Fri, Dec 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

‘Brussels consensus’ widens gulf between leaders and the public

By Paul Taylor  /  Reuters, PARIS

Call it the “Brussels consensus” — a system of beliefs rooted in EU treaties helps explain the growing gulf between policy elites and ordinary citizens that may cause a political earthquake in the European Parliament elections in May next year.

These articles of faith are widely regarded as self-evident truths in the European Commission and the European Central Bank, but are often regarded by voters as the cause of their misfortunes, rather than the solution.

This disparity — exacerbated by a four-year slump and soaring unemployment due to the eurozone’s debt crisis — is fueling attacks on the EU and on its single currency, the euro, by populists on the far right and the radical left.

Like the free-market “Washington consensus” that prevailed in the 1990s after the collapse of communism, there is no official definition of the Brussels consensus.

Economist John Williamson coined the term “Washington consensus” in 1989 to describe a set of neo-liberal economic policies prescribed by the US Treasury, the IMF and the World Bank for developing countries in trouble.

Here is a rough outline of its European cousin, with apologies for journalistic simplification and exaggeration:

1) Brussels knows best. The answer to the financial and economic crisis is: “more Europe.”

2) Free trade is always better than protection.

3) The free movement of workers and services within the EU’s single market takes precedence over protecting the rights of workers in their own country.

4) Europe needs more immigrants to boost growth and pay for pensions and welfare benefits in the future.

5) It is better to tax consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than labor and high incomes.

6) Free and unfettered competition takes precedence over promoting national or European industrial champions.

7) To fight unemployment, one needs to reduce the protection — and sometimes the pay — of workers currently employed.

8) The so-called “community method” of European integration is always better and more legitimate than inter-governmental cooperation.

9) National sovereignty is an outdated idea, both in Europe and around the world.

10) The market should prevail in all things, including public services, but excluding agriculture.

Some of those principles, such as free trade, have broad support in most of the EU’s 28 countries, while others, such as increasing immigration or reducing job protection, are widely disputed.

“The EU is a patchwork of different national debates. The French national debate leans more than others towards protectionism,” said European Commission Vice President Olli Rehn, a contender for the Liberal group’s nomination to head the EU executive next year.

“I’m a free trader since it has been a key source of growth and prosperity for Europeans. I know there are different views in many parts of Europe, but a majority of European people are more for free trade than for protection,” he said.


The European credo is resolutely post-national, based on an assumption that ever fewer problems can be solved nationally given globalized supply chains and cross-border problems such as pollution, climate change, resource shortages and migration.

Yet critics say it takes too little account of the losers that EU free- market policies create, as well as the wider circle of people who fear they could become losers.

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