The future of Europe: what about relaxing?

September 19, 2007


Are you suffering from anxiety? According to Princeton University’s online dictionary, anxiety is

 “a vague unpleasant emotion that is experienced in anticipation of some (usually ill-defined) misfortune”.

Anxiety can quickly become stifling and paralyse people’s ability to think clearly and act rationally. Anxiety can be combated by a two-way action: toward oneself, mainly via relaxation techniques, and outwardly, by taking the appropriate action to prevent the anticipated ill-fortune to set in. It generally involves a change of attitude towards oneself and the outside world. Good relaxation generally supports clear thoughts, better ability to rationally assess risks, and to positively act on your environment. When one is relaxed, one generally displays more openness to new ideas and methods to solve problems. Good relaxation also often leads to recognizing that the anticipated misfortune is not that much of a threat. The same Princeton University’s online dictionary, defines relaxation thus:

• “(physiology) the gradual lengthening of inactive muscle or muscle fibers
• (physics) the exponential return of a system to equilibrium after a disturbance
• easiness: a feeling of refreshing tranquility and an absence of tension or worry
• an occurrence of control or strength weakening;
• rest: freedom from activity (work or strain or responsibility);
• a method of solving simultaneous equations by guessing a solution and then reducing the errors that result by successive approximations until all the errors are less than some specified amount
• liberalization: the act of making less strict”

I have been wondering if I could one day say something sensible about “The Future of Europe” (after all there is a category entitled “Europe” in this blog), and “What-Europe- needs-to-do” to be on top of globalization, instead of always seeing it as a threat. It all was becoming much too complicated, and boring. To start with “Europe” is so diverse. Not all Europeans see for example immigration and trade with China as a threat. It is Estonia vs France, Sweden vs Italy. I gave up on the idea and chose instead to simply relax on the matter.

While relaxing, however, I noted that, metaphorically speaking, relaxing is exactly what Europe needs to do – especially the big continental countries that make or break it all. Small free-market Estonia is cool, but it can’t decide on overall policies alone. What Europe needs to do then, is to “return [its] system to equilibrium after a disturbance”.

The disturbance has been around for a while with growing anxiety over globalization, immigration and Islam, jobs, etc. Growing populism in many European countries is a symptom. It all culminated in the French and Dutch no-votes on the EU constitution. One outcome of the crisis is for example the Nicolas Sarkozy phenomenon. Frenzied activism (no, “rest”, no “freedom from activity”), shallow substance, and protecting, so he says, against, (yes: “ill-defined”) misfortunes”.

In many instances we are moving towards the contrary of the “act of making less strict” – the former French top-cop-turned-President is preaching more authority and strictness in schools, a tougher line against immigrants. Everywhere, the fight against terrorism leads to controversial liberty-restraining laws, even in the so liberal United Kingdom, and recently again in Germany. “Integration” efforts lead to ridiculous attempts at forcing one’s history and values on a majority of immigrants who came here precisely because of Europe’s main post-war values: freedom and democracy. Bans on headscarves, for example, lead to bans on girls going to school, or to work, and do not solve the problem of Islamic fundamentalism. All this only shows how unrelaxed we are.

On the economic, institutional and social side, it is the same. Energy, for example: instead of energy companies becoming more “grass-roots”, huge conglomerates will now dominate markets and determine our energy consumption. More room for smaller operators competing for and the resources and the consumer would serve us all better: more efficiency, more alternative solutions to oil & gas. But no: national and European champions are flexing their muscles. What was that about relaxing? Oh, yes: “the gradual lengthening of inactive muscle or muscle fibers”. Anybody seeing it happening?

Can’t find a way out of the European institutional conundrum? Bothered by the disagreements over a constitution where Poles will inevitably clash with Germans? The Brits do without, so: probably the EU could too. Yes, get your decision-making sorted, make it more efficient, but do it gradually, with flexibility according to evolving needs. Why engrave it in a constitution? (Too late, I know). If Europe is more “federal(ist)”, “intergovernmental” or only “national”, after all, who bothers? It can be everything at the same time. What counts: the engine must work. And deliver. Can and should EU institutions become more democratic? Under the condition that more power to the parliament means more accountability of the institutions and more transparency in the decision-making, and not: more- privileges-for-sidelined-national-politicians, then: go for it. Just relax: nobody is going to love the EU, not in the near future. Make it work, and then people will appreciate it.

