Rome, Italy. 7 February. It is just a golden moment. Above my Roman roof-top cappuccino a flash of dawn radiates across a golden city which for three thousand years has come to symbolise Europe. Every empire since from Charlemagne to the European Union claims in some way to be the political heir of either Roman Republic or Empire. I love this town, I love this country. It is therefore sad to see my old Italian friend brought low, visibly fraying at the edges. As February’s national elections beckon the discourse is about more Brussels not less, a metaphor for more of my Dutch taxpayer’s money so that Europe can prolong its agony in mutual impoverishment. Italy does not need more Brussels. Italy needs a real macro-economic game-changer. Italy needs TAFTA, a transatlantic free-trade agreement.
The plain truth is that I could no more abandon Italy to a debt-drenched future than I could my own Yorkshire kith and kin. That would be unconscionable. However, it is also clear that the partial and wrong-headed EU response to the Eurozone crisis will fail Italy (and Spain and others) in its hour of need. The wrong-headedness will be evident today in Brussels as leaders wrestle over the EU budget. The agreement they reach will once again be to invest in Europe’s past rather than Europe’s competitive future. TAFTA would force Europeans to again look outward and compete.
However, for TAFTA to work Washington must also cure itself of the fantasy that a United States of Europe would look anything like the United States of America. Left to its own devices the appallingly bureaucratic and hopelessly over-regulated, statist and uncompetitive European ‘USE’ would look far more like the sclerotic and ultimately doomed USSR – a Union of Soviet European Republics.
The sad truth is that the political unionists in Brussels Centre seek to use the crisis to extend their fiat at the expense of legitimacy, democracy, but above all competitiveness. Indeed, by linking Europe’s political future to the current crisis Brussels Centre is critically preventing the establishment of a truly pan-European recovery programme. Moreover, what will come out of Brussels today (if anything) will not help Italy. The leaders will talk a lot about growth but in reality do nothing to promote Horizon 2020, the research and development fund, or help the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) vital if Italy is to compete in a global economy.
My visit to Rome was to address the excellent 58th Assembly of the Atlantic Treaty Association. There were two great elephants in a room full of defence wonks. The first, naturally, was the Eurozone crisis which is the quintessential European security challenge of this age. The other was TAFTA. Indeed, I would go as far as to say the future of a credible NATO depends on TAFTA and a growth-driving transatlantic single market in goods and services it would create worth over 50% of global economic output.
Rome is merely in the eye of the hurricane that is the Eurozone crisis. The worst is yet to come. The money and reforms Romans will need and have to go through before stability once again dawns is perhaps a decade away if there is no game-changer. Therefore, the mantra of more Brussels must be pushed aside and a proper plan developed by ALL Europe’s nation-states within the wider macro-economic context that TAFTA would provide.
As I drove past Rome’s ancient forum below the Palatine hill where Republic and Empire tussled the ruins of a once great civilisation lay before me. Decline and fall is now clear for all to see across Europe. Is that our shared European future? As Brussels Centre edges forward with what one American friend calls a 'fascinating elite experiment' that she does not have to live with will the latter day republics and kingdoms that give Europe such cultural energy be replaced with a not so holy Brussels bureaucratic empire? It is certainly a seductive ‘solution’ for many southern Europeans for like the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries this new statist Europe may offer temporary stability. However, shorn of legitimacy, productivity and competitiveness it will ultimately fail mired in its own political decadence.
The Obama administration says that TAFTA must be concluded quickly as the deal has to be done, “on one tank of gas”. Sadly, the very people charged with promoting transatlantic “regulatory convergence” are the very Brussels Centre people who least want it. For them TAFTA is a threat to their ‘competences’.
TAFTA – for the love of Italy!