Legrain begins his book by describing the disastrous results of the ongoing economic crisis in Europe and the policy responses to it. In Greece “children scavenge through rubbish...while hospitals run short of medicine”, in Spain “suicide is now the top cause of death after natural causes” and across Europe “fifteen million people below the age of thirty are neither in employment nor education”. Adding in the rise of xenophobic parties and the return of racist national stereotypes to political discourse, he paints a far from rosy picture.
Legrain worked as economic advisor to Commission president José Manuel Barroso between 2011-2014, so he’s well qualified to detail how Europe got to this crossroads, and his account of the crisis and the responses of EU institutions is authoritative and comprehensive. Set against the various mistakes he sees, he argues for four alternative policies. First, finance needs to be cleaned up by injecting capital into viable banks and killing off the zombie banks. Second, the approach to fiscal problems needs to change, with austerity abandoned and Europe moving decisively either towards fiscal union or back to national fiscal policies. Third, he says there needs to be monetary reform, with the policy mandate of the ECB expanded beyond the simple aim of price stability. Last, he argues that the EU’s approach to economic policy should be radically different, and the second half of his book focuses exclusively on this.
Legrain believes that instead of trying to drive down wages and out-compete China, European economic policy should foster competition that encourages innovation and growth. He proposes an alternative economic strategy organised thematically around making Europe “adaptable, dynamic and decent”.
At just under 450 pages, “European Spring” is not a short read, even if despite the often technical subject matter it is very readable. Though the second part can read a bit like an extended article in The Economist, the first part is to be recommended as a reminder of the tumultuous events of recent years. No summer ever followed the Arab spring, yet Legrain's book reminds us that a brighter future is still there for the taking. His lesson is that during the crisis Europe could have taken a different direction, and looking forward it still can.