Europe’s Next Great Mistake

harold jamesIn constructing Europe’s monetary union, political leaders did not think through all of the implications, which led to major design flaws. Worse, they do not appear to have learned from that experience, for they are about to take the same approach to the monetary union’s political analogue.

The logic of the financial crisis is driving Europeans toward greater integration, which implies new mechanisms for political expression. Well before the crisis, the European Union was widely perceived to be suffering from a “democratic deficit.” Now, with many Europeans blaming the EU for painful austerity measures, that complaint has grown more powerful – and Europe’s political leaders believe that they must act now to address it.

Unfortunately, Europe confronts another deficit: a lack of political leadership. The charismatic figures of the mid-twentieth century – Churchill, Adenauer, and de Gaulle – have no contemporary counterparts. Citizens associate the EU with, above all, bureaucratic grayness and technocratic rationality.

European officialdom is now responding to these deficits with an initiative to reform and democratize the European Commission. Current Commission President José Manuel Barroso suggests that ideologically like-minded political parties running in the next European Parliament elections should intensify their cooperation in political “families” that would then jointly nominate candidates for the Commission presidency. Voters would thus play a more direct role in choosing a new European chief executive. They would feel as if they were appointing a government. And politicians would need to beef up their charisma in order to be elected.

This approach has been supported by luminaries such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Because it apparently does not imply any real loss of power for national governments, it has achieved a certain acceptance and seems close to being implemented. But that does not make it a good idea. In particular, the perceived need to channel Europe’s existing political families into a two-party system, with social democrats on one side and “people’s parties” on the other, is deeply problematic.

The two-party parliamentary model emerged in nineteenth-century Great Britain. Electors chose only a representative for the House of Commons, and the majority party then appointed the prime minister. The contemporary British comic opera Iolanthe celebrated the fact that “every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” But what if not every little boy and girl is born that way?

In the stable British model, if a political party is too radical, it will lose the political center in the next election. The parties’ rivalry is healthy, though there is a built-in tendency to seek solutions that command a broad social consensus. But such an institutional outcome is not inevitable (and it probably no longer endures even in contemporary Britain).

British lawyers liked to recommend this model to other countries. They were especially persuasive in Britain’s former colonies, notably in newly independent African states. The results were disastrous. Citizens could not understand why they should be expected to align their political preferences along a simple left-right spectrum. Instead, politics was usually recast in terms of old inter-group or inter-ethnic tensions.

The contemporary United States also is not a compelling demonstration that competition between two parties leads to increasing moderation and political centrism. On the contrary, the partisan struggle can play to the parties’ extremes.

The two-party moderation thesis makes sense only if the main differences concern redistributive preferences in a simple model driven by an almost Marxist kind of economic determinism. The left-wing party wants to redistribute wealth and incomes more, and the right-wing party less; but both need to restrain themselves, and in appealing to the median voter, they become near-identical alternatives.

In a globally inter-connected world, however, a new politics has developed, in which both the left and right fringes fear that outside competition or influences will limit their ability to shape political choices. Their main political preference then becomes resistance to those external threats. The old left-right polarity no longer works.

Artificially creating a new European polity split between left and right would create new struggles – and intensify old ones – about redistribution. The only thing that would hold the left together would be the claim that there should be more redistribution: but to whom, and according to what mechanism?

Nor is it clear that Spanish socialists have more in common with German social democrats than with their fellow nationals. Each ideological grouping would most likely become factionalized along complex national lines – divisions likely to be reflected in the ensuing competition to be charismatic. Instead of encouraging new Churchills and Adenauers, the result might be new imitators of Hitler or Stalin.

There is a better model, one developed in a linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse test-tube in the geographic heart of Europe: the Swiss model of Konkordanzdemokratie. In the Swiss system, several parties compete, but they do not aim to control the government exclusively. Instead, all the major parties are represented in the government, and are consequently obliged to hammer out compromises. Members of the federal government are driven by regional loyalties at some times, and by ideological commitments at other times; they all need to be negotiated when making decisions.

The Swiss solution of electing an all-embracing and balanced government tends to produce boring and uninspiring politics. Famously, few people know who even holds Switzerland’s annually rotating presidency.

Charismatic politicians act by polarizing, galvanizing, and mobilizing supporters; routine politics, by contrast, requires maintaining a low profile and being willing to strike compromises. Europe today does not need inspirational leaders who can whip up a populist frenzy. Instead, it needs locally respected leaders who are capable of working in a complex and multi-dimensional political world.

© Project Syndicate

  • Anthony Sperryn

    Inertia will probably mean that Professor James’s very intelligent approach will not be adopted. British politicians, at least, mostly try to be charismatic: their followers see personal advantage in being sychophantic and the country retains a confrontational approach – not just in politics, but in the legal system (no examining magistrates) and so on.

    The Swiss multi-referendum system has many advantages (admittedly, outcomes may depend on weight of money). We, the rest of us, are moving in a similar direction, whether the politicians like it or not. Progress is being made by specific interest internet campaigns, Avaaz, Compass and the like taking the lead, as ordinary people get bored with the inadequacies of the two-party system.

  • Anthony Sperryn

    Sorry about the typo – I got it right on my manuscript!

  • http://www.johnbruton.com john bruton

    A Left/Right divide is often the product of the electoral system chosen.The British and French electoral systems certainly have that effect.

    If, however, an EU President was chosen directly by the public on the basis of a Single Transferable vote system(STV) of Proportional Representation,the bigger two parties would have to compete for the second preferences of the centrist voters.

    A bigger problem with the suggestion of President Barroso, and others, is that none of the political families is ever likely to get 50% of the EP seats, and the leader of the biggest family may be unacceptable to the other families.

    So the result could easily be that someone else entirely, whose name was not mentioned at all before the election, will be the agreed candidate of the only majority that can be obtained in the European Parliament. Votes will then feel cheated.

    This is why the option of an STV election by the people of the EU, rather than the European Parliament is better.