As we peer across the Atlantic — shaking our heads in wonder at the implosion of the European Union (EU) — give thanks, Canadians. In comparative terms, we’re in pretty good shape. In fact, we’re in really good shape.
The European “leadership,” meanwhile, is busily at work on blowing itself to bits. The EU has become “ungovernable,” billionaire George Siros said this week, adding that “a dynamic of disintegration” is tearing through Europe.
Early on Thursday, European leaders hammered together a deal, of sorts, to save the Union from ruin. But the 11th-hour deal addresses the symptoms of the crisis, not the root causes. Greece still has a debt level that is an extraordinary 150% of its gross domestic product (GDP).
Italy, with a far larger and far more significant economy, still has a debt-to-GDP level of nearly 120%. Places like Ireland are deeply in recession already — and there, as in Belgium and supposed super-powers like Britain and Germany, the debt-to-GDP ratio hovers at or above 80%. The exit of one or more countries from the EU now seems inevitable. The damage done to European economies has been mainly self-inflicted. In some Euro-zone nations, their approach to pensions, retirement, taxation and public spending is the stuff of science fiction. The Union did little or nothing to address the economic cancer that has now spread throughout Europe.
How did it happen?
As someone from the progressive side of the spectrum, too, I note that the vast majority of the governments in the EU are right-wing. After the election of David Cameron’s Conservatives in Britain slightly more than a year ago, the map of Europe has been overwhelmingly conservative blue.
And it is those conservatives who have allowed this crisis to grow, paying no heed to debt levels (as conservatives in government always do). European conservatives did this to themselves, thereby creating the very real risk of another global recession.
How have we Canadians — so far — avoided falling into the abyss? Two reasons. One, stable governance. In 2006-08, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty turned a structural surplus into a structural deficit. What’s more, in 2009, the pair were stubborn recession-deniers — they denied it was coming (when it was), and they denied it was here (when it was).
But, credit where credit’s due: Their multi-billion-dollar stimulus program did what it needed to do — and Harper and Flaherty managed the crisis well. With the support of provincial premiers, they bailed out the auto sector, and they invested heavily in infrastructure — which is why they, and all the premiers in question, have all been re-elected this year. Voters liked the job they did.
The second reason we have avoided a Euro-style implosion was revealed — surprise, surprise — by no less than Treasury Board President Tony Clement a few days ago.
In a little-noticed speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Clement lauded the government of Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien for “rather remarkable” fiscal reforms in the ’90s which have protected our economy ever since.
Said Clement: “Successive Canadian governments, across political lines, faced the challenge square on, delivering fiscal reforms that started us on a path to balanced budgets.
“As a result, from 1997 to 2007, our country enjoyed a decade of strong economic performance, with Canada leading the G7 in economic growth.”
For all but one year of the decade Clement referred to, Canada was governed by Liberals, not Conservatives. Clement went on to credit Chretien’s “program review” exercise — which cut waste in every government department — as one of the reasons Canada got back on track economically.
Stable governance, fiscal reforms: It’s the Canadian way. The Europeans should give it a try sometime.