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Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash

Tick-tock, euro talk, market shock Add to ...

Untangle this knot if you can. In the next days and months, the future of the euro zone will be decided by the verdict of financial markets on those complex measures which the conflicting national politics of different European countries will allow their governments to agree on. Parliament after parliament is saying: This far, and no further.

But what the one nation insists upon, the other cannot abide: Germany’s “must” is Greece’s “can’t”; Nicolas Sarkozy’s “essential” is Angela Merkel’s “impossible”; Slovakia’s red line is Spain’s indispensable minimum. And every day, this cacophony of national democracies is prey to the transnational superpower of markets.

This week, I watched – live, on my computer screen – two fascinating parliamentary debates on Europe: one in the British House of Commons, the other in the German Bundestag. At first glance, the contrast was great: the old-fashioned pin-striped suits, paunches and plummy sub-Churchillian tones of Tory euroskeptics against the almost colour-coded light greys and blues of German parliamentarians, delivering their characteristic, long Lego-like phrases. Yet, underneath, both had a common theme: democracy.

German Social Democrat and former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Angela Merkel’s treatment of the German parliament over the euro issue unverschämt (shameless). Speaker after speaker, including the Greens’ parliamentary leader, insisted – sometimes hitting the lectern for emphasis – that every new financial commitment Germany makes to save the euro zone must be debated and agreed to “here, in the German Bundestag.” Do I hear a plummy “Hear, hear! from the British Conservative backbenches? In both places, it’s clear that democratic authority for European decisions comes from national parliaments, not the European one.

And in both places, behind the insistence on the rights of the national parliament, one hears the drumbeat of popular dissatisfaction from the streets and protest-hardened squares of Europe. All these national publics are demanding to be heard. The trouble is that what they want to say is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the demands of other European peoples.

Take Ms. Merkel’s speech. After belatedly acknowledging that the sacrifices of people in Greece should command Germans’ respect (tell that to the German tabloids), she went on to say that helping to solve Greece’s problems will require not just “strict conditions” but also “a permanent oversight [ Überwachung]in Greece.” Think for a moment how that German word sounds in Greek ears, with Greek memories.

Then she categorically ruled out the European Central Bank becoming the euro zone’s lender of last resort, a kind of euro-Fed. Loud applause followed in the Bundestag, but she had just dismissed out of hand the main direction in which France wants the euro zone solution to go – and the one move that, beside German-guaranteed euro bonds, would awe the markets.

Marching briskly on, she insisted that a satisfactory solution will require a change to the EU treaties. But Angela’s dream is David’s nightmare. The British parliamentary debate was initiated by an e-petition and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s own backbenchers, precisely so as to put pressure on him to hold a referendum on Britain’s position in the European Union.

His government is firmly committed to holding one if there is a treaty change. Is he afraid of that prospect? Is he, as Margaret Thatcher once famously put it, “frit”? You bet he is. For good measure, Germany’s iron lady added that the German government supports a financial-transaction tax – something that would not please the Conservative party’s principal funders in London.

Does that leave any other European partners to be rubbed the wrong way, just to convince your own German voters to do the half of what is needed? Ah, yes, it would be necessary to take tough, intrusive measures to deal with countries that permanently infringe the euro zone’s stability and growth pact … “and Greece is not the biggest.” There’s one for you, caro Silvio.

And this is only to take one speech of one national politician in one country – albeit, the most important. One could do the same exercise with speeches of Portuguese, Italian, French or British leaders.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that these searching democratic national debates about Europe are a bad thing. Quite the reverse; they are long overdue. In Germany, doubts about the euro were swept under the carpet of political correctness for far too long. In Britain, we do need a referendum on our relationship to the EU – and we should have it as soon as there is a proper yes/no question to put on the ballot paper.

Not only are these national democratic debates a good thing in themselves; I also believe that, given time, the case for a sustainable continuation of today’s EU would win the argument. Although triggered by skepticism – €-skepticism in Germany, a broader euroskepticism in Britain – both parliamentary debates actually produced some vigorous articulation of the underlying case for “Europe.” We should not be afraid of open debate. Bring it on.

The catch is in the “given time.” Ten years ago, we still had that time. If this were just a matter of national parliaments and plebiscites, we would still have that time. But it isn’t and we don’t. The markets could pull the rug on the euro tomorrow.

Answers, anyone?

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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