The concept of “Stability” in European politics

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Stability has long been valorized as the ultimate telos of the European project. In terms of monetary policy it has been the single most important objective in the creation of the Euro: to eliminate exchange rate uncertainty and to mitigate the threats arising from the vicissitudes of floating exchange rates. The monolithic mandate of the European Central Bank on an inflation rate target “below but close to 2%” rests on the same principle of stability—price stability in this regard. On the fiscal front, the reification of stability was achieved through the debt and deficit rules originally enshrined in the Stability and Growth Pact. As of present and with the eurocrisis having exposed the inadequacies of the initial Maastricht architecture, the essence of the SGP has been preserved and its modalities have been expanded and enhanced, courtesy of the fiscal compact, the two-pack and the six-pack.

How should one evaluate such a phenomenon?

Strictly speaking, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stability, nor is the term indissociably connected to any particular system of political organization. Stability can be a factor or an outcome of a variety of states of affairs. An omnipotent tyranny may realize stability over the territory it controls by bringing fire and steel to all dissident tendencies. Yet stability may arise as a benign effect of liberal, pluralistic politics within the context of a modern representative democracy, in which the “tensions” and “destabilizing factors” are limited to superficialities, not institutions. By the same token and theoretically at least, stability may also be a property of a society without authority, of anarchy, if we are to agree with Pierre-Joseph Poudhon’s claim that “anarchy is order without power” (on this point, I disagree with Proudhon, but that’s material for another text). Such multiplicity may only indicate that it would be a lamentable error from our side to attach to this notion any negative significations, at least not in advance. The concept cannot be evaluated decontextually. It needs to be appreciated in its specific political-cultural milieu, where its function in the constitution of the case can be examined with greater precision.

The centralizing trend of European integration

As I have repeatedly argued in my old (and now-defunct) Euroblog, the European integration process from the Maastricht Treaty hitherto has a clear direction towards centralization of control and authority, even if that may be achieved by means of dichotomizing the European Union edifice between the Euro Area and the rest of the Union. The regime of measures and policies that were introduced as a response to the Eurocrisis have effectively accelerated this process. We behold the gradual rise of a European state; a state that may not necessarily be of the Union but within the Union, given that the Economic and Monetary Union (the Euro Area) is becoming increasingly centralized and homogenized, monetarily and fiscally.

The underlying assumption of such integration is that only a central authority may guarantee stability and macroeconomic symmetry in the Euro Area. Only such an overriding force can realize the potential of the single market. Indeed, with the European Semester in place, the Commission is already undertaking this role of “ironing out” the macroeconomic imbalances across the region by means of enforcing fiscal orthodoxy and recommending far-reaching economic reforms. It will not be long before it is allowed to develop the capacity of coercing elected governments into submission, vetoing national budgets and, generally, transfiguring its recommendations into edicts.

Concomitant with this tendency to centralize power at the European level, is the erosion of democracy in general, as several EU institutions simply fail to meet the standards of democratic legitimacy. Thus, integration has unfortunately become almost synonymous with technocratization. Democracy or liberty is not the condicio sine qua non of such integration qua centralization; the prerequisite, the purported objective or “need” is stability. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, in this specific context, the importance of stability for the establishment is such that economic governance in the Euro Area, “integration” per se, would be meaningless in its absence.

Along these lines and for the sake of furnishing a concrete example, European Commissioner Olli Rehn had delivered a speech on “Moving Europe out of the crisis” (July 1, 2013) in which he drew parallels between the Deutsche Bundesbank’s Stabilitätskultur (stability culture) and the direction of European (Euro area?) integration. The gist of the Commissioner’s pronouncements and exhortations was the “need” to extend the stability culture of the Bundesbank’s monetary policy, to all areas of policy over which the EU has power. Mr. Rehn spoke thus:

All in all, the economic and financial crisis has clearly taught us that the stability culture has to go beyond monetary policy and beyond fiscal policy. I am particularly referring to a sound micro- and macro-prudential policy for the financial sector, as well as to the prevention of harmful macroeconomic imbalances and to the pursuit of structural reforms as enabling policies for a stable monetary union. In the end of the day, having a set of stability rules is not the same and does not yet amount to as having a stability culture. This is more than simply a semantic remark. A culture of stability means not only having a framework of norms and rules that contribute to fiscal and financial stability. Culture also means that we all make the rules our own.

Though these may be the words of a particular person, the economic and administrative understanding permeating that speech, the principles underpinning it, are indicative of the prevalent ideology in European politics. Stability is not conceived as one of the many elements of an inclusive polity, as the outcome of open-ended deliberations, but as the fundament, the tissue of primary rules, on which all other policies must be predicated. From the pool (or morass) of this stability spring the concepts of administrative prudence, economic moderation, fiscal discipline, all of which are presumed, in a rather one-sided understanding of reality, as vital for economic sustainability and social harmony.

Additionally and perhaps unconsciously, the concept of “stability” is offered the status of the supreme good of political organization effectively being treated as consubstantial with “justice”. It reeks of pseudo-morality and is covered with a quasi-mystical patina of holiness. It cannot be brought into question when it comes to the institutional morphology of the EU. It “must be” the cornerstone of the system. “Stability” is the midpoint of an ordoliberally-minded elite. Other concepts may be concentrically fastened upon it, but it cannot be removed from the ideological core. While there may always be kernels of truth in this field of myth and superstition, the practical function of “stability” is its use as a pretense for the centralization of authority around a citadel of technocracy.

What are we to make of this state of affairs?

Here we are not confronted with a misplaced understanding of political theory and action, but with a rather uneasy obsession; with what effectively is the fetishisation of stability, the phantasmagorized projection of its supernatural other as the essence of the political order. Stability is treated as an end to be pursued in its own accord, even at the risk of immiserating large masses of people, degrading the status of representative democracy, diminishing the freedom of the individual and the community. Stability may be one of the benign results of a properly-functioning political system, but it certainly is not its raison d’être.

Consequently, to question the validity of this “stability” is to realize that the European project is in desperate need of reconsideration, of changes in imaginary institutions. A lot needs to be done to change the course of European integration, to shift from technocracy to democracy, from adherence to chimerical rules to confidence in human liberty. To begin with, the concept of stability must be brought under close scrutiny, its ethical veil be pierced, its tutelary status be stripped away. Unless reformulative action or propositional political speech does not extend to the roots, it is destined to failure, if it is fortunate not to be misused and abused as the assignee, the infamous cheerleader of the status quo. It would be a reckless folly to allow things to follow the same pattern of evolution; to blithely proceed with this magnificent phantom of “more Europe” without having addressed the deepest flaws of the present institutional setup.

I, for once, would rather not be indoctrinated in any techno-economic “culture” of stability.