Does the motto of the European Union - United in Diversity - stand up to scrutiny?

With the arrival of the Troika on our shores we have given up most of our sovereignty

A European Union  flag flies in front of a statue outside the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. Photo: Bloomberg

A European Union flag flies in front of a statue outside the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. Photo: Bloomberg

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 14:30

The official motto of the European Union is, Aontaithe san Éagsúlacht. There are in fact 23 other versions of this admirable sentiment, all of equal standing, each one corresponding to an official language of the EU. United in Diversity is a reasonable translation, but there are no doubt subtleties of language that mean that even on this simple thing there is scope for differences of opinion. Just in case of disagreement, there is a Latin version, In varietate concordia, which is supposed to settle debate.

Much attention (and no doubt more than a little cash) was devoted to coming up with this splendid choice of words. In three (in some languages at least) simple words, the essence of the EU is fully captured. But does our elegant motto stand up to scrutiny? Does it have any real meaning?

We can probably – hopefully - all agree a definition of the middle word of our motto, “in”. With the EU there may, however, be a few shades of grey here. If we ponder, just for a moment, the relationship between the UK and Europe, we may have some sympathy with the notion that “in” means different things to different people. At the very least, considering that there is a strong chance that there will soon be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, “in” may prove to be a temporary state of affairs, whatever it actually means.

United. Right now, it seems hard to figure that one out. Essentially, we are trying to guess what one individual thinks that word means. Everybody else’s definition doesn’t really count. What’s important is what Angela Merkel thinks it means – having observed her very precise definition of the term over the past few years, we can only hope that, post her resounding election victory, she is capable of some linguistic flexibility.

Diversity is much easier: there is so much of it about, it’s in our faces every single day. Economically, the EU couldn’t be more diverse: bipolar would probably be a better way of putting it. I’m not sure a one-word mission statement – Bipolar– would play well, even if it is an accurate description of what we have achieved. “Stagnation through diversity” might be a more complete description but is equally unlikely to find favour where it matters.

If revealed behaviour is the best way of understanding what an individual or an organisation stands for, then I would like to propose a new motto. It is an appropriate time to do this as we look to the budget in two weeks time. Budgets are, of course, all about fiscal policy. We gave up the right to set interest rates – monetary policy – when we became part of the euro (if not a long time before). With the arrival of the Troika on our shores we have given up most of our remaining economic sovereignty. The big picture is set by our masters in Brussels and Frankfurt; what’s left isn’t much but its all we’ve got and will be delivered on October 15th.

Whether the big number is 3 or 2 is, in the wider scheme of things, neither here nor there. The measure of yet another austerity budget will be between 2 or 3 billion euro of tax rises and expenditure cuts. Economically, we can keep on doing this forever, provided the political consequences remain acceptable. My political judgement is that this is the last austerity budget we can take.

EU fiscal policy isn’t terribly sophisticated but it is, today, at the heart of what Europe represents, the core of its beliefs. Is there an underlying philosophy driving the austerity approach to budgetary policy? We know what it is not: it is the antithesis of Keynesian demand management. But what is it?

Interest rates and exchange rate policies were taken away from democratically elected governments and handed over to central bankers for one reason. Politicians can’t be trusted with monetary policy. Once that principle is conceded it makes little sense to argue that they can be trusted with budgetary policy. At the end of the day, economic policy is economic policy: you are either competent or not.

Bureaucrats worked out how to grab monetary power. They haven’t fully managed to take over tax and spending polices but they are getting ever closer. And the one time they can get really close is during a crisis. So, my suggested new motto: Numquam conficiat bonum discrimine. That’s a (probably very imperfect) translation of “never waste a good crisis”. It does seem to be what the EU stands for, at least when it comes to economic policy.

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