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EU fails to help its eastern members? March 3, 2009

Posted by Sverre in : Political economy, World politics , trackback

Eastern Europe has been hit hard by the financial crisis, and were hoping that the EU would be able to help them over the worst of it. Figures presented by Eastern European government claimed that 5 million jobs were in imminent danger of being lost, something that would seriously hit the entire EU and potentially drop a new iron curtaion over Europe. At a summit this Sunday, the EU rejected a bailout plan designed to help Eastern European nations, mostly outside the Euro area. Was it a sign that Western Europe doesn’t want to help their eastern neighbours, or was it just the rejection of a bad plan? If the former, the entire EU project might be about to fail one of its toughest tests yet.Times Online reports from the meeting:

The spectacular collapse of some of the post-communist tiger economies led to demands at an EU summit in Brussels for a rescue fund of €190 billion (£170 billion) to stop social collapse in the Eastern nations spilling over into the rest of Europe.

The plea, led by Hungary, was rejected in a bad-tempered meeting of the 27 European leaders, dominated by fears that Western EU countries would rather prop up their own large industries and jobs at the expense of the East.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, the Hungarian leader, openly raised the spectre of collapse in Eastern Europe and the creation of a new Iron Curtain.

“Central Europe’s refinancing needs in 2009 could total €300 billion, 30 per cent of the region’s GDP,” he said in a paper calling for a fund of €160 billion to €190 billion to be set up by the richer EU members.

“A significant crisis in Eastern Europe would trigger political tensions and immigration pressures. With a Central and Eastern European population of 350 million, of which 100 million are in the EU, a 10 per cent increase in unemployment would lead to at least five million unemployed people within the EU.” (timesonline.co.uk)

Yahoo! News doesn’t have quite the same bleak outlook:

However, EU leaders opted instead for a case-by-case approach to helping troubled countries in the region “on the basis of all available instruments,” according to a statement issued after the summit.

“This idea of dividing up into old member state countries, eurozone countries, non-eurozone countries, north against south, or east against west, that is clearly an approach we rejected,” said.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was the eastern European countries that had said “they do not want a programme just for them.” as “there is a great diversity of situations.” (news.yahoo.com)

So, the EU family has either let its poor eastern brothers out to dry, or it is just about to implement case-by-case help packages. If no action is taken at all, it could become a massive problem for the EU as the crisis is likely to spill over into the political sphere. Not only should we expect to see much less public support for the union, but also, as Professor Nouriel Robini writes:

Deeply unpopular austerity measures, including slashed public wages, tax hikes and curbs on social spending will keep fanning public discontent in the Baltic states, Hungary and Romania. Dissatisfaction linked to the economic woes will be amplified in the countries where governments have been weakened by high-profile corruption and fraud scandals (Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria).

The political forces most likely to benefit from public disaffection are those running on populist platforms, which could disrupt efforts to battle the effects of the economic crisis. Latvia could be a case in point, as there are growing concerns that the coming election campaign might suspend the fiscal austerity measures required by the IMF bail-out package. Two other political hot spots that are at risk of early elections are Romania and Estonia, while Bulgarian national elections are due in mid-2009.

In sum, the crisis could put the E.U.’s free market rules under pressure. A big rise in support for populist and radical parties in the region could put social, structural and environmental reforms on hold and even call into question the economic and political model Eastern European countries have followed since the 1990s. (Forbes.com)

And should this come true, the EU is in great trouble. I have been a EU sceptic for quite a while, at least as far as Norwegian membership is concerned. But as much as I might dislike some aspects of the EU, I don’t want to see a massive economic downturn spreading all over Europe.


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