Going to Athens

The Union and the Euro, do they still work?

Well, that is a loaded question.  And I won’t even attempt to answer it, but it does grab your attention.

As I am looking forward to traveling to the land of blue waters, white houses, and gyros (clearly I have never actually been to Greece, but there is a bit of truth in every stereotype, right?) in June, I am really trying to get the facts straight about the economic crisis.  I had the good fortune of taking a class about the European Union fall of 2011, right when the crisis was unfolding.  We focused our learning on the history of the Union at large, the reason for the adoption of the Euro and economic unity, and the nuances of the argument about intergovernmentalism versus supranationalism.

Very generally speaking, intergovernmentalism is the idea that the EU is a conglomeration of member states, each of who act for their own good.  The “Union” is really a bunch of independent actors functioning under the same organization but without the same goal.  Supranationalism states that the “Union” is actually a body composed of member states who let go of their national allegiances and motives to serve the larger Europe.  This debate is complicated through political, social, and economical lens.  To give you an idea: one of the complications to the supranationalism debate can be understood when looking at the European Parliment (a body of the Union that has legislative powers…for more information about other bodies that make up the EU, check out some other sites like this one).  The Parliament is charged with the responsibility of passing laws on behalf of the Union at large.  These laws affect the terms of relating that the members must abide by.  Therefore, these laws are large compromises, after all they are trying to please all the member states, which number 27.  The Parliament itself is 754 members in total, each member being directly elected.  Directly elected is the crucial part in this example.  “Directly elected” means that each member of the Parliament is elected by their nation to be a representative on the European legislative stage.  Sounds good right?  Well, not really.  Put yourselves in the politician of the individual member state trying to get elected.  What will you say that will convince your constituents that you will be good for them in the European context?  What would a Italian politician say to say a shop owner in the small town of Castel del Piano to convince him that his vote should be for that politician?  Well first, that politician has to talk about something the shop owner would know, and care about.  What the shop owner knows and cares about it mainly national (this touches on another issue: the fact that European-wide issues are rarely talked about on a national level, and thus are perceived as inconsequential).  The politician has to address national issues to get votes.  Member state politicians speak on national terms when getting votes.  But the point of getting these votes is to serve a supranational, European, function.   Their responsibilities should have nothing to do with national policies.  So, politicians are elected based on making promises to achieve certain goals aligned with their nation.  They then act in the Parliament according to these goals, and what is best for their nation as opposed to what will grow Europe at large.  The very process of election ties the hands of the individual lawmakers in such a way that prevents them from thinking about Europe as whole, but instead just of their nation (another cool article about who should get what kind of voting power).  This phenomenon supports the argument that the European Union is not supranational, but instead member-state based and thus intergovernmental.

A final thought.  The whole Union started as an economic agreement between the big players in the Steel and Coal industry in 1951.  These players were: Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.  This coalition proved successful because it limited such things as tariffs and trade barriers making the overall market for steel and coal more profitable for all members (keep in mind the union served a limited scope!  Six members, and mainly two goods).  Because of the success, in 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed which developed the European Economic Community.  This created a common market for the transfer of all good across all member state borders.  As the power of the Union gained traction, it was advantageous for nations to join the Union as opposed to stay outside of it.  The economic benefits were greater as a member of the Union.  After passing certain requirements, nations could be deemed a member.  However, after the transfer to single currency occurred in 1991 through the signing of the Treaty on European Union, these requirements needed to be enforced to maintain the integrity of the ever integrated market.  But, this enforcement did not always happen and as a result each member nation of the Union was not meeting the necessary standards.  Soon, the question became one closely ties with politics, not just economics.  Membership to the Union became something of a bargaining tool and thus standards were relaxed in ways that lost sight of the way in which the Union was initially fruitful and productive.  Due to this, and as we see today, the value of being unified under the Euro is starting to be heavily questioned.

As I continue my reading about Greece and the politics behind everything, I hope to simply discuss possibilities for change, or just be able to make insightful observations.  In the meantime, I found this article to be really helpful in understanding the ebb and flow of the crisis.  I thought this was cool too, it gives a sense of the people politics intertwined with the economics.


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