Greece illustrates the danger of allowing rating agencies, despite their abysmal record, to lord it over the political terrain
Europe has led the world in the practice of democracy. It is therefore worrying that the dangers to democratic governance today, coming through the back door of financial priority, are not receiving the attention they should. There are profound issues to be faced about how Europe's democratic governance could be undermined by the hugely heightened role of financial institutions and rating agencies, which now lord it freely over parts of Europe's political terrain.
Two distinct issues need to be separated. The first concerns the place of democratic priorities, including what Walter Bagehot and John Stuart Mill saw as the need for "governance by discussion". Suppose we accept that the powerful financial bosses have a realistic understanding of what needs to be done. This would strengthen the case for paying attention to their voices in a democratic dialogue. But that is not the same thing as allowing the international financial institutions and rating agencies the unilateral power to command democratically elected governments.
Second, it is quite hard to see that the sacrifices that the financial commanders have been demanding from precarious countries would deliver the ultimate viability of these countries and guarantee the continuation of the euro within an unreformed pattern of financial amalgamation and an unchanged membership of the euro club. The diagnosis of economic problems by rating agencies is not the voice of verity that they pretend. It is worth remembering that the record of rating agencies in certifying financial and business institutions preceding the 2008 economic crisis was so abysmal that the US Congress seriously debated whether they should be prosecuted.
Since much of Europe is now engaged in achieving quick reduction of public deficits through drastic reduction of public expenditure, it is crucial to scrutinise realistically what the likely impact of the chosen policies may be, both on people and the generating of public revenue through economic growth. The high morals of "sacrifice" do, of course, have an intoxicating effect. This is the philosophy of the "right" corset: "If madam is at all comfortable in it, then madam certainly needs a smaller size." However, if the demands of financial appropriateness are linked too mechanically to immediate cuts, the result could be the killing of the goose that lays the golden egg of economic growth.
This concern applies to a number of countries, from Britain to Greece. The commonality of the "blood, sweat and tears" strategy of deficit reduction gives some apparent plausibility to what is being imposed on more precarious countries like Greece or Portugal. It also makes it harder to have a united political voice in Europe that can stand up to the panic generated in the financial markets.
In addition to a bigger political vision, there is a need for clearer economic thinking. The tendency to ignore the importance of economic growth in generating public revenue should be a major item for scrutiny. The strong connection between growth and public revenue has been observed in many countries, from China and India to the US and Brazil.
There are lessons from history here, too. The big public debts of many countries when the second world war ended caused huge anxieties, but the burden diminished rapidly thanks to fast economic growth. Similarly, the huge deficits that President Clinton faced when he came to office in 1992 melted away during his presidency, greatly aided by speedy economic growth.
The fear of a threat to democracy does not, of course, apply to Britain, since these policies have been chosen by a government empowered by democratic elections. Even though the unfolding of a strategy that was not revealed at the time of election can be a reason for some pause, this is the kind of freedom that a democratic system does allow the electorally victorious. But that does not eliminate the need for more public discussion, even in Britain. There is also a need to recognise how the self-chosen restrictive policies in Britain seem to give plausibility to the even more drastic policies being imposed on Greece.
How did some of the euro countries get into this mess? The oddity of going for a united currency without more political and economic integration has certainly played a part, even after taking note of financial transgressions that have undoubtedly been committed in the past by countries such as Greece or Portugal (and even after noting Mario Monti's important point that a culture of "excessive deference" in the EU has allowed these transgressions to go unchecked). It is to the huge credit of the Greek government – George Papandreou, the prime minister, in particular – that it is doing what it can despite political resistance, but the pained willingness of Athens to comply does not eliminate the European need to examine the wisdom of the requirements – and the timing – being imposed on Greece.
It is no consolation for me to recollect that I was firmly opposed to the euro, despite being very strongly in favour of European unity. My worry about the euro was partly connected with each country giving up the freedom of monetary policy and of exchange rate adjustments, which have greatly helped countries in difficulty in the past, and prevented the necessity of massive destabilisation of human lives in frantic efforts to stabilise the financial markets. That monetary freedom could be given up when there is also political and fiscal integration (as the states in the US have), but the halfway house of the eurozone has been a recipe for disaster. The wonderful political idea of a united democratic Europe has been made to incorporate a precarious programme of incoherent financial amalgamation.
Rearranging the eurozone now would have many problems, but difficult issues have to be intelligently discussed, rather than allowing Europe to drift in financial winds fed by narrow-minded thinking with a terrible track record. The process has to begin with some immediate restraining of the unopposed power of rating agencies to issue unilateral commands. These agencies are hard to discipline despite their abysmal record, but a well-reflected voice of legitimate governments can make a big difference to financial confidence while solutions are worked out, especially if the international financial institutions lend their support. Stopping the marginalisation of the democratic tradition of Europe has an urgency that is hard to exaggerate. European democracy is important for Europe – and for the world.