Saturday

29th Apr 2017

Opinion

The never-ending crisis of European leadership

  • Belgium's Michel, France's Hollande, EU diplomacy chief Mogherini and Germany's Merkel. Europe’s leaders have failed to implement effective strategies. (Photo: Consillium)

Here we go again. Just when we might have thought global financial markets were starting to simmer down, investors are now worried that policymakers may stoke the fire yet again.

The European Central Bank (ECB) met on Thursday (10 March) and, as many market watchers expected, it announced more interest rate cuts and additional asset purchases.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Refugee crisis has showed limits of collective European leadership (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

While Europe has carried out a number of impressive reforms since the outbreak of the 2010 euro crisis, much more needs to be done.

Europe’s leaders have failed to implement an effective strategy to deal with economic challenges like the Great Recession, or to prepare a pan-European plan for addressing socio-political issues like the migration wave from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa.

The resulting rise of populist, often extremist, political parties and movements is seriously threatening Europe’s western liberal democratic order as protests, violence and disenchantment all grow.

This outcome is particularly striking considering that between 1945 and 1990 Western Europe was catching up with the US in economic performance, and that its drive to create a democratic European Union was relatively successful.

Lost momentum

In the late 1980s and early 1990s global discussion focused on when and in what areas Europe would overtake America.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and gradual integration of Central-Eastern Europe into the EU was seen as strengthening the region and creating a path to further European integration and advancement.

So what went wrong?

Europe lost economic momentum in the 1990s by lagging in business applications of new, internet-based technologies and slowing down in market integration.

Relatively rigid regulation, less venture capital and the lack of an entrepreneurial culture were among the factors that slowed the emergence of an internet economy.

Together with slow integration of the financial markets and limited dynamics in many labour markets, this contributed to a slow rate of innovation and growth.

Once European companies finally started exploiting the internet, the stock market crash of 2001 bankrupted many of its nascent businesses.

The same carnage occurred in the US, but a number of businesses had already become sustainable ventures and the economy had reaped considerable gains.

Politically, Europe registered its first important setbacks when Dutch and French voters rejected the EU constitution in 2005. Still, European leaders charged ahead, leaving the masses behind.

The EU ideal was taken for granted rather than explained and marketed to the public. The introduction of the euro without banking and fiscal union further undermined the long-term viability of the European project. 

The first real stress test came in 2008 as the financial crisis spilled over into Europe and contributed to the 2010 eurozone crisis.

Disintegration

A turnaround came in the summer of 2012 with the establishment of a banking union and the promise to do “whatever it takes” by Mario Draghi, the ECB president. But the validity of that promise is now being questioned.

While the US readily undertook painful, fundamental reforms to clean up its banks and stimulate its economy, Europe’s leaders were unable to agree on a common set of similarly strong measures - and Europe has been “muddling through” in decline, stagnation or slow growth ever since.

The very fact that Greece, representing less than 2 percent of Europe’s GDP, has preoccupied all of Europe and threatened to derail the entire euro project is symptomatic of Europe’s inability to act decisively and find solutions.

The problem is clearly a lack of effective European leadership. Europe’s workers are as good as their Asian and American counterparts. Europe’s design and many areas of manufacturing are second to none.

What is striking is how much less Europe generates with these resources than does the US.

So how can Europe escape its long-term crisis?

At one extreme there is the nationalist option favoured by many populist parties and movements.

Europe would again disintegrate into individual states, each relatively unimportant. This carries the danger that the EU’s disintegration would include the breakup of the common labour and product market. If this happened, living standards would fall precipitously.

Confronting extremist

Rather than disintegrating, Europe should create an even stronger union and - as one of the world’s two largest economic blocks - use its economic might and acumen to become a true leader on the world scene.

Ideally Europe would move speedily toward supplementing its monetary union with a full-fledged economic, fiscal and political union, but this is politically infeasible in the short run.

What should be feasible is to complete the banking union, eliminate the resurgent link between banks and their governments, restructure debts of severely over-indebted countries, coordinate fiscal policies, and move aggressively to complete necessary structural reforms aimed at integration and liberalisation of European markets.

Europe needs to confront extremist populism with a clear-cut solution leading to economic growth and improved living standards.

The populists stress nationalist self-interest, but Europeans can benefit much more from a functioning union than from fragmentation and likely protectionism of individual states. 

Jan Svejnar is professor of global political economy studies at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York

Deflation fears trigger ECB's 'bazooka'

In a new attempt to revive the economy, the European Central Bank has decided to cut rates further in the negative and to step up its bond buying programme.

EU at breaking point over migration crisis

EU divisions over the migrant crisis reached a new low on Thursday, with Greece saying that it won’t become “Europe’s Lebanon” and accusing Austria of “19th century attitudes.”

Slovakia vote shocks Europe and its own society

With a weakened PM, a fragmented parliament and an extreme-right party winning seats for the first time, Slovakia is heading for uncertain times ahead of its EU presidency in July.

The EU in Limbo

The EU fails to fulfil the role of a nation state or of a supercharged international organisation. The time has come to consider how "less Europe" could save the EU.

Brexit is about Europe's future as well

Europe must learn the lessons of TTIP and ensure that the negotiations transparently address the broad interests of European citizens, including on climate change and the environment.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

News in Brief

  1. Vote of no confidence prepared against Spanish PM
  2. Syria to buy Russian anti-missile system
  3. Germany seeks partial burka ban
  4. Libya has no plan to stop migration flows
  5. EU has no evidence of NGO-smuggler collusion in Libya
  6. Poland gets 'final warning' on logging in ancient forest
  7. Commission gives Italy final warning on air pollution
  8. Romania and Slovenia taken to court over environment policies

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCharlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum Tells Kids to "Eat Well, Drink Well, Move!"
  2. ECR GroupSyed Kamall: We Need a New, More Honest Relationship With Turkey
  3. Counter BalanceParliament Sends Strong Signal to the EIB: Time to Act on Climate Change
  4. ACCARisks and Opportunities of Blockchain and Shared Ledgers Technologies in Financial Services
  5. UNICEFRace Against Time to Save Millions of Lives in Yemen
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  7. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  8. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  9. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  10. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  11. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  12. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process

Latest News

  1. EP chief faces questions after homophobic 'summit'
  2. EU signals Northern Ireland could join if united with Ireland
  3. One year later: EU right to open Internet still virtual
  4. Rethinking Europe's relationship with Turkey
  5. Mob storms Macedonian parliament
  6. MEPs retain secrecy on office spending
  7. May accuses EU-27 of 'lining up against Britain'
  8. Resurrected Renzi to regain leadership of Italy's ruling party

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  2. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  3. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  4. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society
  6. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  7. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  8. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  9. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  10. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  11. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  12. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved