OPINION
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All’s well

The EU has kicked off 2014 with an unhappy concatenation of practical jokes

“The EU programs are working well.” These were the words of the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, during a presentation of the objectives for the Greek presidency of the European Union. The address took place in an Athens crushed by debt. What an unhappy concatenation of practical jokes with which to begin the year.

The first of these, though minor: the continuing survival of the rotational six-month presidency of the European Union, an atavistic remnant of a dysfunctional EU, in which every national capital had to have its 15 minutes of glory for the purposes of showing off its government.

The second, somewhat more important: the post of president of the European Commission itself. Barroso, who has spent nearly 10 years in the role, has yet to decide what he wants to be, or indeed what he wants to be remembered for. He has become the perfect example of the incredible sort of politician who dominates the Europe of the crisis: incredible politically, and incredibly plastic in his capacity for adaptation. Barroso will leave behind a commission that is too big and too disparate, one that is composed of 28 individual members, some brilliant, others gray, but with no political profile.

More than ever, the EC is trapped in the schizophrenia of nightly dreams of being the government of Europe, and the daily reality of being a mere agency charged with the task of executing agreements reached by the (real, national) governments. This is why the final irony is that, of the present Commission (2009-2014), the man whom we are chiefly going to remember is the president of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy — coming from nowhere, he has managed to give the post he occupies a profile of its own, acting as mediator on the chief agreements reached in connection with the euro crisis.

The EC is a mere agency, charged with executing agreements reached by the real governments

The third joke, which is a very serious one, has to do with the end of the crisis. The EU leaders seem to have learned nothing from the mistakes made in the past decade. Back then they defined the success of the euro in terms of compliance with certain criteria (public debt, deficit and inflation) — which, as we have seen, concealed the accumulation of serious imbalances that came near to wiping it out. Though we had to do it the hard way, we have now learned that grave disparities in competitiveness, private debt and the trade deficit were indicators that were as much, or indeed more, important than the above.

Something similar is going on even now. These leaders congratulate themselves that the combination of budget cutbacks and wage reductions is succeeding in reducing public deficits and increasing competitiveness, but they disregard indicators such as the weakness of growth, the volume of unemployment and the rise in public debt, social inequality and poverty. And that’s without even mentioning disaffection with democracy and the EU project as a whole, as well as the upsurge of racism and xenophobia throughout the continent.

For anyone endowed with even a moderate amount of common sense, these indicators, taken together, paint the picture of an approaching storm in the political and social ambits. But in whose interest is it to take notice of these details, which relate to the daily lives of people?

Follow me @jitorreblanca and on the Café Steiner blog at elpais.com

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