Interview: Francesco Bongiovanni, author of The Decline and Fall of Europe

Europe is searching for a growth motor. Picture: Getty
Europe is searching for a growth motor. Picture: Getty
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Should anything be done to stop our continental drift? Michael Pye finds a few nuggets of wisdom in the invective of a dejected Europhile

It’s tough when you design a grand statesman-like project, a geopolitical wonder, but you don’t do it in the age of Bismarck or Napoleon or even Atilla the Hun: you do it in the age of celebrity. That may be the key to all the troubles with Europe.

We definitely have a Europe Project, a European Union, a European Community; so it’s a geographical abstraction with clout. It may be hard to know where it’s going, or even exactly what it is, but that’s no problem: Jacques Delors himself called it “an unidentified political object”. Meantime we can be proud of a gross national product a trillion dollars ahead of the US, if you add up all 27 members, and we have seven out of ten of the richest people in the world, so Francesco Bongiovanni says; and his business is rich people, so he should know.

On the other hand, Europe is watched, minute by minute, like some great but ageing star with just a suggestion of cellulite. It is subject to the market equivalent of paparazzi, the short-termers, and it has a serious problem with public relations, gone from potential giant to potential bankrupt in this century: a continent with dizzying rates of unemployment, huge bills for welfare, subject to a violent austerity in which almost nobody actually believes. Even the German economy managed to shrink by 4.7 per cent in 2009, which makes its later growth figures a bit less impressive.

Bongiovanni finds the “foul smell” of decay, he thinks Europeans are addicted to a sense of entitlement, but even he would like to be proved wrong. He still thinks that Project Europe is “noble and indispensable”.

Seven years ago, the bookshops were crammed with works of prophecy: Europe will be the superpower of the 21st century and teach the world how to live right. Europe has found the safe way between Gordon Gekko capitalism and Joseph Stalin statism. The message is rather different now. The bookshops are full of books that say Europe is falling apart, in unstoppable decline and has to learn to live very differently: no more luxuries like workers’ rights or pensions. Europe is now a warning to the world (and most particularly, to the US) .

Throw in a few facts, and this shift seems exaggerated, more grand guignol than dramatic. Before the euro crisis, both Ireland and Spain were running a surplus on the current account; Europe hadn’t failed them, yet. Before the rise of the rich persons’ ultra-Right in America, Europe was an alternative, not a warning. The trouble is a kind of indecision that could still make nonsense of the whole.

The euro is the classic case. It was devised to bring Europe together, to enforce a kind of fiscal uniformity and take away wilful national powers; it was meant to make Project Europe real. But since nobody was quite sure what Project Europe was, nobody wanted to give up much. The result is a currency with too many central banks – and one set of over-rigid rules that nobody can afford to obey.

Even the current school prefects, virtuous Germany and arrogant France, insist everyone play by rules about how much they can overspend and how much they can borrow; but when the euro began, the first nations to break those rules were Germany and France, and they flatly refused to pay any penalty. The Netherlands in 2005 voted “no” on Europe’s latest semi-constitution, mostly because it was tired of such shenanigans.

Circumstances change; laboriously haggled treaties can’t. Europe is full of a variety which could be the source of prodigious energy – a kind of cultural fusion – but Brussels has a passion for averaging the continent out; and when it comes to history, Dusseldorf isn’t Lisbon.

You can’t pretend a country like Portugal, whose dictator was a professor of economics and blocked as much outside investment as he could, is anything like a mature, sophisticated and very successful manufacturing economy like Germany. You can’t deny that some countries need to devalue their currencies because the alternative is devaluing lives, or that some countries need to inflate their way to the future to pay for schools, roads, hope.

You can’t, I can’t, but Project Europe can. Francesco Bongiovanni’s brisk and witty book makes that point most clearly when it comes to immigration policies: nobody talks about them. It has become politically correct not to be political. We’re too busy paying homage to the wonders of Project Europe which is apparently the proof that a decent external tariff on coal will put an end to war – although maybe the exhaustion of 1945, the reasonable self-doubt of Germany in the first few years and the general sense of wellbeing across a plush continent have something to do with it. Besides, you can always go abroad to have a war without spoiling the homeland: think Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

Now this Dr Bongiovanni has been about the world, Asia and America, but in the high thin air that our new ruling class breathes: technocratic air. He has the Harvard MBA, so he’s an initiate of the new mysteries, and a doctorate in engineering. He’s been, he says, a Wall Street banker, an “international advisor” and an “entrepreneur”: thunderous words, but vague. That is what makes his book so interesting: from his remote vantage point, safely abstracted from everyday things, he sees just the same problems we see on the ground.

