Europe’s heads of state and government face a real dilemma. They want to attract support for European integration from the people of Europe and they also want to show the outside world that the European Union remains a major source of dynamism and innovation. So the question is how best to achieve those two goals. Should they propose a new project that will attract everyone’s attention or should they try to come up with some ‘vision’ that explains why Europe still matters?
There is a growing chorus of disenchantment with Europe and populist parties are preaching anti-European slogans across the member states. Today’s British referendum on European Union (EU) membership is only the most extreme manifestation of that disaffection. Whatever the outcome, the turmoil surrounding popular attitudes toward Europe is not going to end. The reason is a lack of vision.
Free trade is welfare enhancing. Interdependence requires cooperation. Central banks should be politically independent. And the United States is the indispensable world leader. These are the certainties we used to offer graduate students in international relations. Now they are all aflame.
The European Council has delivered an agreement on Britain’s new relationship with the European Union. The agreement acknowledges that the British government has no obligation to engage in further political integration, it recognizes that not every country will adopt the euro as a common currency, it strikes a balance between the need for common rules and the desire for national autonomy in the area of financial market supervision, it stresses the importance of effective regulation for competitiveness, and it introduces a mechanism to phase in the benefits that accrue to workers who move from one member state to the next. These concessions become effective once the British government informs the European Council of the United Kingdom’s commitment ‘to remain a member of the European Union’. The challenge now is for British Prime Minister David Cameron to win the ‘yes’ campaign. At least, that is what it says in the post-summit script. The agreement may just be enough for the British people to play along.
Mario Draghi reassured the markets at the 21 January press conference of the European Central Bank (ECB) by making it clear that the Governing Council is unanimous in its desire to reassess economic conditions at the upcoming March meetings and to reconsider its policy stance if necessary. He stressed that there is no limit to the action that the ECB can undertake to achieve its mandate. And he reiterated that whatever the actual policy decision in March, the ECB is already working to resolve any technical issues that might prevent it from using the full range of instruments at its disposal. The response in the markets was immediate. Bonds and equities rallied while the euro moved lower against the dollar – all good things from the ECB’s perspective. ECB watchers were cautiously optimistic. A few voices noted that the ECB had promised in October of last year only to under-deliver in December; this time actions should speak louder than words. So should results. Draghi has reiterated his July 2012 promise to do ‘whatever it takes’. What he did not say is that ‘it will be enough’. Instead, he insisted: ‘We don’t give up.’
Ideas matter in politics and public policy. Sometimes, however, language matters more. To see this, you only need to think about the distinction between the idea you have in your head and the interpretation it gets when you try to explain it to someone else. Now get them to say it to someone else, and so on. The people who hear you first-hand can repeat what you have said almost verbatim and yet the meaning is distorted, if not immediately then quickly as it passes down the line. The simplest idea – simply expressed – is no match for the telephone game. Hence the goal in political communication is to choose language that has predictable reverberations. The power lies not so much in the words themselves as in the underlying pattern they create through repetition. The message is coded in memes.
The European Commission’s autumn economic forecasts paint a bleak picture. The headline is cautiously optimistic. European growth is moderating but should improve in the forecast period thanks to an accommodating monetary policy, a neutral fiscal stance, and a gradual relaxation of ‘headwinds’ coming from other parts of the globe. The analysis itself is more troubling. European growth relies excessively on external markets; price inflation will recover as commodity prices stabilize at low levels; and monetary policy accommodation in Europe contrasts with a gradual tightening in the United States with uncertain implications for market volatility and global capital flows. The bottom line is that things may get better and yet then again they may not. Although the authors of the forecast would argue otherwise, this is not a message that offers much hope.