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Sugar-Coating Austerity

The Curse of the Euro

by DAVID CRONIN

I had a vicious teacher in primary school.  This flame-headed brute used to enjoy slapping his pupils with two dark brown canes that he had christened Katie and Maggie.  When he wasn’t inflicting pain on our tender palms, Mr C lectured us about why violence was wrong.

José Manuel Barroso reminds me of Mr C – even if the two men bear no physical resemblance to each other.  The European Commission chief is overseeing a sadistic experiment that has punished millions who had no role in causing the financial crisis. And now he pretends to have found a social conscience.

Barroso and his colleagues are starting this month with a cynical exercise in sugar-coating austerity.  A new policy paper from the Commissionadvocates that there should be more monitoring of employment policies within the euro-zone countries.  This is being presented as a bold effort to give the single currency a social dimension.

Don’t expect the sadism to be abandoned.  All euro-zone governments are under orders to hand in their national budgets for scrutiny to Brussels by 15 October.  The spending rules that are leading to the evisceration of many welfare states are still being enforced with rigour.

Giving a “social dimension” to the euro ignores how it is a fundamentally antisocial project.  I offer no 9780745333335_p0_v1_s260x420apologies for seeking to repeatedly draw attention to how the 1988 blueprint for the currency was drawn up by a cabal of corporate high-flyers with zero democratic mandate.  The Association for the Monetary Union of Europe, as that cabal was known, included representatives of Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Total and British American Tobacco.  Its agenda was to realise the fantasies of fat-cats, not, as the spin-doctors told us, bring the peoples of Europe more closely together.

A quarter century later, a similar cabal is dictating the EU’s economic policies.  In June, the Union’s governments committed themselves to providing every young person with a job or apprenticeship within four months of leaving college or becoming unemployed.  Key elements of this “youth guarantee” proposal  were copied and pasted from recommendations made by the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), which bands together chairmen and chief executives of Shell, BP, Volvo, Nestlé and Heineken.

Far from being altruistic to our young, the ERT wants to provide them with a future of stress, uncertainty and yellow-pack jobs.  A  litany of demands from the group states that “employment protection measures must be re-designed and modernised” in most EU countries.

Its idea of “modernisation” involves retreating to an era before organised labour had won significant advances.  If the ERT gets its way, big companies will have to give much shorter notice before making workers redundant and severance payments for those losing their jobs will be drastically cut.  Payments for overtime and unused holidays may be abolished in the name of “flexibility”.

Jacques Delors is often hailed as a kind of visionary here in Brussels.  If his objective was to widen inequality and immiserate millions, then I guess he was a visionary.  For that is exactly what the Frenchman has achieved by backing the single currency project so effusively when he was the European Commission’s president.

Today, Delors runs a “think tank” called Notre Europe that is  partly-funded  by the energy giant GDF Suez.  His devotees continue to give the impression that the euro is worth saving, once its facade is scrubbed a little.

A new Notre Europe paper argues that the spending rule underpinning the euro should remain based on the principle that those disobeying them are punished.  Any “social dimension” that is introduced, on the other hand, should rely on incentives, rather than sanctions.

That sums it up, really.  Governments can still be bullied and coerced into slashing expenditure on health and education.  But any measures to cushion the blow will be considered optional.

It would be heartening if trade unions were fighting this antisocial agenda.  While numerous union activists are on the frontlines of resistance, some big players in the labour movement are too busy snuggling up to the bosses.

The European Trade Union Confederation has recently teamed up with the corporate coalition BusinessEurope to issue a joint proposal on tackling youth unemployment.  With its emphasis on “reforms” and “competitiveness” – both of which are synonyms for weakening labour rights – it reads like a diluted version of the ERT’s aforementioned litany.

The euro has been a curse for ordinary people.  Burying it is necessary if we are to envisage a fairer Europe.

David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War published by Pluto Press.

A version of this article  was first published by EUobserver.