Friday, 14 December 2012

A splendid sense of humor

Say, do you know Mr Olli Rehn, a.k. in the corridors of Brussels Power as ‘All I Reign’? (1) No? Well, you really ought to take a look at him if you happen to be European. For this imperturbable, soft-spoken Finnish gentleman is probably the most powerful man on the old continent today. He is the Budget Czar of the European Commission, who wields unlimited power to make or break national budgets approved by (supposedly) sovereign, elected parliaments. A man whose ‘recommendations’ are in fact obligations to member states, whose subtlest hints must be understood as the iron diktats of an Oriental Pasha in Brussels garb.

The remarkable thing about Mr Rehn is that he has, in his humble, undercooled Finnish manner, a splendid sense of humour (and I say this, for once, without a trace of irony). It is a sight to see. For Mr Rehn cracks these jokes with an alabaster poker face, and then leaves it to the listener to discover that a joke has actually been made. No fanfare here, no trumpets or the rolling of drums to announce the stand-up comedy. No: just a quietly spoken wisecrack that hits home To Whom It May Concern.

Thus, the other day, he qualified the buying up of Spanish government bonds by the EMS as  ‘financial paracetamol’. Which is indeed precisely what it is: it alleviates the pain, but the disease is nowhere near cured by popping such pills. Chapeau, Mr Rehn! An excellent find!  

Another one, only recognizable to insiders, is his insistence, time and time again, that ‘the Stability Pact is NOT stupid’. Why this somewhat silly choice of words, more apt for a schoolgirl than a Super-Commissar? Would it not be better to say something like ‘It is not Ill-conceived’, ‘It is not Inefficient’, or more formal phrases of that kind? Well, yes, it would; but Mr Rehn uses this precise wording, because the remark thus formulated takes a neat little pot-shot at no one less than Mr Romano Prodi, the president of the Eurocommission back in the early days of the Euro, who barely a year into the common currency, declared – with all the dignity worthy of his high office – that ‘The Stability Pact is Stupid!’ Which was the signal for Germany and France to toss all the agreed rules about budget discipline and fiscal responsibility out the window, and start the happy-go-lucky spending, lending and bubble blowing which brought Europe to the catastrophe in which we find ourselves today

Now with a fellow like that, I guess the innocent observer must always be on his guard. When he makes a statement, is he being serious or not? The other day I frankly did not know what to think. For Mr Rehn observed, in public and for all to hear in the Financial Times Deutschland of 6 December, that The Worst Is Over For The Eurozone. The Crisis, he explained, reached its deepest dell last June, around the time of the Greek elections. But today, we see the reverse trend, and there are good reasons for optimism…

Now, I feel no shame to admit that Mr Rehn knows far more of finance than I do and surely he has much better information available. So that may be why he sees fresh green shoots where I only perceive a scorched wasteland burning below the topsoil. And I will gladly believe him it he says things are looking up, but would it not be a good idea, I wonder, in these uncertain nervous times, full of violence and despair, to explain WHY he thinks Europe is climbing out the mire? You see, otherwise the average man in the street - like me for instance - might get a totally wrong impression from the news items he encounters daily in the press and the media, based on the opinions of other rather well prepared individuals and institutions.

Since most of my readers are as allergic to numbers and averse to statistics, I will not include my examples here, but will put them in an Appendix to this text tomorrow, for the few courageous readers among you. But let me just say this: all over Europe, industrial output, building activity, car sales, investments, consumer spending and consumer confidence, are DOWN. Down on their scraped knees, as a matter of fact. Growth is nowhere in sight. Contraction of GDP has come in its place. Bankruptcies are ever more frequent. Unemployment is at all time highs, and still growing every month. Jobs are quickly disappearing, due to austerity. They are not being created at all. Ever more people are living below the poverty line. Many folks, unable to make ends meet, are selling off family property and heirloom jewels so as to survive; they are planting kitchen gardens, shun study, sell cars, and sometimes even economise on clothing and food.

And the famous recovery which throughout the last four years we were promised time and time again was only 9 months away, is strangely, this time said to be…. nine months away! The light at the end of the tunnel is receding as fast as we approach! Einstein could have made something cute of this Relativity Train.

Europe, in short, is dying a slow death, dear reader. And – if you ask me – the worst is not behind us, but still to come. Let us hope I am shockingly wrong…

As I said: Mr Rehn has a fine sense of humour. And I guess his assurance that The Worst Is Behind Us, is but another example of that exquisite comical soap opera that Brussels performs for us every day now.

If you won’t take my words for it, but dare to set your teeth into an even bleaker picture and a harder read: click here to see one of the latest articles by good old Ambrose E.-P.

(1) Finnish names are of course a complete enigma to any observer who comes to the language from a normal, boring, run-of-the-mill Indo-Germanic background. (One of its Prime Ministers was called Juho Kusti Paasikivi, for crying out loud! Another signed Pehr Evind Svinhufvud! There is a preacher listening to the name Ruotsalainen, and the roll call knows Kyösti’s and Väinö’s and Jäätteenmaki’s and if anybody knows how these Scrabble phantasmagorias are pronounced, I’ll give him a bloody medal!) Having done some homework, however, I must reject in the sharpest terms the suggestion made by the Spanish philosopher Hermenegildo Cabeza de Vaca on his blog of November 31st last, that Mr Rehn’s first name would be short for ‘Oligarchies’. Even Finnish Non Est THAT Omen!   

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