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What Europe can learn from Alexander Hamilton

In 2018, despite the prompting of President Macron, the EU missed a crucial window for reform. Can it heal its fractures to create a new European republic?

It says something about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius that he even managed to make fiscal integration catchy. In his musical Hamilton, the eponymous treasury secretary raps:

If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit, a financial diuretic
How do you not get it?
If we’re aggressive and competitive
The union gets a boost
You’d rather give it a sedative?

Miranda picked his subject well: resurrecting Alexander Hamilton from the economic history books and remaking him as a Broadway icon. Hamilton deserved no less. From a post-revolutionary muddle of individual American states he forged a coherent and unified nation, defying states-rights zealots such as Thomas Jefferson and using debt mutualisation to bind the new federation together. Even today, American power and prosperity rests on Hamilton’s intellectual victory over Jefferson.

It is much harder to imagine a hit Broadway musical about Olaf Scholz, the former mayor of Hamburg and Germany’s current finance minister: “I’m a Hanseat/Saving’s where I’m at/That dude Salvini will make me rupture a spleen-i/If he persistently defies the Stability and Growth Pact.”

If Europe was ever to experience a “Hamiltonian moment”, a grand mutualisation of debts forging a world-beating, unified economy, it would probably have begun in 2018. Unfortunately, it did not.

Europe today may not look like Hamilton’s early United States, but like the latter the former comprises both debtor (for Italy, read New York) and creditor (for Germany, read Virginia) states. Like Hamilton’s America, the eurozone is also in an uneasy limbo: a single currency union is made up of several states with different industrial and banking systems, and debt levels, that are integrated enough to be mutually interdependent but not enough to resolve crises as one.

Hamilton knew what had to happen in such circumstances. He knew that one currency spanning a range of economies would not work without federal investment to reduce imbalances and a common banking system to keep credit flowing to firms and households even when individual states are in trouble. That requires the deposits placed by, say, Germans and Italians, to be insured as one – a prospect that is horrifying to most Germans.

Despite some modest innovations during the last crisis, such as setting up the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to fund bailouts, Europe is not prepared for the next crisis. The doom loop between domestic banks and their national governments is still present: a self-reinforcing cycle where weak banks enfeeble the states whose bonds they hold, and vice versa.

Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in 2017 on a Hamilton-style plan to break this series of negative cycles. For that, he needed Germany. So he campaigned there even before he was elected president, picked a heavily German-speaking cabinet and then adopted the preferred terms of reference of Germany’s political class.

In several speeches in 2017, centred on one at the Sorbonne University in Paris that September, he advanced fiscal and political federalisation. He hoped to achieve progress in the interval between Germany’s election in September 2017 and the European Parliament election in May 2019.

But Angela Merkel ended up stranded in coalition talks, wasting several months before forming a government with the instinctively pro-European Social Democrats (SPD), who, against their better political judgement, joined the new “grand coalition” of centre left and centre right in order to work with Macron. Yet under Scholz, the German finance minister, and Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s gutsy but domestically focused new leader, reform has crept forward only slowly. Except for vague talk of an EU unemployment insurance programme, Scholz has achieved nothing of substance. Merkel’s economic record since the election is almost as undistinguished. When she awarded Macron the Charlemagne Prize for “work done in the service of European unification” in May 2018, he responded with a speech attacking her in all but name for drifting through such a decisive historical moment.

A month later, at Meseberg, north of Berlin, Merkel and Macron agreed a few general principles: there should be a eurozone budget and the ESM should become a European Monetary Fund with broader powers, for example. But the final package lacked any true ambition. At the European Council summit on 13-14 December, eurozone leaders will agree a few tweaks to the single currency, including a small, inadequate budget. Then the window for reform will close. Yet all is not lost.

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In May, the 27 members of the EU (by then most likely excluding Britain) will elect a new European parliament and in the following months a new European Commission will also em-erge. Optimists in Brussels spy a second window for reform in 2020. But Germany will then be in a post-Merkel political transition and a new economic slowdown may be entrenched. The best hope for the European Hamiltonians may well be that the next crisis is so extreme that even the neo-Jeffersonians will accept that they have to move the euro forward, or let it fail. In other words, that the next crisis will push the single currency so close to the brink that even Germany’s bone-dry economic establishment will learn to love risk sharing.

