Leadership and the eurocrisis

After providing somewhat half-hearted coverage of the eurocrisis for months, focusing mostly on the Greek side of the story, Dutch media have apparently decided to follow it a bit closer. The tide of opinion seems to be turning – so slowly that it seems as if the journalists’ questions relate to events that took place six months or a year ago – when these questions would have been fresh and relevant. We start also hearing the voices  of experts who remind us that it is not only about the money but also about political union that remind us that the bargaining between leaders that has prolonged the agony of the crisis for the last year is not only about money, but also about political union (see Bernard’s appearances on premtime here, here and here  and our colleague Wim Voermans’s in Nieuwsuur here). Suddenly we hear from all sides – (see the interview with Ronald Plasterk) – that there is a lack of leadership and decisiveness from the leaders of the EU and especially from President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel. Already since the summer of 2010 I have been watching with incredulity the lack of political will to take decisive steps to deal with the crisis, so I sympathize. and yet…the hypocrisy of blaming it all on the German and French leaders begins to grind. Some questions come to mind:

First, where has Dutch leadership been for the last year and a half? The Prime Minister has made an art out of answering questions about the government’s reaction to the crisis as evasively as he can, while the Minister of Finance often leaves the impression that a proper response to the crisis must include insulting Greece or other European partners (his statements  offering to privatize Greek companies himself if the Greeks were not getting on with it come to mind). Of course we know that the political support of the PVV leaves this government little room for manoeuvre. But the same is true of Angela Merkel who has been constrained by the decision of the German Constitutional Court on the Constitutional Treaty for Europe (the Lisbon treaty).

The second question that follows from this is, can we blame the leaders for their essentially democratic leadership? Rutte takes into account his government’s precarious position, Merkel takes into account the constraints placed on her by the highest court of Germany and the German Constitution, as well as German public opinion, the Finnish government takes into account the opinion of the True Finns and their supporters and so on. Only here and there we see a prime minister like Iveta Radicova in Slovakia who was ready to put her government’s fate on the line for the euro. What we have seen is that, the intergovernmental bargaining between sovereign democracies contains countless veto points. the more democratic the decision method, the less likely that the leaders will come up quick and decisive solutions.

What is then to be done? The Spinelli group sees in developments a sign that it is time to move to a federalist solution or to apply the Monnet method and empower the Commission again. The problem is, the public remains skeptical of the EU – in the Netherlands, in Germany, in Finland…and here we come to the lack of leadership. As far as I am concerned, in the Netherlands we have had lack of leadership with regard to the EU for the last decade. During the economic boom, the good times, there was hardly any politician in this country to speak of the value of the European project, of the contribution of the EU to prosperity in the Netherlands or anywhere in Europe. Instead, we have had former Finance Minister Zalm hammering on about the Dutch contribution to the EU being too big – incidentally, a couple of years of statements that could not have passed unnoticed by the voters during the referendum on the Constitution for Europe. Talking about the EU – if politicians talked about the EU at all – has meant talking about money and it continues in this way today – the most recent example being Plasterk’s interview of last night when he asserted the PvDA would support a new package of rescue measures if it would work for the Netherlands financially. But continuing to try to make decisions on the basis of the cost-benefit calculations of today when the globalised markets change the situation by the hour will no longer work, neither in terms of getting a reliable idea of how much anyone would gain or lose or in terms of democratic process. We need a different attitude, from politicians and the public. We know from theory that in times of uncertainty, when the situation is too complex to calculate the best action, people lean back on norms and values to guide them in their decisions. So the real question is, do we believe that European Union should be saved? Do we believe in free movement of goods and persons, in free trade, in solidarity, in peace – all these things which the EU has stood for more than five decades, despite all its deficiencies and convoluted rules? This is what our leaders have to ask themselves now. And not be afraid to say what they stand for, regardless of what opinion polls tell them. This is what I would call leadership.


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