU.

Annabelle/Luxembourg: They have more responsibility so with this comes more power, but I don’t think they should enforce it too much.

Juan/Spain: We don’t feel that Germans want to rule Europe.

Illenia/Italy: Actually, I think they are reluctant leaders. I agree with the Polish leader who said recently he was more fearful of a reluctant Germany than a proactive one. You can’t play day-by-day in the middle of a crisis, you have to plan for 10, 20 years. That takes a lot of courage as well because you have to face your electors as well, and they won’t really like what you decide.

Elena/Greece: Germans have been brainwashed that they are paying the bills. That’s not true, they get huge interest rates from Greece.