What should Europe expect from the next German government?
It’s a defect of how European politics is organised that so much depends on the actions of a few national governments. Key decisions about the future of Europe are taken in the European Council where the biggest countries carry the most clout. The best thing one could seek from the next German government is an effort to reduce what hangs on the German government. That means denationalising EU decision-making – strengthening the European Parliament and supporting any progressive proposals that come out of the ongoing “Conference on the Future of Europe”. Without change to the EU’s structure, the continent depends on the enlightened attitude of a government that only some can elect.
What can it expect?
European politics was not a central issue in the German election, so probably not too much can be expected. The absence of Europe from the election campaigns has an important implication: it means no-one has made any promises. This leaves, first of all, more room for discretion later on – German policy will be what its representatives choose as they go along. Second, it cultivates the idea that EU politics is less about programmatic commitments than about pragmatism and necessity – about handling situations when they arise. The EU is often seen by its citizens with a sense of fatalism – as a world of powerful transnational forces, a place where emergencies arise (eurozone, migration, Covid-19) and decisions are taken on a reactive basis. That sense is compounded when the major actors are unwilling to lay out their plans and priorities in advance.
Would a continuation of the German austerity policy be a threat to European unity or economic recovery?
The continuation of austerity policy would certainly be this, but its discontinuation would not be enough in itself. You could permanently relax the EU’s spending rules and still be left with major inequalities between states and within them. The challenge is not just to avoid increasing debt burdens but to radically reduce what already exists. It’s not just about avoiding further cuts to public services but rebuilding those that have been diminished over many years and extending them into new domains. “Next Generation EU” is much touted as a new departure in EU policy, but in its current form it just scratches the surface. Abandoning austerity would be a start (we’ll see if it happens), but it should only be viewed as a beginning.
What was the lesson of Covid in the EU context?
Critical assessment of the EU’s handling of Covid-19 has tended to dwell on effectiveness. On the economy, borders or vaccines, officials are judged on their capacity or failure to get things done. The risk of assessing the EU by its outcomes is that one downgrades the importance of how things are done. For me, one of the lessons of the period is the extent to which the EU relies on emergencies and unscripted modes of rule to keep the integration process on course.
As in the eurozone crisis, summit meetings and informal forums have offered national governments plenty of scope for working around the EU’s core institutions, while decision-making within supranational authorities (the ECB and Commission) has tended to take irregular forms and draw power into the hands of leaders. In the name of speeding up decision-making, Draghi, Lagarde, Juncker and von der Leyen have generally made decisions with a small team of confidants and through informal networks. There’s a kind of “de-institutionalisation” of power that accelerates in emergency contexts.
Technocratic or emergency rule seems the order of the day - what is the consequence of this shift away from parliamentary control?
It’s tempting to say: let’s judge technocracy and emergency rule by its results. It may be a bit irregular and unaccountable, but if it gets things done then it’s worth it. If it helps the cause of further integration and allows steps to be taken that would otherwise fail, then crisis decision-making is something to embrace.
There are two problems with this though. First, one of the reasons transparency and accountability matter is to allow a wider public to shape which outcomes are considered worth pursuing. There are always value choices to be made, even in a crisis. Which matters more – the integrity of the common market or the quality of public services? Upholding the debt regime or redistributing wealth? Deciding things informally means leaving such matters to the discretion of the few, who in turn are more vulnerable to the pressure of private interests. Second, embracing emergency politics is typically bad strategy. There’s the risk of a backlash, as those who object to the means – concentrated executive power, irregular methods, the denial of choices – end up also resisting the ends pursued and the authority that pursues them.
How does the EU need to change in the face of the imminent crisis like climate change?
One of the lessons of Covid-19 is that countries with strong parliamentary systems have tended to do relatively well. I think that will be the case with climate change too. Talk of crisis tends to encourage an emphasis on executive power, as the actor most able to be fast and decisive. But faced with extreme circumstances, especially a “chronic emergency” like climate change, the key to governing is not speed but consent – debating the options and making a case. Not only does this improve the prospects of compliance, but it offers a way to gain public support for the structural changes needed.
The 2018 IPCC report said limiting global warming to 1.5°C this century “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” That’s not something for executive discretion. It needs public debate and participation. That’s what parliaments have traditionally been for, and the EU could better reflect that. I think stronger parliaments – national and supranational – remain crucial. But even if they’re necessary, they’re not going to be sufficient. A lot of people are alienated from political institutions in general. If parties and movements can’t draw them in, climate-change action will fall to the technocrats and civil servants, and that will leave it further exposed to rebellion.