A lot done, more to do: EU in 2013
In the fourth year of Europe’s debt saga, EU leaders must still settle some of the most fundamental questions raised by the debacle. The ordeal continues, even if the ECB’s bond-buying policy took some of the sting from the crisis after September.
This year ends with the EU at something of a crossroads. For all the failings in their response to the Greek debt explosion in 2009 and what followed, EU leaders still managed to prevent the euro splintering. That’s no small thing. There were many perilous moments when break-up seemed a real and growing threat.
Still, the prevailing atmosphere is one of acute uncertainty. The EU powers have yet to provide a convincing long-term plan to heal the abundant frailties of the euro’s weakest members or to secure the currency’s long-term survival. That is the challenge they must still overcome.
As the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, faces an election in September, concern surrounds her narrowing scope for manoeuvre and her habitual caution. As she has done since the beginning of the imbroglio, the chancellor will set the pace on the depth of Europe’s response.
At issue in the months ahead will be the scope of new efforts to deepen the economic alignment of the euro-zone countries.
Doubt persists as to the form or timing of the “banking union” initiative. Whether it meets the objective of severing the link between bank and sovereign debt may depend on whether any bank debt is mutualised. Merkel and her Dutch and Finnish allies are opposed. No change is likely before the German election.
Further doubt surrounds Britain’s place in the union, the prospect of a tricky referendum on its place in the EU and the growing risk that it might leave altogether. This is to say nothing of deepening tensions in the strained alliance between Germany and France, for decades the unyielding motor of European integration. On top of all that, events in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece could disrupt the relative calm of recent months. What happens next in each could be pivotal. Will Silvio Berlusconi return to the fray in Rome? Will Madrid need a full-blown bailout? Can Athens execute a €13.5 billion austerity plan?
The danger for Ireland in this is that any resurgence of the crisis could compromise the effort to break free of the bailout next year. Both in its domestic and European policy, that remains the Government’s priority (see panel). While the six-month rotating presidency of the EU will give heightened prominence to the Coalition come January, its main task will be to steer numerous pieces of complex legislation through ministerial councils.
At the top of the in-tray is the still-unresolved seven-year EU budget from 2014 onwards. A special budget summit in November broke down without a deal, so it now falls to the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, to push for compromise. For the Irish presidency, the lack of an early agreement delays the preparation of 68 items of European legislation needed to give effect to the new EU budget. This serves to complicate the challenge facing Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
For the EU, the very lack of a budget deal stands as a further damaging example of Europe failing to agree on essential political questions when the pressure is really on. If this was merely a repeat showing of the tensions seen in the debt drama, the budget story illustrates how deep the schisms now run.
When the British prime minister, David Cameron, found a friend in Merkel in his push for a hearty dose of budgetary restraint, three powerful forces were evident.