Marina Yannakoudakis is a Member of the European Parliament for London. Follow Marina on Twitter.
I recently took part in a debate on the French TV channel France 24. The subject was austerity and the French Presidential election. I suggested, as much as a joke as anything, that as a London MEP I was looking forward to welcoming those French who wished to avoid François Hollande’s 75% millionaire tax. The socialist economist who was participating in the debate practically jumped out her chair. “The French people are not going to leave France because of a small increase in tax,” she rasped gallically.
While upsetting a French socialist is the mark of a job well done for a Conservative MEP, I wonder whether the economist might ultimately be proven right. Not because I believe that punitive taxes won’t lead to an exodus of Frenchmen to London, but because I don’t believe that the European Union will allow Hollande to divert from its austerity agenda.
I understand why the French, the Dutch and the Greeks (about which more later) are opposed to austerity. France’s deficit is smaller than the UK’s with the Netherlands even enjoying a small surplus. France has not been forced to take quite the same drastic action as the UK government to shore up its economy. However, Sarkozy tried to manage the crisis by lowering the cost of employment: making it easier to fire workers and introducing pension reform. The unions who backed Hollande will demand a volte face on labour reforms and France’s spiralling pension costs can only see the country’s deficit rise.
Hollande’s promise to “protect the social model” will also prove costly. The powerful public sector unions support the new President’s “growth agenda” which will see millions invested into public services. A quick glance across the channel would show France that a rapid expansion in public sector jobs is likely to exacerbate the crisis rather than alleviate it.
Yet in spite of these domestic concerns, the vote against Sarkozy (and I believe that most French voters were voting against Sarkozy rather than for Hollande) is more a vote against Europe. As with the failed European Constitution the French and the Dutch have again sent a clear message to Brussels. Austerity may be the right answer, but not austerity by European diktat. Hollande has promised to renegotiate the Fiscal Compact, and failing that to follow David Cameron’s lead by vetoing it. The Dutch government has fallen, not because the country is opposed to austerity, but because it is opposed to the high-handed European Union.
The Fiscal Compact is likely to choke economies at a time when the European Commission is requesting massive budget increases. I am opposed to the 7% EU budget increase and have repeatedly called on the Commission to look for savings. I ask the Commission regular questions on its finances in an attempt to root out waste. In the past few months alone, answers to parliamentary questions I submitted have revealed £4 million a year spent on sending officials on holidays to Phuket, £4 million spent on a Farsi version of the EU propaganda channel Euronews, £19 million on recruiting eurocrats and £9 million on EU orchestras.
Against this background it is no wonder that the anti-austerity rhetoric coming from Brussels (and equally Berlin) is being rejected by voters across Europe. Nowhere is this more evident than in Greece. On Sunday Greek voters also went to the polls. My husband is Greek and we have many friends and relatives in the country, all of whom have been feeling the pressure of the belt-tightening measures prescribed by Brussels. I even receive letters from ordinary Greeks not asking me to help as a politician, but for me to send them a few pennies to pay for a crust of bread.
The elections came at a time when Greece, once the poorest country in Europe, was heading back into direst poverty. More than 50% of young Greeks are unemployed. A quarter of a million Greeks are being fed by soup kitchens. It was not difficult therefore for fringe parties to tap into this disaffection. Those who voted for Syriza on the left or Golden Dawn on the right felt that they had no other choice, especially as the mainstream parties had been complicit in doing Brussels’ bidding.
The Fiscal Compact is meant to save the euro. It is defending the indefensible. The message from the voters is that they want less Europe not more and if this means sacrificing the single currency then so be it. The euro was a political project which lacked the backing of the necessary economic fundamentals. As such it was always doomed to fail.
Greece must be released from the prison of the euro. We need an orderly exit from the single currency for those countries which need to restructure their debts. The Greek election has shown that the people refuse to be brought to their knees, the French election shows that even one of the “motors” of European integration has said that enough is enough. If the EU wishes to continue it needs to get back to basics, back to being a trading bloc and ensuring that the Single Market helps return the continent to growth. If this is not done, and done soon, it begs question what is the value-added of the EU.