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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ATLANTIC RIM: Europe Takes Risks to Meet EU Challenge




Political will is usually rare in these days of opinion polls when politicians prefer to follow, rather than to lead, their public. The casualties of this decade's political timidity are strewn thickly across Bosnia and Somalia and Chechnya and the Great Lakes region of Africa, and the absence of firm political will has spawned a different kind of loss in the stricken economies of Asia.


All the more reason, therefore, to salute the extraordinary achievement of the European economies in grinding down their deficits and imposing a rigid discipline over their public accounts. They have met what seemed only two years ago to be the impossible target of meeting the criteria set by the Maastricht treaty for membership of the new single currency.


European leaders have taken rare political risks to meet the budgetary targets. France's President Jacques Chirac called an election and lost his government. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl looks to be losing his 16-year grip on power, now that the opposition Social Democrats have rallied to the candidacy of Gerhard Schr?der. Italy's Romano Prodi went eyeball to eyeball with the left wing of his own coalition, and watched them blink.


The risk they all took was that same challenge of mass unemployment that Margaret Thatcher, the classic example of pure political will in the Europe of the 1980s, faced in Britain. Unemployment in Germany is poised to hit 5 million this month. Across Europe, countries face the sickening social implications of laying off more than 10 percent of their work force.


This has for 50 years in Europe been seen as a political nightmare that used to open the way to deficit spending that would pump money into the economy. Because of the hard target of qualifying for the euro, and because they are intellectually convinced of the need for free markets and balanced budgets and classic financial orthodoxy, governments have this time refused to take this easy option.


The political will has held, despite the excuse for delay provided by the Asian financial crisis. And having gone this far, it is more than likely that it will go on holding. The skeptics about the euro still mutter that governments will crack soon, that the street riots in France and the unemployment demonstrations in Germany will force a retreat, and that democratic governments cannot sustain this level of financial discipline.


They are wrong. Governments can and will, because behind them stand most of their banking and commercial and corporate elites, and even the leaders of Europe's trade unions. And ahead of them glitters the promise of a Europe that will be united far more durably by a single currency than by any number of laborious treaties.


The argument has been won even in those cautious or skeptical countries that will not join the euro in the first wave, even through Britain, Denmark and Sweden would all qualify if they chose. The City of London is ready to trade in the new currency, and big companies like Marks & Spencer will be pricing their goods in both pounds and euros from next January.


Even the dithering British government has said that businesses can pay their taxes in euros. Having so far shown less political will than most on the single currency, it has at least recognized the force of that will in others.