A Two-Speed Europe Where the 'Slow' Outrun the 'Fast'.
It is the 'old' member states, not the 'new', who are to blame for the EU's current problems.
In the annals of silliness about Europe's history and geography, the op-ed pages of the Financial Times do not normally feature prominently. But the opinion piece it published on 3 November by Jean-Claude Piris, once the top legal counsel to the European Council, mined a deep vein of misapprehension that left people in the 'new member states' (as they used to be called when they were indeed new members) grinding their teeth in frustration. Perhaps even more annoying was that most 'western Europeans' reading the piece could not see what the fuss what about.
Some of the points were reasonable. It is quite right to say that Europe needs new oomph, and that it must not be seen by voters merely as the harbinger of austerity. The European Parliament has not succeeded in giving the European Union extra legitimacy. Most citizens of Europe have a clear idea of who runs their own governments, but only a handful could tell you unprompted which parties hold the whip hand in the European Parliament.
But the bit that rankled was this: "It is time to admit that the enlargement of the EU from 15 to 27 members was too rapid. Europe's citizens no longer understand the purpose of the EU, its political aims and what its geographical borders will be."
The logic of this is baffling. It is not the Estonians (with almost no net debt) who have derailed the European project, nor the Latvians (who have undergone a successful austerity programme that towers over anything managed in southern Europe). It is not the Poles, with their strongly growing economy, who are dragging down Europe into recession, or the Czechs with their solid banking system, or the Slovaks (much poorer than the Greeks) who, with the Slovenes and Estonians, are actually contributing to the eurozone bail-out funds. It is not the Hungarians (who have slalomed past their own debt-induced financial hazards) who are threatening to capsize banks in neighbouring countries.
It is true that Bulgaria and Romania are in some respects disappointments as new members. Corruption and judicial reform are serious issues. The plight of the Roma is still dire and spills over into other European countries in the form of migration, begging and other problems. But to dismiss the whole of enlargement because of these problems is illogical: Bulgaria and Romania would not have disappeared from the map if their entry had been delayed. And outside the EU, their reform might have been slower. In any case, it is not Bulgaria and Romania that are threatening the future of the euro, the single market, and even the peace of Europe itself.
No, the most serious problems in the eurozone are concentrated among the old members. Just imagine if Italy could raise its growth rate by making some essentially minor reforms (the kind of thing that the Latvian government does before breakfast). Or if Greece could collect its taxes from its richer citizens (fiscal discipline there is far worse than in any of the 'east European' members). Or imagine how much easier life would be if France's debt-to-GDP ratio was at the average for the 'east Europeans': ie, low enough to give the government room for bank recapitalisation without jeopardising its AAA credit rating.
These are the real constraints to Europe's health: debt, lack of competitiveness, weak government. They are deeply rooted in the bad habits and self-indulgence of the old (in some cases, founding) member states. Blaming the innocent for the sins of the guilty is wrong-headed. Suggesting a two-speed Europe (as Piris did) with the virtuous in the slow lane defies description.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.