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The commissioner may sees himself as the savior of the euro, but many blame his recipes for the depth of the European slump

Jordi Vaquer

Summer's end brings news of the possible exit of some euro zone countries, or of the whole EU, from economic recession. The modest growth in Germany and France, some upturns in indicators of industry and confidence, and advances in fiscal consolidation in countries such as Greece and Spain, are all symptoms of emergence from the crisis, which no one yet dares voice aloud. Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, says that recovery is around the corner — which would confirm the soundness of his own policy, based on the culture of stability and structural reforms.

Rehn, a Finn, has been in charge of economic and monetary affairs since February 2010, when the economy was recovering from the financial crisis, but the Greek risk premium was soaring; the first Greek bailout in May 2010 was one of the first files that landed on his desk. For the EU this bailout began a phase of greater involvement in the economic affairs of member states, with successive institutional agreements boosting his powers to unheard-of levels. Born, too, was the troika (the banding together of the Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) which dictates the economic policies of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus to an amazing degree of detail.

Their battery of decisions and bailouts achieved its main objective: stopping the speculative attack of the markets. Apart from this unquestionable achievement, the net result of these years of unprecedented involvement by the Commission in economic policy is a true calamity: the EU and the euro zone remain in recession, Greece is headed for a third bailout, and debt and unemployment keep growing.

Amid the economic debate, citizens cannot hope to express their point of view where it really counts: at the ballot box

The partisans of what Olli Rehn calls the culture of stability lay the blame on years of indebtedness, squandering of resources and lack of reforms, which have to be paid for with austerity and reforms administered without anesthetic, even as they accuse the governments of the bailed-out or endangered countries of a lack of enthusiasm in applying their infallible recipes. Their detractors, headed by the economist Paul Krugman, point out that these recipes have brought anything but stability to the peripheral countries, and impose an adjustment on only one side — that of the debtors — being based on ideological prejudices, and even on calculations now shown to be wrong.

However exciting these debates between economists may be, citizens cannot hope to express their point of view where it really counts: at the ballot box. It matters little whether they think that the recession is the inevitable consequence of previous errors, which the present policies are curing, or that the policies adopted by the EU have not only provoked but even aggravated its effects and the costs of adjustment in the most vulnerable countries, because the possibility of rewarding or punishing this policy at the polls is a tenuous one. Neither the ECB nor the IMF are elective. In the EU Council each member is answerable only to his own citizens. There remains only the European Commission, whose president we can indirectly elect in 2014 through our votes for the European Parliament.

Rehn himself, as he let it be known in August, would be prepared to face this verdict, at the head of the liberal slate in next year's elections. First he will have to surpass some other contenders, and convince his liberal fellow-believers to support a commissioner associated with the handling of the worst economic crisis in a united Europe. Perhaps Rehn sees himself as the savior of the euro and the master of strict public finances, who has disciplined the recalcitrant countries of the South. But, for many, Rehn is the most tenacious, inflexible defender of the policies that have caused the second recession — a Rehncession, that might have been avoided.

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