Of course, he sees them differently. He is a Knight of the Order of St Charles “for his contribution to humanitarian endeavours and biodiversity protection” (he raised a million dollars to rebuild Indonesian villages after the tsunami). The Order of St Charles is a curiosity: a royal gift from Monaco, usually given for services to the Monegasque state. The problem is that Monaco isn’t really a state: it’s more a tax dodge. And in Monaco Bongiovanni runs a “boutique” merchant bank. He helps “elite” groups from the Far East put their money into the Europe whose decline he thinks nobody can ignore.

He is properly scathing about bankers, and their own sense of entitlement; after all, the Greeks are suffering now to keep CommerzBank solvent, which may not be the best use of their resources. But he is tolerant of 100 other devices that undermine prospects for a Europe that has new ideas, new products; that can pay its own way.

He’s not so tolerant of slackers and skivers, the “thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions” of Europeans abusing welfare. (You’d think a man who makes a living being exact about figures would know if we’re talking thousands or millions here). He’s properly scathing of the French sending round inspections to check if office lights are burning and anyone is working more than their fair share of work: 35 hours a week.

But slackers and skivers are a way to evade the moral argument for honest, properly managed welfare, and also the practical one: you can’t have a flexible labour market if people are terrified to change jobs. Bongiovanni wants you to think that entitlement is wrong as well as too expensive; he’s a manager who just this once doesn’t want to find a managerial solution to that problem.

This is curious because Dr Bongiovanni is a keen supporter of the Billion Minds Foundation, rich people and powerful people united to discuss “planetary management”.

In this post-democratic age, management is everything: no more vulgar politics, no more balancing interests within a society, just the need to make every nation a quietly efficient machine for growth.

But there’s a price to pay for that. Bongiovanni is scathing about the conservatism of much of Europe’s Left: the refusal to see that we do need to reform public spending, which doesn’t mean wrecking the public sector but making sure it stays strong. He’s very cross when French teenagers demonstrate about the rising retirement age, cross when workers resort to national strikes; but in a Europe which has very little interest in democracy, what does he expect? Does the boss think we’re going to keep quiet whatever he does?

When Jean Monnet began the ramshackle architecture of Europe, trying to stop war by stopping nations cornering steel or coal, he was disconcertingly honest about the problem: “Europe has never existed,” he said. “One has genuinely to create Europe.”

Nations are a reality, local and regional identities are strong, but Europe is still being invented; and until it seems real, it hardly commands loyalty. Not even governments pretend too much. They chase national interests, they ignore inconvenient laws, they even bypass the older institutions of Europe like the Court of Human Rights.

Nobody talks about the unreality of Europe itself: a ghost continent with a physical bureaucracy. Since nobody seems to know where we’re heading, or at least they’re not telling us, we can’t tell if we are getting there; so there is nothing for us to say. When we feel rich, that’s fine. When we don’t, we whinge and riot with the best of them. We’ve been given nothing to believe or trust or even value.

Bongiovanni is writing largely for an American audience, I suspect: see what rules and regulations, workers’ rights and welfare payments do to a once-proud economy.

But his book is a sharp, even astringent dose for Europeans, too. After all, nothing says that the Europe we build has to be like the Europe we have. It could acknowledge difference. It could use the constructive energies that otherwise get perverted into the sinister kind of nationalism. It could be not managerial, about not an exercise in managing inevitable decline and keeping the masses in order while you do, but political – as various as you like.

Bongiovanni finds a culture of hope in Asia, looking forward. He finds a culture of fear in Europe and he’s right: many are afraid of what might happen again if the magic of Project Europe stops working. Maybe what we’ve found in the past few years is this: we’ve grown out of magic at last. We are starting to need politics again.

The Decline and Fall of Europe

by Francesco M Bongiovanni

Palgrave, 336pp, £18.99