Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

The Brussels Summit

When future historians look back on the agreement forged in Brussels during the past several days and nights, they’ll surely be struck by its historical significance. The complex deal agreed by representatives of the EU member states involved more than a little horse trading and bluff. It’s still just a paper and digital agreement. It awaits action. But whatever the details and fortunes of its coming implementation, the June 2012 Brussels Summit deal is a big victory for the European project - a massive setback to money-market speculators and hard-line populists and nationalists who’d wanted a break-up of the Eurozone, or a reversal or outright annulment of the political achievements of six decades of European integration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Brussels Summit. EPP/flickr

It’s true that the Brussels Summit deal has unmistakable polysemic qualities. It’s a basket of hard-fought compromises that mean different things to different member-state representatives. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Ambiguity is nothing new in the history of European integration. Especially during critical junctures, loosely-worded declarations, fudged and fork-tongued statements and open-ended agreements have consistently functioned as vital tactics for advancing the European project. Like the Single European Act (1987) and the Maastricht Treaty (1992), this Brussels Summit agreement is riddled with sweet words and bitter unknowns. Therein lies the secret of its probable success, and its epochal importance.

So what actually happened in Brussels? Pressured by a worsening banking and political crisis, the tense negotiations behind closed doors produced a brand new bundle of workable resolutions. All member states of the European Union, including Britain, firmly agreed that the euro should survive. The powers of the European Central Bank will be expanded. It will supervise the banking sector of the Eurozone countries, so that by the end of 2012 the remit of the ECB will begin to resemble that of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Bailout funds are meanwhile to be made available, through the European Stability Mechanism, for buying the debts of struggling banks directly, rather than extending loans to bankrupted governments. The loathed practice of subjecting governments (as happened in Greece) to the humiliating diktats of a ‘troika’ comprising the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF will be halted. In effect, the agreed scheme for directly recapitalising struggling banks, initially targeted at Spain and potentially at Italy, brings the Eurozone closer to embracing the principle of a common sharing of debt.

European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy. EPP/flickr

Finally, and of greatest significance, the Brussels Summit agreed that debt collectivisation and the formation of a common banking system requires a new round of political integration. For that purpose, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, was authorised to draw up detailed proposals to be presented to the next scheduled summit meeting in October.

It’s easy to spot the massive holes in the woven basket of agreed proposals. The suffering of the Greek people went largely unmentioned. It seems ethically perverse to millions of European citizens that banks that gambled and squandered money are now entitled to support and compensation using taxpayers’ precious taxes. German pressure ensured that the ticklish topic of eurobonds was set aside. There was no principled agreement that the ECB would become a lender of last resort, or that it would operate a deposit guarantee scheme. No attention was paid to the massive structural imbalances within the European economy. Fiscal austerity remains on its high horse. The agreed ‘growth pact’ (130 billion euros) provides no serious remedies for the pain and misery inflicted by mounting unemployment.

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. EPP/flickr

These are major weaknesses. Seen as challenges, they show just how much unfinished business remains on the European political agenda. Yet notice the biggest achievement of the Brussels Summit, which also happens to be the biggest paradox of the present European crisis: the way European symbolic integration is advancing at a fast pace. The Brussels Summit deal is both the culmination and encapsulation of an unprecedented Europeanisation of media coverage of matters that are now affecting all European citizens, including those (for instance in Britain and Germany) who suppose they can weather the storm by going it alone. ‘We have taken decisions unthinkable just some months ago’, remarked José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, at the conclusion of the Summit. He was right.

A common European sense of common problems within commonly-shared space is gathering pace. Whatever petty-minded populists and nationalists may say, Europe will never again be the same. The present life-or-death crisis is fuelling many different and contradictory trends, certainly. But there can be no doubt that it’s also erecting a new political stage on which the next round of skirmishes and struggles will be fought over such matters as the meaning of a ‘post-sovereign’ Europe and whether new viable mechanisms of cross-border democracy can reverse the present-day drift towards emergency rule.