Europe's Complacency Trap

Brigitte Granville

COVID-19 has wounded almost every developed country, but the truth is that living standards in many of them had been stagnating or declining for years. Many metrics highlight this trend, but perhaps the most telling comes from the OECD, which reports a 4% decline in household median net wealth across its member countries since 2010.

No wonder advanced economies have experienced periodic explosions of anger in recent years – from Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum in 2016 to the subsequent gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protests in France and an election in Italy that brought two anti-establishment parties to power. Despite these upheavals, predictions of democratic collapse have not been borne out. On the contrary, the establishment has re-established itself.

Even during revolutions that appeared to upend all institutions, the chaos often masked an underlying continuity. The French Revolution started two years after Louis XVI’s finance minister, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, failed to sweep away the privileged classes’ tax exemptions. Looking back 60 years later, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that the apparent cataclysm of 1789 had in fact changed little about how France was governed.

Culture, it seems, trumps revolution. In Russia, the Bolsheviks seized power with the fanatical millenarian goal of reinventing society, but they ended up governing as a traditional autocracy – albeit with uniquely cruel and murderous methods.

But while revolutions often fail to effect much change, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fear them. After all, the human costs are usually high. Even if abrupt institutional change occurs without violence, it is almost certain to harm livelihoods. Democracy’s doomsayers perhaps should be heeded after all, especially in Europe.

Consider the EU’s vaccination fiasco. In a show of European solidarity, EU countries agreed to delegate their “competence” in this area to the European Commission. The intention was noble. But the Commission was never equipped to run a massive public health procurement program, and national regulators and politicians soon undercut the effort (and public trust) by suspending the AstraZeneca vaccine – thus infringing on the competence of the EU-level regulator (the European Medicines Agency).

Whenever such problems arise, the overwhelming consensus is that Europe should simply muddle through. Rarely is there any willingness to change things, either by creating a genuine European government with the necessary fiscal muscle to reverse the continent’s relative economic underperformance, or by reversing the integration process.

The article's full-text is available here.

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