Bad leadership at the root of Europe’s worst peacetime crisis.

The blocked nature of politics in much of Europe, and the sclerotic processes of the EU, means that Europe is stuck with leaders deeply unimpressive by the standards of recent history.

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Just some of Europe's 'deeply unimpressive' leaders.
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Tom Gallagher
On 28 October 2011 15:02

Colossal risks have been taken by European Union leaders in a bid to buy fresh time to preserve the sacred cause of European Monetary Union.

The European Financial and Stability Mechanism will receive €1 trillion to prop up massively indebted countries or else their banks.

With the European Central Bank refusing to act as the lender of last resort, it is the 400 million citizens of the EU who will be required to guarantee the bill for the latest comprehensive solution designed to cure the Eurozone’s ills.

That is around €2,000 per person in the 27 EU member states.

The piling on of debt to save the Euro has been accompanied by warnings that the loss of the currency union, or the failure to proceed towards plans for common European governance, will lead inexorably to war.

This was Chancellor Merkel’s refrain the morning after the latest ‘comprehensive’ settlement to the financial emergency. But it is remarkable how little fear the Euro elite display about their costly and improvised measures generating a popular backlash.

EU leaders are accountable only in the loosest sense to the people. The European Parliament has stayed on the sidelines right through this crisis.The ECB is nominally accountable to it but the parliamentarians do not even have the power to enact legislation to alter its structures or mandate.

There is a dread in the Commission and the European Council at the prospect of any of the spectacular failures that plunged the EU into such a deep financial hole being examined.

But the European Parliament shows no appetite for probing the low-grade decisions and cynical stitch-ups between EU power-brokers in order to pin responsibility on particular individuals or interest-groups.

If the latest steps towards greater economic coordination require changes to the Lisbon treaty, then many countries will not even bother to consult their citizens through referenda; those whose constitutions make this an unavoidable requirement may well be pressed to keep repeating the exercise if (as in the case of Ireland three years ago) the initial result fails to favour the cause of ‘more Europe’.  

The unwillingness of European grandees to seek consent for placing huge amounts of debt on the shoulders of European citizens is completely in line with the outlook of the founders of the movement for a united federal Europe. High-level bureaucrats and academics were prominent among them.

Technocratic solutions reached through consensus by the major corporate interests would propel Europe forward to its post-national future. Involving the demos in this grand project was simply too messy and unpredictable.

But all too often, EU decision-making occurs in secretive conclaves after deal-making involving senior states, EU mandarins , and favoured economic interests, with others often loudly complaining of having been left out.

The pursuit of personal agendas often results in mediocre decision-making.

In 2009, the selection of largely colourless figures to fill the European posts set up under the Lisbon treaty to give Europe a united voice in policy-making, revealed just that.

The valuable time taken up with trying to persuade the recalcitrant Italian on the ECB board, Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi,to step down now that a co-national Mario Draghi is its head, shows how personal power-plays impede the working of EU bodies even during a full-blown crisis.   

In the last 60 years no country has created as much havoc in the affairs of Europe than the entity whose mission it is to bury national sovereignty for all time.

It is difficult to see how the common currency can enjoy any more legitimacy than the League of Nations as an entity bringing together Europeans scarred by war for peaceful purposes.

At least the post-World war 1 leaders knew how daunting their task was given the existence of a recently-defeated and un-conciliated Germany. Their plans were undone by an avalanche of events – revolution in Russia, America’s retreat to isolationism, and the spectre of economic depression.

The retention of the gold standard was the one giant miscalculation that threw peoples into the arms of warlike dictators. France and the USA refused to release their gold deposits to stimulate economic activity and instead expected deficit countries to bear the brunt of the slump. Parallels have been made with the insistence of Germany that distressed Eurozone states should endure prolonged austerity without any kind of stimulus from Germany.

Arguably, the challenges faced by Europe’s contemporary leaders are far less severe than those of their inter-war predecessors.

Modern communications and a range of astounding technical instruments mean that they can bring their influence to bear on problems far more decisively than politicians two generations ago.

Moreover, the challenge of powerful civil and military lobbies opposed to ceding national sovereignty is one that the current grandees of Europe don’t face.

But perhaps if they had been compelled to respond to some of these pressures, the quality of the pan-European response to Greek insolvency or the parlous state of financial institutions in the Franco-German condominium managing the Eurozone’s affairs, would have been more impressive.

The endless summits, shallow deals and insincere photo opportunities reveal a set of European leaders who distrust and probably despise one another more than their democratic counterparts did eighty years ago.

Their belief that the transcendent virtues of the European project could prop up a dysfunctional currency union confirms their incapacity to act effectively.

But the blocked nature of politics in much of Europe, and the sclerotic processes of the EU, means that Europe is stuck with leaders deeply unimpressive by the standards of recent history.

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University. His book ‘Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Conquered the Strong’ was published in 2009 and a paperback edition will appear in the New Year. 

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