European Council on Foreign Relations

Reinventing Europe: Josep M. Colomer

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 twelfth in this series of responses, we hear from Josep M. Colomer from the Institute for Economic Analysis in Barcelona.

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The future can be Italy. Mark Leonard envisages different scenarios for the future of the European Union, all implying clear choices of institutional formulas and diverse relations between member states and the Union. But Italy is already working on the basis of just broad policy consensus and non-party government. This could become the actual model for the EU and its member states in the short term.

A little more than one hundred days ago, Mario Monti became Italian Prime Minister after winning the confidence of 90% of members of parliament. Yet his government does not include any member of any political party. It is not enforcing partisan electoral promises, but the budgetary, tax, pension and other policies approved at the top of the European Union. This and comparable developments in Portugal, Greece, Spain and other countries, is making political elections at the state level in Europe almost irrelevant for policy-making.

Actually, governments are losing elections as never before. There have been 30 parliamentary elections in 26 EU member-states (including Croatia) since the moment when the current economic crisis exploded more visibly in September 2008. After 19 of these elections the incumbent prime minister’s party has been replaced with a member of another party. This ratio of two-thirds of government defeats is in dramatic contrast with the traditional incumbent advantage which made governments win about two-thirds of the elections in the previous six decades. The most dramatic cases in the last few years include Hungary, where the government party lost more than half of its previous electoral support; Ireland, where the most common ruling party since the country’s independence slipped to third in terms of votes; and Spain, where the governing party got its worst results and the opposition party its best results ever. The coming election in Greece may even beat these records, according to some pre-electoral polls.

Yet it may well also be the case that if the economic situation does not improve clearly in the next few years – as is widely forecasted – some of the current winners may became losers at the following election. This has already happened in the two cases of anticipated elections in the last few months, in Slovenia and Croatia, where the recent winners were crushed. Entire party systems, that have sustained the working of democratic regimes in many countries of Europe for decades, can be shaken.

Can a country survive without a partisan state government? The popularity of the Italian government seems to indicate that it can actually can do it better than many of its predecessors. A variant of this type of experience has taken place in Belgium, which has been under interim or caretaker federal governments for about half of the last five years, including a world record 18 month absence after the 2010 election. This has not been a direct consequence of the economic crisis, but was rather mainly due to the country’s territorial division. Nonetheless, as Belgian political scientists Kris Deschouwer and Marc Hooghe aver in a forthcoming collection of articles, the Belgian case informs us more generally about “the conditions of governance given the current trend towards multi-level governance in the European Union”.

In fact, the absence of partisan state governments is having only a limited impact on governance. Technical or caretaker governments, as in Italy, Greece and Belgium, limit themselves to implementing earlier agreed EU obligations, especially with regard to budget and economic policy. The existence of multiple level governments including local, regional, state and Union bodies is a safeguard against government ineffectiveness. Nonparty governance is also helped by the role of non-elected and non-partisan bodies, including the civil service and the judicial system, which rely on standard administrative procedures.

Nowadays, whether a member state of the European Union has right-wing or left-wing parties in government does not make a significant difference in practice. It’s the EU, or at least the small ruling group informally formed recently around the presidency of the European Council, that has taken over some of the most fundamental and traditional tasks of state governments. The opportunity created by the current financial and economic crisis is completing the loss of sovereignty of the states. If there is no sovereignty, there is no state. And if there is no state, there is no state democracy, to be sure. A crucial mismatch, then, is that while consensual policy-making and effectiveness is increasingly placed at the EU level, Europe-wide policy-makers are still based on state-level elections. 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.

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'.

Claus Offe - 'Europe is not just needed as a defensive mechanism to prevent the weak being overpowered by the strong, who first administer an austerity cure without then providing the requisite support for recovery.'

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.'

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'

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