The European parliament election – the first without the UK – will probably be more Eurocentric than any before. Themes such as euro reform and migration controls, and big personalities such as Macron, Hungary’s illiberal Viktor Orbán and Italy’s far-right Matteo Salvini, will traverse borders more often than any of their predecessors ever did. The campaign will illustrate the gap between the western European establishment and populists such as Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski. But this can be overstated, while in Germany Merkel’s successor may well be the moderate pro-European Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and in France Macron could well win re-election in 2022, despite his current woes.

Then there are the structural factors: younger citizens are studying and working in other European countries in rapidly growing numbers. Among urban professionals, parties with confidently pro-European identities are surging: the federalist, centre-left German Greens are now the second most popular party in Europe’s largest economy. Making Europe similarly appealing to blue-collar workers will be harder but the case is strong – a united Europe is a much better bastion against wage dumping than nations fending for themselves.

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A modern Hamiltonian moment in the 2020s would probably involve negotiated write-downs of the riskiest debt in countries such as Italy, then an incremental shift to common deposit insurance – the foundation of any viable banking union. To be remotely sustainable it would also involve genuine federal democracy, including eurozone-wide political parties competing in European elections on common lists, and in the long term a dedicated eurozone parliament and fiscal government. In his Sorbonne speech, Macron proposed 2024, the date of the next-but-one European election and the next major window between the French and German electoral cycles, as a deadline for such advances. That makes sense: one more European parliamentary term, one more European Commission, to get the project right.

Europe’s neo-Jeffersonians tend to throw up their hands at this and decry the pointlessness of the whole venture. They protest that Hamilton’s America was a young country with a clear common project, a common self-image and the afterglow of the revolution still coursing through its veins. Europe, by contrast, is an old, grouchy patchwork of languages, nations and cultures with no clear demos. It has no foundation for a common currency, they say.

The neo-Jeffersonians’ argument fails on two fronts. For one thing, it is profoundly unconstructive. If the euro did not exist, or ceased to exist, you would have to (re-) invent it. The degree of international economic integration across borders within Europe is unlike that anywhere else in the world. One might as well propose a currency split between Virginia and New York, or Tyneside and Surrey.

But, comes the retort: Virginia and New York, like Tyneside and Surrey, are at least politically integrated. They have a common demos, but Germany and Greece do not. This is the second objection. Some German politicians simply think Macron’s ideas are bad. But plenty think they are good, but are simply unsellable to German taxpayers who lack enough solidarity and common feeling with, say, Italians, to underwrite Italian debts. However fond Germans are of their local taverna, their holidays to Majorca, their Cinecittà movies, the argument goes, they are not ready for a “transfer union”.

This deterministic theory is seductive, but wrong. The neo-Jeffersonians behave as if early revolutionary America was a calm, steady millpond compared with today’s Europe. In fact, it was a violent and divided country. The melting pot had not yet reached melting point: there was no single official language. America’s young, incomplete federal democracy was no healthier than Europe’s incomplete democracy is today. The War of Independence had been fought with myriad different visions of America in mind. Slavery endured and the first hints of future conflicts over this “original sin” were already visible. That was borne out in the politics. The solvent states were just as disdainful of the indebted ones as today’s thrifty German is of the profligate Greeks.

Enacting a Hamiltonian Europe would be like enacting Hamiltonian America: tough but not impossible. Like the young American republic, a new European republic would be multilingual and economically diverse. But it would also be coherent in other respects. Sometimes it takes outsiders to notice that: Steven Hill and Jeremy Rifkin, two of the most masterful chroniclers of that European federalist case, are from Connecticut and Colorado respectively, while Chinese elites shake their heads at Europe’s failure to do the sensible thing and integrate. Blame the narcissism of small differences.

From a German perspective, Greece or Italy seem very different countries, and vice versa. But ultimately Europeans – with their long holidays and generous welfare states, their football mania and apartment blocks, their greying hair and increasingly diverse skin tones, their environmentalism and their multilingualism and their tragic-glorious sense of history are in sum ineffably European. Forget American exceptionalism, Europe is these days perhaps the more exceptional continent.

In other words, if Hamilton could knit together a young America, there is no fundamental reason why Europe’s leaders cannot now make a success of the common currency – and with it the European project. This year, with its prevarication, caution and disappointed expectations, was a study in how not to do that. Perhaps that was a unique window, now closed. But in the spirit of European optimism, I believe there is still a path to a Hamiltonian moment.

Jeremy Cliffe is the Economist’s Charlemagne columnist and Brussels bureau chief

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special