European Council on Foreign Relations

Reinventing Europe: Claus Offe

As part of ECFR's 'Reinvention of Europe' project, we are running a series of responses from leading thinkers and academics to Mark Leonard's recent paper, 'Four scenarios for the reinvention of Europe'. The paper outlined four possible routes towards solving Europe's current crisis, and argued that Europe's main challenge was to solve the acute euro crisis without exacerbating the chronic crisis of declining European power. In the tenth in this series of responses, we hear from Claus Offe, Professor of Political Sociology at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

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Good point: Citizens of Euro-zone member states make it politically impossible to follow long term economic (and other) necessities. They antagonise what is good for all of them. A classical collective action problem, both in the longitudinal and the cross-cutting dimensions. The dissociation of (populist) politics of identity and (technocratic) policies of long term interest needs to be bridged by appropriate institutions. Easier understood than done; particularly if the burdens of the crisis are asymmetrically distributed; some are hit "now" and for sure, others only "perhaps" and later, with the latter being perceived as dictating policies amounting to foreign rule, euphemized as "intergovernmentalism".

Yet manifest crises are not a promising time for institution-building; it is no good idea to change horses in mid-river. Also, in times of crisis the veil of ignorance thins, and pay-offs of reform are easily calculated. But new institutions are not what Europe needs, least of all series of ad-hoc meetings; just a robust commitment to the "community method" plus a redemption of the promise of an "ever greater" union, including a "de facto euro area finance ministry" as well as the EP's right to initiate legislation.

While no doubt these hurdles (consent of national parliaments, national constitutional courts and, where applicable, of majorities in referenda) are high, it depends on political parties and European alliances of national parties whether they can be passed. Will national parties be able to overcome their built-in opportunism of catering to identity politics and popular resentments? Or are they up to the task of performing their educational, even "hegemonic", role of providing their constituencies with the requisite "enlightened understanding" to support bold steps of deepening the union by strengthening both its parliamentary base and politicising the governing capacity of its executive branch, the Commission.

Sure enough, it is not easy to be optimistic concerning the answers to these questions. As we have come to understand after the negative French and Dutch results of 2005, referenda tend to form negative coalitions of people voting "no" for possibly entirely incompatible reasons: The "no" requires less consensus than the "yes". Also, referendum campaigns appeal to unreflected "gut feelings" for the expression of which in the voting booth nobody can be held accountable.

Yet much depends on the way the issue is framed that is to be decided upon by either representative bodies or by citizens directly. If the "no" vote is not just obstructing support for institutional deepening but is agreed upon and understood by citizens to imply that the "no" is automatically a "yes" to a move to leave the EU, the implications of voting "no" would be much more costly. Also, the ensuing and foreseeable uncertainties of a "no" outcome are much more visible today, after the experience of banking and the budget crises, than they were at any point in the past. In contrast to half a dozen years ago, it is no longer inconceivable that the EU and the Euro can in fact disintegrate in a "tsunami of panic", leaving all participants victims of a giant and collectively self-inflicted damage.

Moreover, the role and actual behavior of the biggest player in the EU's political economy, Germany, has brought to the minds of not just political elites, but mass constituencies of smaller and weaker economies among the EU-27 as well, that the arrogance of German power and wealth displayed might best be tamed not by exiting the EU or Eurozone, but by European citizens (as opposed to national governments) raising their voice through channels provided by a strengthened European Parliament. After all, in an open system, there is no need anymore to occupy other countries by military means in order to gain full de facto control over their economy and polity. Deepening Europe may well be a promising strategy, appreciated as such by European citizens, to resist emerging forms of "soft imperialism".

Yet Europe is not just needed as defensive mechanism against the weak being overpowered by the strong who first administer an austerity cure without, thereafter, providing the requisite support for recovery. It also provides European citizens with a defense against member states succumbing to emerging authoritarian temptations. Where would Hungary have moved in the absence of European supervision? Whatever the (unknowable) answer, the discipline that European institutions impose on member states should not be just a fiscal one. If institutionally enabled to do so (through policy initiatives taken by the European Parliament), the EU could do more than just protect its citizens; it could make credible promises by embracing, as Leonard suggests "a progressive policy agenda that serves the interests of ordinary citizens". Such an agenda would galvanise the renewed attention of citizens for European politics.

Also in this series:

Harold James - 'The more Europe suffers, the more its people will see that a reform agenda that is just an exercise in incrementalism is also nothing more than an exercise in futility'.

Richard Rosecrance - 'if Greece or Spain did not exist, they would have to be invented. Their participation in the euro keeps the value of the currency down from $1.80 to $1.20 or $1.30 or so, thereby ensuring the success of German exports to the rest of the world.'

Brigid Laffan - 'as the Union intrudes more and more into domestic budgetary and public finance choices, can party politics in Europe adapt to a very different governance regime?'

Charles S. Maier - 'The British can imagine that their banks will suffice, the Germans their autos, but such comparative advantage can dissipate quickly. I’d as soon wager on Greek beaches.'

Georg Sørensen - 'a substantial part of the present euro crisis has less to do with European cooperation and more to do with member states that are fragile, ineffective, have serious corruption problems...'

Chris J. Bickerton - 'Populism, after all, is politics without policies; technocracy is policy without politics.'

Carlos Gaspar - 'In an enlarged “Euroland”, Germany’s pre-eminence could be balanced by a Catholic coalition led by France, Italy and Poland.'

Dimitri Sotiropoulos - 'we still live in an era in which the nationalist project is more seductive than any project of integration among nations'.

Pawel Swieboda - 'no-one dares to ask the question if the euro is still a political project, as its founders tended to believe, or if it is today about nothing else than damage control'.

Mario Teló - 'what is abusively decried by populist voices as a “German Europe” might in fact look a lot like the broadly endorsed “EU2020 strategy”. Input legitimacy may complement output legitimacy.'

Josep M. Colomer - 'For democracy to survive and retrieve in Europe, responsiveness and accountability of rulers should be moving from the state level to the EU level, where so many crucial decisions are already being made'

Marco de Andreis - 'a critical mass has been already assembled to make of Europe’s integration a possibility rather than an impossibility. And to at least consider the United States of Europe a fifth scenario for the reinvention of Europe.'

Miguel Maduro - 'the creation of European politics must go hand in hand with a change in the character of politics. For that, changes in policies may be even more important than changes in institutions.'

Narcís Serra - “If we wish to favour economic growth in European countries we must address income redistribution. This must not be done through fiscal measures alone but also by dealing with the heart of the productive structure itself.”

Brendan Simms: 'In 2020, President Radek Sikorski of the Democratic Union could long back at a turbulent, but successful first term in office...'

Christine Ockrent: 'In all the countries where people struggle with the economic crisis and fear for their children’s future, Europe has more than ever become the scapegoat'

3 comments

Cameron Mitchell 1st March 2012 at 08:03pm

Hah, Italy protesters rally against Berlusconi

Übersetzer 7th March 2012 at 02:03pm

For democracy to survive and retrieve in Europe, responsiveness and accountability of rulers should be moving from the state level to the EU level, where so many crucial decisions are already being made’

Team Fun Places 29th October 2012 at 03:10pm

For democracy to survive and retrieve in Europe, responsiveness and accountability of rulers should be moving from the state level to the EU level, where so many crucial decisions are already being made’

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