From Rotten Heart to Braveheart?

Boris was wrong!

Regular readers, especially those toiling away in dusty cities will be less than amused that I have written this note in the beautiful setting of Nafplio, in south west Greece, whilst attending the excellent Eliamep/JeanMonnet30 seminar.

That the Greek stock market is up 35% this year and its bond yields trade some 33 percentage points below their levels of five years ago suggests some closure on the euro-zone crisis.

Another sign of this came in the market reaction to additional stimulus from the ECB. Effectively European asset prices did nothing, which I hope will persuade the ECB to move on to other policy aspects of the euro-zone system such as the need to properly regulate Europe’s fintech and payments sector.

Another important milestone in the ‘story for Europe’ came with the announcement of the composition of the von der Leyen Commission. In a previous Sunday note I have mentioned the method behind the creation of European Commissions found in the tale of political ‘three cushion billiards’ recounted by the late Wilfried Martens, formerly Belgian Prime Minister, in his 2009 book ‘I Struggle, I Overcome’.

The Commission has done well this time, though it was not always the case. One of the first books I read that helped to explain how Brussels worked was Bernard Connolly’s ‘The Rotten Heart of Europe’. It was a huge hit (in the UK) and hugely controversial. Indeed, a second edition came with a cover recommendation from the then editor of the Spectator Boris Johnson (‘one wanted to stand on the desk and cheer’).

The book did much to propagate Euroscepticism in British politics, and I suppose we might trace some of the roots of Brexit to it. With some irony, Brexit has however shown that the Commission can function in a forceful way. The challenge for the EC is to now step up a level and reinforce itself for a multipolar world where it will compete more acutely with China and the US, with at the same time Russia snapping at its heels.

Perhaps for this reason the new EU President referred to her Commission as a ‘geopolitical one’. It is welcome that there is a growing realization in Brussels of the implications of the emerging multipolar world, but for my liking, Europe-Brussels does not yet have a strategic mindset, and does not fully have a sense of its power and identity in the world.

There has already been some controversy over the designation of a Commissioner with responsibility for migration as one who would ‘Protect our European way of Life’. This clumsy effort at communication is likely a nod to right wing parties across Europe, the kind of people who ‘value the Church and families as opposed to bike riding vegetarians’ as one person put it to me.

What this incident should do, is spark a serious debate on what the core values of the EU are, and in ‘The Levelling’ I invoke Alexander Hamilton to do this. The more public life in the US and the UK disintegrates, and the more heavy-handed China is in Hong Kong, the more we are reminded that liberal democracy is at the core of Europe’s value system. One of the challenges is to make the benefits of this clear to people in Poland and Hungary whose leaders contest such a view of the world.

Back to the Commission, where several appointments will have macro and investment implications. Overall, the Commissioners are less wealthy than the Trump cabinet, better organized than the Johnson government and more colourful than the Xi Jinping administration.

Trade first. The appointment of Irishman Phil Hogan as trade commissioner means the EC will hold a firm negotiating line on Brexit, and that it is increasingly focused on the risk that President Trump might open up a trade war with the EU. The appointment of Sabine Weyand to the trade team reinforces this view.

Then, the re-appointment of Margaret Vestager as EU Competition Commissioner underlines the fact that a growing market trend will be regulatory risk to large US tech companies. Europe has already taxed and fined the FAANG companies and some Democrats increasingly agree with this stance. As the 2020 election approaches, tech will be increasingly under regulatory scrutiny and like it or not Europe will lead the way.

The final point worth waking here is the emphasis that the EC is putting on green investment, on governance in Eastern European countries and on socially responsible finance. This all adds up to a much greater emphasis role for ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) in investing and markets, not just in Europe but further afield.

So, the EC is moving away from ‘Rotten Heart’ but is not yet ‘Braveheart’!

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

How to reconnect Europeans with the EU

The EU elections, like the Eurovision song contest is, for some, a chance to poke fun at the EU and at the more colourful characters contesting seats. Turnout will be relatively low, reflecting the fact that for many Europeans, power lies in national assemblies, and also the fact that they do not entirely understand the role and purpose of the EU Parliament.

In this respect the EU Parliamentary elections will do little to bridge the political and emotional gulf between the EU and its citizens. My own experience is that whether I am in the north of Greece, west of France or south of Ireland, Europe’s citizens are losing their sense of what the EU means to them in a tangible way.

The core elements of the project need to be remade, and done so in a way that brings them closer and more meaningful to Europeans. One example is the constitution. One frequently noted rejoinder during debates on the politics of the EU is to ask whether anyone has in fact read the EU constitution. Few have.

The EU constitution is some four hundred pages long (at seventy thousand words, it is seven times as long as the French and Dutch constitutions), and it is unlikely that many Europeans have read it or that they keep a copy close to hand.

Lawyers and academics will tell us that constitutions are legal documents and as such are long and complicated. Still, weighty texts like the European Constitution put distance between people and those who govern over them.

This is one of the ways in which politics today has created a sense of disconnect between insiders and outsiders. From a socio-political point of view, it is a disturbing divide because Europeans are losing confidence in the European Union, and as multiple economic and humanitarian crises take their political toll, Europeans are losing their sense of what Europe stands for.

One proposal, which may go just a small way to repairing the gap between the EU and its citizens, is for Europeans to have a short, tangible and agreed account of what it means to be European.

One thoroughly modern response might be to use artificial intelligence to optimize the constitutions of the various European states and to condense them into one, meaningful page. The algorithm would extract core beliefs and principles from the constitutions of a range of countries and boil them down into a single, short document.

A more straightforward tack would be produce a short document that highlights the meaning and relevance of the European Union for its many citizens. It could be done as follows, and maybe the next Commission might take this up.

The exercise would involve European citizens running pilot projects to discover what they feel they have in common, where they feel they are different, and what policies might, to their advantage, draw them together. To think aloud, an initial pilot project could be based on the participation of a retired Portuguese teacher, a Polish bank clerk, a German policewoman, a Latvian student, an Italian pensioner, and a Swedish nurse.

Their goal is to produce, on a single sheet of paper, the answers to the following questions: What do they, as Europeans, have in common? What can they stress as common values and aspirations, what policies might bring them closer together as Europeans (i.e. the Erasmus pan-European student-exchange program).

The answers might start off with the fact that most Europeans have a common history, one that has been marked by wars, scarred by the rise and fall of empires, shrouded in Christianity, and shaped by the passage of monarchy to democracy and autarchy, the rise of learning and culture, and, from the thirteenth century onward, the evolution of great cities.

This is an altogether broad and historical view of European identity, and it might well permit the inclusion of countries, such as Russia, that are not considered part of Europe today. The sum total of this historic experience might well inspire citizens to say that they have the following common values: peace (not to have another European war), the influence of the Christian church(es), democracy, recognition of the benefits of social democracy, and free movement of EU citizens.

This may just be a starting point, and it might even gain clarity through the participation of the growing number of pan-European couples and their children. Such an exercise may not also produce the unity of views that pro-Europeans may desire, but it will make Europeans think about what defines their region at a time when the US and China are reinforcing their own identities.

The next trick will be to get Europe’s leaders to react to such a template.