Fact of the Week: Is Europe the “sick man” of the EU?

Last week, in his ongoing criticism of the European Union’s budget deficit rules, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi deployed some interesting, though not altogether new, imagery to describe the economic problems facing the bloc.

Is Europe a sinking ship? On Wednesday, the Italian leader compared the EU to “the orchestra playing on the Titanic,” referring to the famous ship whose music band was said to have played on as it was sinking. This certainly won’t have been music to the ears of the Brussels bureaucrats who continue to demand compliance with the EU’s Stability Pact, or “Stupidity Pact”, as Renzi has labelled it.

How about a sick, dying patient? On Thursday, Renzi used the image in his criticism of the austerity measures undertaken by EU countries since the 2008 financial crisis. “If a remedy is not working after eight years, I think you can call it pointless treatment,” he wrote in an open letter published by La Repubblica. “Because if austerity is all you have, you die.”

These words, of course, recall the popular saying “sick man of Europe” which has been applied in recent decades to European countries in times of economic stagnation. Greece, Portugal and, indeed, Italy are among the countries who have been awarded the title. Some have even dubbed the EU itself the “real sick man of Europe”, something that Renzi was clearly suggesting in his letter. 

Criticizing the EU in this way could no doubt be seen as an easy option for national leaders like Renzi who are quick to pinpoint a cause for their country’s problems. This may also be seen in the United Kingdom with the issue of Brexit, as well as in the rise of Euroscepticism and nationalism in many other Member States. The EU seems to be at a turning point, facing both external and internal challenges and not only in the economic sphere. Hence, whether or not Renzi can strike a deal with Brussels on his country’s plan for recovery is only one of the many uncertainties hanging over the future of the Union.