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Let's lay ghosts to rest with real action

On this date, August 21, 1914, a squadron of the British Expeditionary Force's 4th Dragoon Guards quietened their mounts as they neared the village of Casteau in Belgium. What they did not know was that they were about to be the first British troops to engage in combat on the continent of Europe since Wellington & Bonaparte's guns fell silent over the field of Waterloo some 99 years earlier.

A patrol of young German lancers came into sight and the 4th Dragoons unsheathed their swords. As, moments later, the opposing cavalry units clashed at close quarters, sword against lance, who among them was to know that the stupidity and mediocrity of Europe's leaders that had pitched these young men in pursuit of each other's life's blood, would soon consume the lives of countless millions and light the touchpaper of a conflagration so large, that even today we do not yet fully know the answer to whether or not this Europe of ours can survive the ultimate consequences of their epic folly.

The ghosts of those young men, felled on the cobble stones of Casteau, should haunt the dreams of Europe's current crop of mediocre leaders, as they enjoy another 'well-deserved' glass of red in whatever holiday destination they are putting their feet up in this afternoon.

Last Tuesday, the president of France and the German chancellor met in Paris, briefly driving up the expectations of a shrinking band of hopeful innocents that they would emerge with a practical vision for Europe that would show financial markets, and the wider world, that Europe was at last getting its act together. What they produced, instead, was a Franco/German unilateral 'plan' to change the constitutions of Europe's other member states, a call for yet another tax that will ultimately be paid by Europe's people, and a proposal to hold some more meetings to be overseen by your president and mine, Herman Van Rompuy, a nice man, lacking a single shred of democratic legitimacy.

In addition to their paltry plan, Sarkozy and Merkel once again pledged that the harmonisation of corporate taxes was a major priority and that they would be leading by merging their own economies in such manner (a topic that had nothing to offer in solving the EU's financial crisis).

The contempt for other EU members states, not even allowed the charade of a joint 'photo opp', took even seasoned observers by surprise. In a short statement that could be cited as a historic exhibit of craven appeasement and humiliation, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan welcomed their announcement.

All too predictably, the markets didn't buy it.

Across Europe, the charade of feigned government competence continues. It would seem that every one of them, to some degree or another, thinks that they can defy the laws of common sense and private responsibility, in denial of the fact that their beloved European 'social model' is insolvent and collapsing into financial and moral bankruptcy. It had been kept alive, artificially, by transfusions of private capital, in the form of pensions and savings entrusted to politically compromised banks, who then passed on the cash to insatiable government borrowers, eager to promise more of anyone else's money, in return for the sinecures that are so part and parcel of Europe's current political class.

Now the chickens have come home to roost, and the compromised banks of Europe lean on the compromised politicians of Europe and cry, 'save us or else we can't keep holding up your crumbling facade'.

The problem for so many among Europe's political class is that they have tied themselves inexorably to the fates of their failing lenders and are now firm in the belief that they may all go down together. Contemplating their own failure and recklessly gambling with Europe's very Union, in order to try to preserve their own political skins. They have made it a coalition of the unwilling.

The only path that might work now demands serious and dramatic action. Time wasted over the past five years has only compounded the scale of action that will be required to convince markets and preserve and build a strong Europe with government by consent of the governed. Europe's failing financial institutions must be cut loose to the fate of their own decisions; Europe's taxpayers cannot be sacrificed in place of market accountability. Europe's governments must cull their spending, the valid debts of Europe's member states should be federalised.

However, before debt federalisation, democracy must immediately be placed at the top of the priority pile. If Europe is to be united, it needs a leader with a legitimacy that can only be conferred by the people. The roles of presidents of the commission and council should be immediately merged and a date, next year, given for a Europe-wide presidential election, weighted in favour of smaller member states voters. If Europe has the financial power, it must have democratic accountability.

The European Parliament should be given the power to legislate. The commission should become an executive attached to the presidency. Concrete instruments for the practice rather than rhetoric of subsidiarity must be put in place.

The ECB must be given back its independence and a new, uncompromised leadership, put at its head. Every lobbyist must be forced to register and report their interests, on pain of fine and prison sentence; the opacity of legislating and decision-making must end immediately.

The freedom of markets must be restored by the re-ignition of competition across borders and industries, undistorted by government bailout and political favour.

Later, once these immediate steps have been taken, a Europe-wide system of direct democracy, along the Swiss model, should be seriously considered. It works for a Federal Switzerland, Europe isn't that different after all.

Yet Europe's leaders vacillate; none of them appears to understand that tinkering at the edges, empty posturing, or a Franco-German axis led by minnows in the historical context, is not going to solve this.

Each of them plays for personal political careers, in fear that they might lose an election, in a culture where success is defined by whether or not they hold on to their seat, rather than by the sum of their achievements or the merits of their cause.

This week, Europe's leaders should abandon their holidays and lock themselves into a room in Brussels until such time that they have resolved to do the above, or something very close to it.

For its part, Ireland should raise the stakes. We should announce a referendum on the ESM Treaty, which is a massive change to the deal agreed to by the people of Ireland in Lisbon II but which the Government hopes you won't notice.

We should say that if urgent reform of the type above isn't included, it will be most likely be voted down. If we can offer to channel the debate, it may encourage others to have the same courage. Europe needs its own George Washington to inspire and unite a continent, it needs its own Alexander Hamilton, to federalise its debt, its own Madison and Jefferson to champion and protect its democracy.

It seems, just as in August 1914, Europe today, has no such leaders, and yet the ghosts of Casteau demand them.

Sunday Independent