United in Adversity; a plea for solidarity in a Europe on the brink

by John Como, an American born Italo-Swedish second year student reading War Studies and History at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

greece-referendum

As Greeks prepare to head to the polls today, the fate of Europe hangs in the balance. Even if disaster is averted, that Europe has been allowed to slip this close to the precipice is indicative of a failure of leadership on all sides. The immediate blame lies with Tsipras and SYRIZA. Since assuming power in January they have pursued a policy of brinksmanship in debt negotiations. Some have speculated that a Grexit has been Tsipras’s aim since the beginning. The immediate crisis could be put down to a failure of leadership, inexperience or ideological dogmatism. However a reading of the domestic political environment in Greece gives sufficient reason without resorting to psychologising. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, by putting the issue to the people SYRIZA will have strengthened its political standing. If the people vote no, Tsiprias’s favoured outcome, then it will be an affirmation of his government and their hard-line policies. Though this would most likely lead to a Grexit, Tsipras will be able to sleep well knowing he has the confidence of the Greek people. Even if the outcome is ‘yes’, SYRIZA will appear principled and retain its position as the dominant anti-austerity voice in Greek politics – a magnanimous defeat. Had Tsipras moved forward with the initial agreements their credibility would continue to deteriorate and SYRIZA might have experienced the same erosion of support that proved catastrophic to Papandreou’s PASOK. A shrewd move one might say, as long as you are a SYRIZA apparatchik.

However, Tsipras is far from the sole factor in this crisis, and wherever one looks it become apparent that this sort of short-term and self-interested thinking is the modus operandi. The blame is accumulative and collective. It lies with spendthrift Greeks. It lies with greedy Northern European lenders. It lies with Merkel and Draghi. It lies with an inept Eurogroup. All of these stakeholders pursuing their own interests is what has created this crisis. The more divergent the interests of the policymakers, the less coherent are the policies created. A strong and authentic policy commitment to common interests would be the natural cure. However the structure of the mechanisms in place to deal with the problem only exacerbates and prolongs it.

Since the beginning of the crisis the primary institution entrusted with its management has been the Eurogroup: a body composed of the 19 Eurozone finance ministers. But each of these ministers is beholden to their own governments and prime ministers, who are in turn beholden to the own national parliaments. Policymaking at the level of the Eurogroup is straightjacketed by domestic political considerations. The problem is replicated in the Council and in any roundtable at which national governments predominate. This represents a failure of the approach to European integration called Intergovernmentalism in which organisational authority is exercised by national governments. While this theory has traditionally been used as an interpretive tool to understanding the behaviour of European organisations, it can also be seen as a normative approach to integration itself. But supranational problems require supranational solutions.

For the past 6 years policies have not been optimised to bring closure to the crisis. The interim agreements produced in that time have only sought to avert outright default and a Grexit. At best this buys time. Meanwhile the crisis is prolonged, economies stagnate and people suffer. It would appear that the lowest common denominator among national governments is very low indeed. In opposition to Intergovernmentalism lie the Neofunctionalist school and the idea of Supranationalism. Neofunctionalism theorises that as integration proceeds the effect of positive spillover will incentivise further integration vertically and horizontally. The increased intraregional transactions and complexity inherent in managing such large-scale units will lead to supranational political agency.  Suprnationalism is the establishment of a higher level of policymaking in Europe, not just the sum total of national governments. The final step in the Neofunctionalist theory is that as the continent is drawn closer economically and politically, so to will the people on a social, cultural and ultimately moral level. This is the point at which a Neofunctionalist interpretation of the current situation breaks down. Since the crash of ’09 nationalism and isolationism have been resurgent. Unlike the Founding Fathers of the Union, we no longer have the horrors of the Second World War fresh in our minds to remind us of where those tendencies lead. For better or worse, we are in this together. Germans will always be Germans and Greeks will always be Greeks, but in dealing with common European problems we must consider ourselves first as Europeans. What is good for Europe?

Ironically the one prominent institution in which supranational authority prevails has been the ECB. Yet as far as supranational actors are concerned the ECB is a very poor one for taking on a proactive leadership role. Strong leadership requires creativity, flexibility and a strong mandate. The strict statutes that govern that institution rule out the former two and its essentially nondemocratic nature excludes the later. But the ECB was never designed to take on singlehandedly the job that has fallen to it. Its primary, legally defined objective is to merely “maintain price stability”. One could make similar criticisms of the US Federal Reserve. The difference is that in the United States, the Fed is able to coordinate its actions with a strong executive empowered with clear legislative initiative. The tight-nit circle of economic advisors in Obama’s White House is a far shout from the bickering of the Eurogroup.

Some have characterised the current crisis as a conflict between institutionalised neoliberalism and democratic principles. But Supranational bodies need not be neoliberal or undemocratic. In fact, such bodies already exist in the form of the European Parliament and Commission. The Commission, as the primary executive of the Union, is the institution best equipped to deal with common concerns from a pan-European perspective. Instead of answering to national governments, the Commission is responsible only to the Parliament, which is itself elected by all citizens of the Union. What stronger democratic mandate could a supranational institution possibly ask for? The EU is often criticised for being undemocratic – but that is not the problem. The problem is that the democratic elements, the Parliament and the Commission it elects (functioning structurally as a typical parliamentary system), are not empowered nor its rightful leadership recognised. National governments hang tenaciously to power and are loath to let it go. Supranationalism offers a tantalizing view of a future Europe, but we must ensure it is the Supranationalism of the European people, not that of national governments and entrenched political elites.

The historian Christopher Clark in his discussion of the catastrophe of the summer of 1914, describes the decision makers in the polarized and opaque political environment of pre-War Europe as ‘sleepwalkers’: none wanting war, but none able to summon the fortitude to act strongly in order to prevent it. In the summer of 2015, the leaders of Europe are again sleepwalking into another catastrophe. Europe must rouse itself from this somnambulism. To not only avert disaster, but also to put this Greek tragedy to rest once and for all, Europe must awaken. We must stand in solidarity. Solidarity means that we thrive, and suffer, together. We must put common interests ahead of ourselves and ahead of our own nations. We must all make sacrifices for the common good and for our common European future. A Greek ‘Yes’ vote could be the first step in a new grand bargain for Europe – an initial sacrifice for the sake of solidarity. Europeans elsewhere, especially in the North, must do the same. The only alternative is a Europe that stagnates, and ultimately, unwinds itself bit by bit. It’s time to breath new life into the European Project. We must give priority to our commonality. Only together, transparently and in good faith can we build a new Europe.

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