Debate: The European grand coalition
16 May 2012
Until now, ideological discussion has been off the menu in a Europe which lacked a genuine culture of debate. Now that we have a French President and a German Chancellor from opposing sides of the political divide, perhaps the EU can revive the interest of its citizens with public exchanges of views on important issues.
Having arrived in the circle of European heads of state, national leaders have a chance to sit back and take a break. Accepted in a milieu of presidents, chancellors and prime ministers, they know they have reached a place where their success will allow them to look down on national opposition parties and their petty criticisms. This is where they can expect to tuck into a generous slice from the copious cake of power. In the absence of any real competition on the European political chessboard, the heads of national governments have upstaged parliaments and parties, and neglected the European Commission. This is what has made the European Council so unique – and also so predictable.
Nothing would more effectively deprive the Council of its power than a conflict that resulted in a return to the old days. As statesmen and stateswomen in such a rarefied environment, our leaders can look down on ideology. And it is for this reason that the Council responded with so much puzzlement to the ephemeral mention of alternatives for European policy in Greek and French election campaigns, which also featured nationalism and populism in guise of universal remedies. Momentarily, the issues were out in the open: the question of expelling Greece from the euro, the choice between more public largesse or another round of belt-tightening, of raising or lowering taxes on the rich.
The immaturity of a continent
But who decides for Europe? Its incomplete institutions? If these functioned more effectively, they would benefit from greater confidence. The fact that critical questions – the issue of democratic legitimacy, the level of supervision and control – have yet to be settled is proof of the continent’s political immaturity. At the same time, national institutions are also too weak to take on the entire weight of Europe. Nation states with their limited interests cannot be expected to represent an entity which, in terms of trade, has long been subject to forces of globalisation: only unity will enable the continent to gain the respect that it merits as a world power.
For more than a decade, Europe has been forced to contend with globalisation. Its first immature reaction was to launch the euro, and to half-heartedly embrace the added-on protocol of the Lisbon Treaty. The continent has never really come to terms with the emergent phenomena of globalisation, the free market, mobile capital and free access to information. And it is in this context that EU governments are increasingly attracted by the nostalgic charms of a patriotism allowing them to seek solace in the cosy comfort of the nation.
But what of stability and democratic procedure? Here too, our performance could hardly be described as stellar, especially when you consider the curate’s egg of the fiscal compact. Of course, respect for sovereignty remains a priority (to ensure that it will survive the Irish referendum), but the document also provides for the transfer of more power to Europe.
Passion is lacking in Europe
Have we reached the limits of consensus within the Union? Does Europe need to explore alternative options, ideological and otherwise? When François Hollande trotted out his socialist hobbyhorses in the presidential campaign, the German chancellor was not the only one to pull a face. Did the crisis really have to lead to a clash over the political credo of the right? Did we really have to go back to the days of "comrades" and hackneyed ideologies? Would there be yet another game of socialists and neo-liberals, and yet another battle with the partisans of state control and the redistribution of wealth?
In conjuring up a desire for ideology, the new president has inadvertently highlighted something that was lacking in Europe: freedom of choice, opposing sides, democratic debate – and with them the passionate beliefs that drive people to engage with politics. François Hollande’s instinctive response has demonstrated that such passion can win an election.
Nonetheless we should sound a note of caution. Europe is not sufficiently strong to assume the weight of ideological confrontation. Not yet. François Hollande will quickly realise, now that he has entered the club of the powerful, that the major problems facing the European continent can only be successfully addressed by grand coalitions. As a realist, he will demonstrate his mastery of consensus alongside the German chancellor. But as a French idealist he will also be careful not to neglect his ideological roots. And looking to the future, when these roots become sufficiently strong, Europe and its institutions will one day be able to support a more virulent political debate.