Speaking about the Parliament and loving the EU: should Europe become more popular? There seems to be a trade-off between popul-ar and popul-ist. A few months ago the EU Commission and the European Parliament forced mobile phone operators to cut their prices on international roaming fees. Suddenly, everybody warmed to the Parliament. For sure, the prices charged us poor consumers are indeed horrendously high and completely unjustified. But price-fixing will not solve the problem. The companies will take revenge elsewhere: spend less on the development of new cheaper products, or make domestic prices higher, for example. The real problem is: there is not enough competition on the market. We depend on those operators, and we pay dearly for this. There are not enough mobile phone providers, and they work like “oligopolies”. The systems are nationally-centered and market-entry for potential competitors is too difficult. Imagine a small niche company from, say, Romania headed by a clever IT-guy-turned-businessman, that wants to cater for busy businessmen and frequent tourists. In a context where our services markets are not liberalized enough, his company will find it difficutl to establish its activity in 27 different countries. It will not be able to give big national Oranges and Vodafones something to think about. Only the big operators can afford to hire expensive lawyers in 27 countries to go through the legal systems. They gain from markets that are tailored to be difficult to access. In this context, prices will simply remain too high. We watered down the Services Directive last year? Well, this is the type of result you get. What has this to do with relaxing? It is about “liberalizing”, or: “the act of making less strict”.

The watered down Services Directive refusing that Romanian or Polish companies send cheaper workers over. Expressed differently, refusing “social dumping” on the rich countries due to their lower social standards. Please: re-lax. First, the “misfortune” to be expected by relaxing is really “ill-imagined”. The Romanians and Poles are most of them already here, or the UK or Sweden. So: not enrmous flood to expect. Second, they already work here. Many in black markets in childcare, catering, construction, agriculture. Black markets: this is what really pulls prices down. Employers need these labourers. They’ll get them in. Black market means room for real exploitation, real unfair competition for the locals, and even “realer” undermining of social systems. So: having a construction company from somewhere in Central Europe offering cheaper services is probably doing a better service to the workers, here and over there. Their activity is legal – and: these are countries that have the basics of the “acquis communautaire”, for God’s (no, sorry: Europe’s) sake! And what happens generally when poorer countries plug into the economies of the richer? They don’t pull down the richer ones, they are pulled up.

These issues too, show how unrelaxed we are.

Finally, Europe also needs to relax about globalization and the threat to its social models. Anxiety tends to replace real thorough self-assessment. First of all, there are several “European social models”. Scholars like to distinguish between the “Anglo-Saxon”, the “Nordic”, the “Continental”, and the “Mediterranean”. The models are more or less efficient, and more or less equitable. For sure, Chinese, or Tunisian, cheap workers tend to force us to close textile and shoe factories. Indian software developers compete with ours. But all this opens business for sophisticated European brands and more interesting jobs in design, marketing, finance, and the need to show we can be cleverer than Indians. Clearly a fifty-year-old not very skilled worker will find it hard to find a new job. Here again, the solution lies, as a first step, in “relaxing”. The process of “economic development”, or “capitalist development” – without which we would still be in a pre-industrial revolution state – entails destruction, and many many many job losses: job losses for the many peasants that dominated formerly rural societies; job losses for many many inefficient crafts that were not equipped to cater for emerging urban mass markets. Generally in Western Europe we are proud of this development. But now there are doubts. First, and we need to be very honest with ourselves: we freak out because others are going through the same process as us and possibly even become as rich. There are less poor countries to patronize! Second: we do not see that current globalization, which is “capitalist development” on a grander scale, is an opportunity for us to go even further in our own “development”. If coal mining is no longer the future, than you shut down coal mines and concentrate on better activities. Same for textiles, and even software. Economies are growing pies and opportunities are there for everybody.

No, nobody wants laid-off workers to end up sleeping on sidewalks. You need to compensate them. Beyond that: you need to given them the means to find new jobs. This goes two ways: training and education on the one hand, and a dynamic labour market. The latter is the biggest problem in core Europe. It’s the current stifling of jobs above all that is the problem. Not China, not Romania. I am not going to enter into why labour markets need to liberalized (here a good article that explains very clearly for the non-economist what it is all about). But one thing open and flexible labour markets allow to do: invent, experiment, adapt to new conditions, grow and develop. Metaphorically speaking, liberalizing labour markets is: “a method of solving simultaneous equations by guessing a solution and then reducing the errors that result by successive approximations until all the errors are less than some specified amount”. Dread the constant instability this entails? First of all, in countries with liberal labour markets, job stability is much higher than one thinks. Second, some cushion of course is needed. We are not talking about destroying the “welfare state” (at the centre of our “Social models”), but about leaving room for creation and experimentation. Most Western European welfare states stifle creativity, cost too much, while no longer even delivering on “social justice”. They should be reviewed in such as way as to “support” and not to “weigh down”.

To conclude: Europe, and political and social life in general is so complex, that we will never get to the stage where we will all live with “a feeling of refreshing tranquility and an absence of tension or worry”, the ultimate goal of relaxation. But if we still manage to considerably bring down levels of anxiety, then public health will be the great winner….


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