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Eurozone

Opinion: That deflated EU feeling

The European Union only just managed to form a banking union, but all of the other reform steps were delayed until after the European elections in 2014. DW’s Bernd Riegert says that’s a mistake.

Sometimes a glimpse into the archives is enough to refresh Europe's memory. One and a half years ago, the leaders at the EU summit decided on exactly the same measures as today: delaying reforms that are known to be urgent. This time it's better economic coordination and binding decisions that are delayed until October 2014.

The reason for the delay? Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann's sounds plausible when he says it's just not ready yet. So why decide on nonsense that nobody understands? It's better to just postpone everything.

In June 2012, one and a half years ago, the four presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament, and the European Central Bank had already specified the reforms for the economic and monetary union in a roadmap. But all that's left from this vision of a revolution is a watered down banking union. And it will take years until the full impact of this banking union will be felt.

No more talk of reforms

Today, the enthusiasm from back then then has pretty much vanished into thin air. The re-elected German chancellor is shrugging her shoulders while mumbling something along the lines of 'a lot more work and persuading needs to be done.'

Only one day before the summit, Merkel announced in the lower house of parliament that the states would have to agree to binding obligations regarding economic reforms in Europe. But apart from multiple announcements that, one day, a decision will be made, nothing much has happened.

You could argue that Merkel's reform enthusiasm for the European Union has vanished. Even her 'special offer' of rewards for reforms getting passed and cost-cutting efforts being implemented, doesn't really work anymore. It's not only the crisis-hit states in the south, but also healthier EU states in the north that are dismissive.

The flagging group doesn't want to fight about money again. After all it's the usual net contributors that have to finance the bonus for the reforms. And so all we've heard is a lot of pseudo-intellectual babbling, interspersed with latent British demands to claw back responsibilities from Brussels.

The calm before the elections

So, how did the EU summit flag so quickly? Chancellor Merkel knows the answer and even casually mentioned it in one of her press conferences: the financial markets set the pace. And because the markets have been quiet for several months now and no attack on the crisis states of the eurozone looks imminent, the willingness for reform in the EU has suddenly come to a grinding halt.

Experts warn that the financial crisis has not yet been solved, that it is only halfway under control and that it can flare up again anytime. But apparently that doesn't motivate the European heads of state to do something. They just want to get by in the coming months. First they want to pull off the elections for the European Parliament without much drama. Then a new EU Commission will be put in place.

The economically weak states of Greece and Italy will have the EU presidency in 2014. And so no one really feels like dealing with painful reforms and seriously fighting with voters about a new allocation of competencies between the EU and the national states.

European project left behind

However, this pre-Christmas calm could be deceptive, because at one point the European voters, who are supposed to vote for a new parliament in May, will realize that the heads of state have no answers and no recipes for the future.

A common recipe for Europe? Far from it. The current theme is to muddle on through. A first warning sign is that Europe has been downgraded by the rating agency Standard and Poor's. According to the US agency, the EU is not fully creditworthy anymore.

The financial crisis should be seen as a chance to tackle a better economic and financial policy for the eurozone. Numerous good approaches for consolidation and stricter budgetary control were abolished before they were even thoroughly analyzed. A plausible approach for a common social policy - or even tax policy - is still lacking. A powerful answer to the excessive unemployment figures in many parts of Europe is also still missing.

If the heads of state keep making zero headway and if they keep blocking each other, they shouldn't be surprised if voters' enthusiasm for the European project will remain rather low. The turnout for the European elections is likely to reflect that in May. In some crisis-torn countries, the European elections could turn into a "teach-them-a-lesson election." France might even face an extreme shift to the right and towards the "Front National." The EU summit has already unmasked the union as an "announcement union," but what we really need is an active "reform union."

DW.DE