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Europe - the battle of ideas

Gavin Hewitt | 13:37 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

barroso_ap_595.jpgI have just been in Rome to witness the latest launching of another of Europe's austerity packages.

We are getting to the point when almost every country has to have one. The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said that the sacrifices were necessary to save the euro.

Later, in a further attempt to justify the cut-backs, he spoke of "an international speculative attack on the euro."

Confronting speculators always makes for good politics. It is also an attempt to define the narrative of this crisis.

What Europe's leaders are beginning to understand is that, over the weeks and months ahead, they will have to win the battle of ideas.

In Italy, Prime Minister Berlusconi had scarcely finished speaking before the country's largest union had called for a general strike.

In Spain, protests are planned against their austerity measures. There is debate there, too, about a general strike.

In France there is fierce resistance to what is being billed as the "mother of all reforms", the raising of the retirement age.

The unions say it is "non-negotiable". Some Greek unions are trying to organise a Europe-wide day of protests against the era of austerity.

Europe's leaders will have to explain why "austerity" is necessary.

Among all this, fundamental doubts have been raised about the future of the euro and even the European project itself.

So it is interesting to get inside the minds of the eurocrats, the keepers of the flame.

It so happened that this week the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, gave a keynote address to the Jean Monnet Conference. With the EU facing what is possibly the greatest crisis in its history here are some of his arguments.

• First, the big defence against those who argue the European idea is losing its appeal:

"Europe", Mr Barroso said, "is the greatest, and most successful, experiment and political integration in the world".

• Second, don't blame the EU, blame national politicians.

The real problem, he said, was not to be found at the European level or its institutions.

"It comes very often from narrow-minded, nationalistic, chauvinistic political leaders at the national level."

Some saw this as a scarcely-veiled attack on German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is seen by many in Brussels as having put "national interest" above "solidarity".

It is interesting how leaders who are sensitive to national politics are described as "nationalistic" and "chauvinistic".

• Third, a choice. "If the EU does not go further, it may be going back forever." Europe's officials have long clung to the idea that unless they are expanding, or integrating further, the whole project will lose momentum. In their view Europe has only one gear, and it is forwards on its journey to "ever-closer union".

• Fourth, every crisis is an opportunity. Like other officials, Mr Barroso believes the current crisis makes the case for greater integration. "We cannot have a monetary union without an economic union," he says. In his view the crisis has revealed how interdependent Europe's economies are and that the Lisbon Treaty should be used to strengthen the co-ordination and surveillance of budgetary discipline.

• Fifth, paint the critics as mainly from the English speaking world. The critics he describes as "professional pessimists". In an earlier speech he had spoken of "the intellectual glamour of pessimism". Here he said "the world is full of Cassandras. Sometimes I see in the English-speaking literature on the euro what I would call 'wishful thinking' because they expect the euro to fail."

• Finally, the nightmare the EU stands in the way of. Mr Barroso often warns of the danger of "populism". In this speech he said "there are sometimes occasions when we see populism, xenophobia, chauvinism in Europe" - raising what he sees as the spectre of chauvinism for a second time.

So in the middle of daily fire-fighting to defend the euro, there is a recognition, as Mr Barroso admits, that "we will need to win the battle of ideas".

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