THE NEW YORK TIMES - The Opinion Pages - |CONTRIBUTING OP-ED WRITER
JAN. 8, 2014
ATHENS — The European Union’s rotating presidency may be a symbolic gesture toward equality, but it does allow us to measure a country’s fortunes each time it finds itself in the role. On Jan. 1, Greece took over the leadership at a crucial time for itself and for the union. The most troubled member, still dependent on loans from its partners and with its coalition government hanging on to power by a slim majority in Parliament, will represent the European Union for six months as its 28 members confront major questions on the group’s identity and future.
This presidency will not be business as usual. Elections for the European Parliament in May are expected to result in significant gains by parties of the extreme right whose mission is to undermine European unification.
Greece’s plight highlights the fact that European Union members are not equal, that some are grappling with debts while others are obliged to lend them money. This has allowed old prejudices to return, testing the limits of solidarity. But Greece, along with its partners and the bureaucrats at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels and at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, has to make this presidency a success.
This is a make-or-break moment: The members have to show whether they will reinforce the union or let it drift. In terms of the economy, the union has allowed itself to be seen as being as weak as its weakest member. It cannot afford to do this at the political level.
The situation is awkward indeed. It is difficult to see how the government of a country that depends on foreign loans will meet the target, set out in the European Union’s strategic framework adopted in December 2012, of strengthening “the union’s capacity to respond to the current economic, financial and social challenges.” Can Greece afford the cost, in treasure and human resources, when its economy has shrunk by roughly a quarter since 2008, with unemployment over 27 percent, with taxpayers groaning under the weight of ever higher taxes in return for fewer benefits, and with the civil service facing drastic cuts? These are questions posed not only by European editorial writers but also by Greek citizens, who wonder whether the money could be put to better use.
The issue, though, is not the 50 million euros that Greece expects to spend over the next six months as it hosts some 14 informal ministerial meetings and between 100 and 120 working groups on a range of issues. Rather, is Greece up to the task of being a competent member of the union, and can the union concentrate its resources and vision to make a success of the presidency?
The Greek prime minister will not be the European Union “president” in the White House sense, but rather will present for discussion objectives decided by the organization over a year ago, and his ministers will preside over meetings of their colleagues. The union sets out 18-month policy programs to be executed by the next three countries holding the rotating presidency. Greece is the third presiding country in this program (following Ireland and Lithuania) and a file of some 180 pending issues has been handed over to Athens. The presiding country, of course, is able to highlight some issues, delay others, perhaps even surprise us with an inspired idea (something that has been lacking during the crisis).
This is Greece’s fifth presidency since it joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1981. It held the post in 1983, 1988, 1994 and 2003. At the start of its challenging last presidency, in January 2003, unity was threatened by some members (notably Britain and Spain) who aligned themselves with the United States as it prepared to invade Iraq; most members opposed the war. The Greek presidency helped cool things down and, toward the end of the semester, Athens’s ancient agora hosted the signing of the accession treaties, by which 10 new members joined.
Of course, 2003 is a world away: Greece was booming and about to host a successful Summer Olympics. In the years that followed, public spending and debt flew out of control, leading to the crisis that made Greece the first country to ask its union partners for support.
If Greece’s stewardship is deemed successful, this may give the government in Athens a necessary push before May’s elections for the European Parliament, which in Greece will coincide with elections for municipal and provincial governments. If the government does badly in those polls (especially in the European Parliament one, which in Greece has always been regarded as a referendum on government policies), Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s position will be untenable, forcing him to hold early national elections.
In the coming months, the European Union will be occupied with fostering economic growth and employment, reaching agreement on a banking union, simplifying procedures to boost competitiveness, and setting policy objectives in the areas of migration, security and justice. These issues are important for the future of the union and its members. Success will depend not as much on what Greece does as on the political will of union members to make tough decisions. As many of these imply handing over more national sovereignty in order to create a stronger union, the stakes are very high: Anything short of success will play into the hands of those who oppose unification, yet the fear of “Euroskeptic” parties makes governments wary of handing over more power to the union.
Greece will not be the only country to gain if progress is made. But if the European Union chooses to stagnate, more people will question its legitimacy, and all of its members will lose.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.