Conspiracies, Coups and Currencies
By ROSS DOUTHAT
The murmurs about Barack Obama being forced out began in Berlin and Beijing. After his party lost the midterm vote, there were hints that a government of technocrats would be imposed on America, to save the country from a debt crisis and the world from a depression.
As the debt-ceiling negotiations stalled out over the summer, a global coalition — led by Germany, China and the International Monetary Fund — began working behind the scenes to ease Obama out of the White House. The credit downgrade was the final blow: the president had lost the confidence of the world’s shadow government, and his administration could no longer survive.
Within days, thanks to some unusual constitutional maneuvering, Obama resigned the presidency and Michael Bloomberg was invited to take the oath of office. With Beijing issuing veiled threats against our currency, Congress had no choice but to turn the country’s finances over to the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of 6, which in turn acceded to Chinese and German “supervision” of their negotiations. Meanwhile, there was a growing consensus in Europe and Asia that only a true global superstate could prevent the debt contagion from spreading …
FOR Americans, the scenario I’ve just imagined is a paranoid fantasy, the kind of New World Order nightmare that haunts the sleep of black-helicopter watchers and Trilateral Commission obsessives.
But for the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, it evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots. National sovereignty is a pretty concept, but the survival of the European common currency comes first.
There were few tears in Italy and Greece for Silvio Berlusconi and George Papandreou, the prime ministers — respectively corrupt and hapless — whose downfalls were engineered by the Brussels-Berlin-Paris axis. But their forced departures, however welcome, open a troubling window on what a true European state would look like. Stability would be achieved at the expense of democracy: the rituals of parliaments and elections would endure, but the real decision-making power would pass permanently to the forces represented by the so-called “Frankfurt Group” — an ad hoc inner circle consisting of Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and a cluster of bankers and E.U. functionaries, which has been spearheaded European crisis management since October.
The preview is important because this is precisely the future that almost every informed commentator assumes Europe needs to embrace in order to save the euro and prevent an economic meltdown. The old conventional wisdom held that a continentwide currency union was a wonderful idea, and that euroskeptics were all knuckle-dragging troglodytes. The new conventional wisdom is that yes, well, maybe the knuckle-draggers were right about the perils of the euro, but it’s far too late to back out now.
Or at least it’s too late at the moment. After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested. But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”
This seems like wishful thinking. Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves. The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states. If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.
One could argue that the Greeks and Italians — and the Spanish and the Irish and everyone else — should have known what they were signing up for when they joined the euro in the first place. But the fact is that the project of European union has never enjoyed deep popular support. Its advocates were always adept at re-running referendums until the vote came out their way, or designing treaties that bypassed the voting public entirely. The people of Europe have always been wary of trading their sovereignty for ever-greater unity — and now we can see why.
From the American perspective, a more centralized and undemocratic Europe is clearly preferable to the risk of another recession. For the staggering world economy, it would be disastrous if a burst of nationalism somehow broke up Europe’s common currency.
But that’s easy for us to say: it isn’t our self-government that’s at stake.