Europe needs an elected president

In times of crisis, we would look to them to solve problems, and quickly. They would explain to the European people what Europe was doing and why.

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The Independent Online

Sorting out the EU’s collective action problems is something of a collective action problem.

Governing Europe has always been a co-operative, collaborative exercise, in which oversize coalitions of national governments slowly negotiate in a variety of languages, long into the night, in sleepy Continental towns, to solve chronically boring problems. The Commission proposes the harmonization of standards on baggage collection; over excellent wines, the Member States languorously discuss the proposals; the European Parliament gets its say; months pass; suddenly, all at once, European baggage starts to be handled in the same way. Airlines save a bit of money. Another day, another Euro: incremental improvements over the status quo are the EU’s bread and butter.

Unfortunately, the real world is not always this dull. The last two years have found Europe’s firefighting capabilities wanting. Progress, admittedly, has recently been made: a scheme for the bailing out of governments lurched over a significant hurdle, the ECB has committed itself to unlimited, if conditional, intervention in national bond markets, and plans for Continental supervision of Eurozone banks have been tabled. Offstage lurks a proposal for a Financial Transaction Tax. These are the beginnings of a complicated solution to a complicated problem.    

But they may be too late.

For in these last two years, European growth rates have turned anaemic, Britain has re-entered recession, and Greece’s economy will be smaller in 2013 than it was in 2006. Further afield, American growth prospects have suffered, and even the Chinese economy is losing steam. Capacity in each of these economies still lags behind pre-2008 levels.   

Heads should roll. But whose?  

No-one leads Europe. No politician has a mandate for decisions that affect all European citizens. National politicians are empowered to drag their feet, but face no parallel impetus to solve problems.

David Cameron’s so-called veto of the Eurozone’s fiscal compact last December is illustrative. Faced with an electorate hostile to Europe, a Parliamentary party whose obsession with Europe is sufficiently pathological to require group therapy, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Cameron chose to do nothing, dramatically.

So Britons look to Merkel for leadership over Europe. There’s just this one thing: none of us voted for her. How, then, are we to influence her thinking? Perhaps German-speaking British citizens could launch a letter-writing campaign, advocating the pooling of European debt, targeted at disaffected CDU voters in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. An exchange of comment pieces in Der Spiegel between Cameron and the German Chancellor might do the trick.

There are no more direct methods. And that’s a problem, since what Merkel does affects us. The NHS has a slogan: ‘No decisions about me, without me.’ German hostility to ECB activism, and to Eurobonds, has hobbled European crisis management efforts. Merkel makes plenty of non-decisions that affect us, without us.

Just as bad as inaction is illegitimate action. Democracy is a way of legitimating winners, and incentivizing political losers to become winners by devising inventive portfolios of ideas. Were European technocrats, no matter how well intentioned, to distribute resources away from some social group, the affected group might well ask, On whose authority? In a democracy, the answer is forthcoming: The People’s. Fair elections allow governments to make decisions that benefit some and harm others, because voters get periodically to approve of offered policies. In the absence of elections voters get, at best, well-meaning paternalism.  

Europe needs an elected President. She would have the exclusive right of initiative over European legislation. She would be elected by the European people. She would be responsive to the interests of a Continental, not a national, electorate. In times of crisis, we would look to her to solve problems, and quickly. She would explain to the European people what Europe was doing and why.

Politicians exist to solve problems: voting gives them incentives to make their constituencies better. Prestige, posterity, and their own job prospects depend on this, and are powerful sources of suasion.

This would improve Europe’s role in world affairs. When Henry Kissinger finds himself wondering who to call, he will be able to pick up the phone with confidence. European nation states chose delay over decision when faced with a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. A European President would cajole national leaders into action.

We’d be better informed about European governance. ‘Brussels’ would no longer be a byword for meddling, pedantic bureaucrats obsessed with legislating on issues of tangential relevance to people’s daily lives. Very few news stories about the efforts of Commissioners or MEPs make it into the British press, Daily Express splashes on European efforts to regulate bananas aside. We would have intelligent discussion about what the EU plans to do, and this discussion in turn would help it better address people’s lives.

And if the European President messed up, we could vote for someone else. For here is the great liberal insight into the value of democracy, courtesy of Mill, Rousseau, de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, and others: it allows you to kick the bastards out.