Spotlight on Geopolitics

EU: A question of priorities

After hearing daily about the problems experienced by the EU’s common currency, austerity measures and the like, one might be forgiven for being inclined to believe that the crisis and its ugly aftermath are the most important issues confronting us all. In fact, the most disquieting development, as suggested by a recent poll published by The Economist, is our lack of optimism in our collective future. Whilst a majority of Chinese, Brazilians or Indians, for example, are listed in the poll as optimistic about their future, only about a third of industrialised countries’ inhabitants express similar views.

One reason for this is, of course, the gap in economic performance. The Chinese, Brazilian or Indian economies are growing, on average, at a respectable rate of 8 percent per annum, as compared to a sluggish 2.5 percent for the US or 2 percent for the EU. Furthermore, within the Western group of nations, countries like Ireland and Greece are now experiencing their third year of negative growth, while Spain’s economic growth goes neither north, nor south. Ill-conceived or too drastic austerity measures are compounding the economic woes of many nations, with no end in sight for cutbacks in the provision of public services, however vital some of these are.

Optimism and the strong economic performance displayed by the 3 heavyweights of emerging countries should, however, come as no surprise. The same Economist statistics mention the fact that whilst US students’ performance is below the OECD average, the Chinese score consistently higher in maths, physics and most other subjects. Moreover, as the working population in the US, Japan and the EU is ageing, the BRIC countries with the exception of Russia have a youthful, dynamic and growing workforce. The number of college students in China has quadrupled lately and in order to avoid unemployment among them, the country’s leadership has been sending thousands of newly-qualified job-seekers to further their studies abroad at the state’s expense…

The EU could have avoided most of these problems as well, as the 12 recent entrants are known to have a young, well-qualified workforce. The education systems of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland or Romania, to mention but a few, consistently produced high achievers in maths, physics, chemistry, biology – areas where some of the EU’s education establishments are weak. Unfortunately, the main potential beneficiaries of their talents and skills – countries like Germany, Britain or France – have made it hard for applicants from Central and Southeast Europe to fill available positions, by protecting their job markets even as they are experiencing serious skill gaps.

To add insult to injury, the newly-adopted austerity packages are also targeted at the education systems of EU countries, big or small. Last summer, the UK’s conservatives have decided to treble university admission fees. At the other end of Europe, a Romanian conservative government has cut 40 percent of the health budget and froze the already inadequate sums allocated to education, while leaving untouched the budgets of the country’s seven secret services. This comes on top of the 25 percent cuts to doctors’ and teachers’ salaries voted this summer. Teacher-bashing on public television has become president Basescu’s sport of choice, as if the country’s economic problems are expected to vanish regardless of how much Romania spends on educating its workforce.

To be sure, any politician worth this name should have avoided proposing or voting for cutbacks in health and education. No civilised society, East or West, can hope to function, let alone prosper, in the absence of a decent health system or by depriving itself of the benefits normally associated with a quality education system. This is a point that both the IMF and EU officials should have emphasized when they mandated member countries to reduce public spending and adopt austerity packages. As matters now stand, however, teachers and doctors are lumped together with perennial tyre kickers and spongers who bloat the payrolls of many EU member countries. By looking the other way and getting their priorities wrong, the same officials are as guilty as the national politicians that were directly responsible for such cuts. (sources: The Economist, The Guardian, EVZ,

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