Is French prime minister correct to say ‘Europe could die?’

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
© Stephane Mahe
At a forum in Berlin this week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls lobbed a rhetorical grenade into the room when he warned, 'Europe could die.' He used his podium to warn Germany to 'invest more' to boost growth across the EU, or face the consequences.

He urged attendees “to hear the anger of the people,” and poured scorn on Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policy, warning that Europe needs to say more clearly "who can and cannot enter and stay" on the continent.

Valls comments mark a watershed. They are the first time a serving leader of a powerful EU state has publicly said he fears for the project’s immediate future. They are also a “cry for help.” Perhaps a final warning to Germany how it must change tack or watch the alliance it cultivated unravel due to ideological hubris and domestic greed.

To visit Germany these days is to stopover on a metaphorical island. While the south of Europe is enduring a decade of either stagnation or depression, Germans are almost completely immune. Their cities bustle and their holiday options widen. On Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm, those icons of modernity are adjacent to each other, the Tesla showroom and the Apple store - and both are doing humongous business. At night, the bars are packed and restaurants, which once survived on the patronage of hipsters, are now aiming for Michelin stars.

For young Germans their homeland is a land of plenty. Most have clear career paths and they are under no pressure to hurry either. Compared to salaries, property prices are reasonable and the welfare state is generous enough to remove any anxiety about failure.

German exceptionalism

However, Germans don’t seem to grasp that their situation is unique. There is no other country in Europe where opportunity, wages and living costs are so perfectly balanced. For instance, the UK and Ireland have almost full employment and healthy pay packets in their cities, but prices are considerably higher than in Germany and land values are off the scale. A young Londoner or Dubliner is probably paying twice to three times more in rent than their contemporary is in Berlin. And a beer or a modest meal is roughly double the price. They also have to deal with things like “zero hour contracts” and weak labor protection laws, which are verboten in Germany.

Meanwhile, in France, Italy and Spain, things are far worse. Not only is work hard to come by, it’s often poorly paid and, at least in the case of the latter two, job security is pretty loose. To visit southern France nowadays and talk to local youth is quite sad. A decade ago, most spoke of setting up businesses in their home regions or chancing their arm in Paris or Lyon; now they talk of emigration to Berlin or London or even farther afield.

Valls, who was born and raised in Barcelona, and is fluent in Italian and Spanish as well as French, understands this snafu better than most politicians. Because the real danger to the European project has never been Britain leaving, Greece suffering or eastern Slavic states turning “pro-Russian.” Instead, the genuine jeopardy has always centered on Paris, Rome and Madrid.

In reality, there are only two important blocs in “core Europe.” The first is the Northern one - Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states, which is mainly successful and Protestant. That said, equally wealthy, and predominantly Catholic, Austria and Switzerland (which is outside the EU, but completely tied to it) are titular members.

Then there’s the Latin group - France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and their honorary affiliate Ireland. All Catholic, moderately corrupt and somewhat useless with money. But usually more volatile, if sexier, than their stoic and calmer counterparts.

Southern pain

Valls knows how the emotional gang is at their wits end. Italy has endured a decade with almost no economic growth, people are becoming increasingly angry as prices rise, and incomes remain frozen, at best. In a fortnight, its 60 million people face a referendum, which is ostensibly about government structures, but really goes far deeper. It’s a battle between the winners, comprised of the embedded elite and the public service, and the losers of the transition to globalization and closer EU integration. In other words, the same contest that America just tussled over this autumn and Britain fought in late spring, dressed up as something more banal.

In both those cases, the ‘protest vote’ won and it appears that Italy’s ‘insider’ Matteo Renzi is about to suffer the same rejection by the electorate as liberal establishment colleagues David Cameron and Hillary Clinton faced. If so, he’s toast. And this would possibly open the door for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement to take power in the inevitable election that will follow. The party’s core policy is to exit the euro and return to the lira.

At the same time, the collapse of the Italian elite would embolden Marine Le Pen to confound expectations and win the French Presidency next year. Because humans tend to follow trends and this sort of change is infectious and contagious. Of course, it’s worth mentioning how Le Pen’s primary goal is also to abandon the euro, the “next morning” after her victory.

Thus, Berlin needs to listen to Valls. And not in a few months when the stable door is wide open and the horse has already bolted, but right now. Because both the cause of, and solution to, Europe’s malaise lies in Berlin’s corridors of power.

Due to the economic success she’s helped create, Angela Merkel is generally popular at home. And the ruling class in Berlin is on far safer ground than their equivalents in other Western nations. Yet, much of Germany’s prosperity is at its traditional allies’ expense. For years, Merkel has crafted her broader continental policy from a mindset of national economic self-indulgence. Despite being the most powerful EU politician, and the bloc’s de facto leader, she rarely thinks beyond Germany’s own interests.

Indeed, Merkel has never laid down any vision for how she intends to develop Europe, preferring to lurch from crisis to crisis, and settling problems in ways that suit Berlin. At the same time, her shortsighted insistence on austerity has turned small fissures into big chasms. And led to a rise in anti-German sentiment across the periphery.

As a result, the entire EU project is now in danger. All it takes is victory for Grillo or Le Pen and the game is probably up. For his part, Valls knows that. And this is why he brought his message directly to Berlin. They’d be well advised to listen.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.