Political Minutes: The European Crisis in its Political Context

On Friday, September 28, Columbia University’s Center on Global Economic Governance (CGEG) and its East Central European Center hosted two foreign ministers to discuss the economic crisis that has recently plagued the eurozone. However, the bulk of the event centered on a discourse about the European Union as an institution, something both speakers seemed keen to discuss.

The speakers were Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg, of the Czech Republic, and Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, of Estonia. The two were introduced by Jan Svejnar, the director of CGEG, and their speeches were followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.

The event was particularly timely in light of recent conjecture surrounding the European Central Bank’s predicted interest rate cut, which is will lower interest rates to 0.50 percent (down from 0.75) in an attempt to boost growth throughout the faltering eurozone. The ECB is predicted to institute this rate cut in November.

Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg was the first to speak. Schwarzenberg is Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and is also the first leader of Czech political party TOP 09 (Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity, ’09), a party known for support of the European Union and advocacy of free market policies, which was founded in the Czech Republic in June of 2009.

Schwarzenberg stressed the importance of the noneconomic aspects of the European Union, mentioning that it “began as a political institution…to prevent war in Europe and to establish harmony,” although many have a tendency to consider it as a primarily economic entity.  This sentiment was later echoed by Foreign Minister Paet. Minister Schwarzenberg also described the further development of the EU as an “ongoing process,” adding that the idea of a “nation [of] Europe” remains—so to speak—a thing of the future.

The second speaker, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, has served in that capacity for the past seven years. He also served Estonia as Minister of Culture from 2003-2005, at which point he was appointed to his current position.

Perhaps in light of his experience as Culture Minister, Paet lamented negative social and political sentiment throughout Europe aimed towards the European Union, caused by what he called the “permanent flow of negative news.” This negativity is reflected in the increasing support given to both leftist and rightist extremes during parliamentary elections, where “parties which are anti-European, anti-difference, anti-, anti-, anti-…are getting more and more support.”

Paet insists that this negativity is overblown. The European Union has accomplished quite a lot, he told the audience, citing the large number of countries still hoping to join the EU, improved civil rights within the eurozone, and the absence of war between European Union members since 1945. Paet also discussed the advantages that each state within the EU gains from its membership—Estonia, a country of about 1.3 million, is backed by the defensive and economic weight of a much bigger entity—the nations of the EU have a combined population of about 500 million.

Despite his pro-EU stance, Paet also warned against any acceleration of EU power, calling himself “skeptical of revolutionary ideas…to give more authority to Brussels,” because of an overabundance of concern about the EU amongst Europeans.

I got the sense that both speakers felt as if they needed to defend the concept of the European Union—to establish its continued legitimacy—before a discussion of the eurozone crisis could genuinely take place. Widespread negativity, disseminated by the press, is hardly endemic to Europe—the United States is in an election year, after all, and is, similarly, a hotbed for cynicism and complaint. This may be cause for hope, however, rather than despair—because a certain amount of public negativity is a healthy part of the political process. Paet also mentioned that Estonia is weathering the crisis with strength, and even that countries like Ireland and Portugal are making steps to recovery.