The Malta Independent 21 October 2021, Thursday

Presiding over a crumbling empire

Noel Grima Sunday, 11 December 2016, 10:45 Last update: about 6 years ago

We never imagined it would turn out like this. Ever since we joined the EU, we knew that one day Malta would be the President of the EU. Prime ministers and aspiring prime ministers vied to have the privilege.

The result of the 2013 General Election meant that Joseph Muscat would be the President of the EU. He has been caught up in the euphoria and he and his ministers will spend the next six months presiding over more than 1,000 meetings (300 of which in Malta).

This week, we have had a taster of glory days to come in the visit by Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament. He came, he visited, he even went on a walkabout in rainy Valletta and declared himself satisfied and happy with all that he saw.

Then he got on a plane and went back to reality. For the European reality is a far cry from that seen with tinted glasses in Malta. It is a Union in intensive care, with an uncertain prognosis.

When next March, right in the middle of the Maltese presidency, the EU celebrates the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, it may well be that political instability in Italy itself will be the backdrop to the commemorative ceremony.

March too will be the month when the UK is supposed to trigger Article 50 and so start the path to Brexit.

Malta, the Maltese presidency, will be presiding over this and more. It will look like it's presiding over a long, drawn-out funeral of an idea that may have been good in its time but like the grand dames with heavily powdered faces, is now past its prime.

The citizens themselves, all 500+ millions, are in revolt. They threw out the French and Dutch referenda, the British government and its Remain camp, the Matteo Renzi senseless proposed reform of the Constitution, and threatens to put Marine Le Pen in the Elysée Palace come May.

The forces of revolt are knocking at the doors and none stronger than in Germany where they may unseat the EU's real leader, Angela Merkel herself. But that will be after the end of the Maltese presidency, so at least Malta will be spared that ultimate agonizing experience.

The European idea is in retreat all over the place, yet, like Imperial Rome, it is still building the architectural trophies of its glory. Sometime during the Maltese presidency, it is due to inaugurate the €321 million 'Space Egg' building in the European quarter of Brussels where the heads of government will meet. A few months ago, in Frankfurt, the European Central Bank took possession of its new HQ, 185m high, a new skyscraper to enhance the Frankfurt skyline.

One can dissect the crumbling empire any way one wants - geographically, structurally, historically, economically. The EU was born out of World War II and bound France and Germany together to preserve peace in Europe, and this has been achieved for 60 years, no mean feat. It has removed barriers and frontiers, has protected a social Europe.

These 60 years have seen Europe move from the poverty of post-war years to affluence and prosperity. But it was a stunted growth, based on protectionism and on the infamous CAP which produced 'butter mountains' that were wasted rather than given to the poor.

Europe remained a collection of individual nation states which grew bigger and bigger as more nations joined in. Then France and Germany conceived the single currency. As the former Greek finance minister Varoufakis explains it, it was an ill-conceived way to fill the void left by the US removing its economic umbrella and a French strategy to bind Germany. The ERM was born and it begot the euro, the single currency.

Two things are now clear: the euro is now a world currency but has significant structural flaws in its design. As long as the going was good, there was prosperity all around, and banks lent in abundance even when they knew they were lending to unsustainable actors. When, in 2008, the crisis came, the system almost collapsed. Banks had to be saved by the infusion of state funds in Ireland, and other countries. Greece was the weakest of the euro nations (it should have never been allowed in) and the EU medicine that was administered was harsh and cruel - the Greeks themselves refused to reform, millions ended up unemployed, pensioners saw their (admittedly golden) pensions shaved, social security was chopped. People suffered poverty, hunger, homelessness.

Yet the EU behemoth rolled on. Greece was humiliated but stayed inside the EU and the eurozone. Not so the UK, but the UK acted out of strength, not of weakness. Not so Italy: the votes that kicked Renzi out came from the impoverished South.

The coming days will tell us how it will all end up for the ailing Italian banks, especially the country's oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Will the country have to suffer the heavy burden of its non-performing loans? Will its shareholders be made to suffer and its depositors too? Will this affect the other ailing banks, Vicenza and Verona?

Beyond all this there is the massive influx of migrants, attracted by Europe's success, pushed by the wars in Africa, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the disintegration of Libya, the incursions by IS. The UK's Brexit was pushed by an anti-migrant rhetoric (albeit against migrants from EU counties only). France's Le Pen is declaredly anti-migrant (Le Pen has suggested children of migrants do not get free schooling) and Merkel is busy rolling back the welcome carpet to migrants she rolled out two years ago.

One can truly say Europe has lost its way and has no idea how to move forward. Other than plodding on, the leaders fail to come up with a new strategy. The running is being made by the likes of Brexit, 5 Stelle, Le Pen, the Polish and Hungarian ultra-nationalists, etc. We have all these elections coming up and they will show the way, maybe forward, maybe backward.

It is on this dung heap of failed ideals and collapsed strategies that small, impotent, Malta will be presiding over.


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