European citizens have observed the negotiations surrounding nominations for the leadership positions of European institutions with dismay. Night-long sessions of horse-trading are certainly not new: finding compromise has always been inherent to the EU. New and worrying, however, have been the profound differences revealed by this inability to agree on leadership. More important than the qualifications of the candidates have been their nationality, their gender, or their political shading. Rather than the customary tussle to defend the principle of ‘now it’s my turn’, we have seen a battle to prevent the imposition of certain visions by others.
Europe has changed radically in the decade that is coming to an end. There is no longer a shared vision of the type of community desired, nor the leadership that carried out the great European project. The European debt crisis, the immigration crisis, and populist/nationalist anti-globalism have torn Europeans apart and upset the balance of power.
During the first 50 years of the European Community, most were united around the idea of an ‘ever-closer union’. France maintained an undisputed political leadership and Germany cooperated enthusiastically in European integration as a way of being readmitted onto the European and international stage. Both countries contracted a marriage of convenience, an alliance that became the driving force of Europe. They had their differences, but they always agreed on a final quid pro quo. With the reunification of the two Germanies, this balance started to tilt in favour of Germany, and the euro crisis did the rest to thrust it onto centre stage.
Germany, however, did not want to assume the leadership of Europe. It refused to act as the benevolent hegemon that Kindleberger considered indispensable for the survival of an integrated monetary system. The country’s ordoliberal paradigms and history prevented it from taking responsibility for the role of stabilising the eurozone. Germany’s handling of the debt problem in fact added fuel to the fire of the crisis. It is that same culture that today prevents Germany from doing what should be done to make the euro viable in the long term. The dialogue between France and Germany, between Macron and Merkel, has become a dialogue of the deaf.
Traditionally the Centre-North of Europe and the Mediterranean South aligned themselves behind the two leaders. Now Holland maintains serious differences with Germany, as does Italy with France, to mention but two examples. To the North-South breach has been added one between East and West. Within countries, consensus has also been broken with respect to Europe. Nothing is as it once was.
If it was ten years ago, and German Christian Social Union Manfred Weber was unable to assume the presidency of the European Commission (as it happened earlier this week), it would have been seen as reasonable for his compatriot Jens Weidmann to be appointed to the presidency of the European Central Bank (ECB). Not anymore. Weidmann – and Germany – represent an economic-monetary model that is flatly rejected by many of the community partners. In the Franco-German quid pro quo that gave rise to the euro, Germany imposed a monetary order that later turned out to be the Trojan horse that gave the country a dominant position in Europe. As if this were not enough, the German export model – austere and efficient – emerged from the crisis as the mandatory paradigm for the Southern partners, whose economies were based more on internal consumption and income distribution. There is resentment in these countries against such impositions, which is why no German candidate had any chance of being designated as head of the ECB.
After discarding the first and second options, Christine Lagarde – Macron´s hidden card – has been chosen for the top position in the ECB. Although the 25-member Governing Council takes all important decisions on monetary policy, the ECB presidency matters in times of crisis. Lagarde is more of a politician than a technician. It is very likely that the next president will have to make existential decisions about the euro at some time. In the frenzy of the sovereign crisis, Mario Draghi showed the courage to do what was necessary to stabilise the eurozone in the absence of efficient actions by community bodies to stop the bleeding. Lagarde could also act decisively, going by her actions in putting out fires at the helm of the IMF.
The presidency of the European Commission is also important, certainly, but the regression to intergovernmentalism that took place during the euro crisis has turned that organisation into an executive arm of decisions taken by the Heads of State in the European Council. The deep discrepancies among its members about what kind of European Union they want has also forced the choice of a “third best option”. The choice of Ursula von der Leyen has been a Pyrrhic victory for Merkel, which shows the decline of her power. If she is ratified by the EU Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen does not seem to have the leadership qualities nor the support of her party comrades to get Europe out of the deadlock in which it currently finds itself. Maybe this is what the main European leaders had in mind: do not rock the boat, stay put. This inaction will be a sure recipe for problems. In contrast to the past, Monnet’s famous saying that “Europe will be built on crises” could not necessarily apply in working towards further integration. The contrary could happen instead.