Europe must learn to expect the unexpected

Increasing political fragmentation makes coherent EU policymaking even harder

Tony Barber

Even wise generals struggle not to fight the last war. Politicians, too, are usually trapped in mindsets framed by personal experience and by a set of ideas about the world forged earlier in their careers. The test of the EU’s new generation of leaders will be whether they are courageous and resourceful enough to tackle the totally unexpected when it happens.

Except for Christine Lagarde, who if confirmed as the next European Central Bank president will serve an eight-year term, the new leadership team is expected to hold office until 2024. Five years seems a short time, but it will be long enough to give rise to extraordinary, tumultuous events. It is doubtful that the EU leaders who assumed power in 2014 anticipated what was to come their way.

Did any foresee Donald Trump’s election and the subsequent pressures on the US-European alliance and the post-1945 international order? Did any predict that the European Commission would publish a document that labelled China not merely a partner, but “a systemic rival promoting an alternative model of government”? Who anticipated the great Mediterranean refugee and migrant emergency of 2015-16?

The EU’s outgoing leaders knew in 2014 that the UK’s ruling Conservative party and many Britons were disenchanted with Brussels, but did any foresee Brexit? Or that Italians would vote for a populist government scathing about basic EU policies? Or that east-west EU tensions would arise as a result of illiberal nationalism and subversion of the rule of law in parts of central and eastern Europe?

Alongside Ms Lagarde, the IMF managing director and a former French finance minister, the EU’s proposed leadership team consists of Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, as commission president; Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, as head of the European Council, which groups EU heads of government; and Josep Borrell, Spain’s foreign minister, as the EU’s foreign policy chief. It is still uncertain if the European Parliament will approve Ms von der Leyen’s nomination.

If she receives the green light, however, Ms von der Leyen and her colleagues must resist the temptation to rely wholly on lessons drawn from recent experience to see them through rocky times. Already one can sketch the outlines of what these leaders may attempt in office. Aware that the 19-nation eurozone remains a half-built house, they will try to strengthen its foundations and prepare for any future debt crisis or recession by completing the area’s banking union, establishing a capital markets union and expanding on the small measures already taken towards a eurozone budget.

Conscious that climate change is one of the European public’s top concerns, the new leaders will step up efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions. To the extent that this will require higher EU carbon prices, they will try to limit the impact on lower-income citizens, so as not to provoke grassroots protests of the kind that rocked France last year. If they were really bold, the new leaders would reshape the EU budget, spending less on agricultural and regional aid subsidies and more on climate change and technological innovation.

The new team will also endeavour to maintain order in the EU’s neighbourhood, principally by strengthening external border controls, limiting refugee inflows and working with Turkey and north African countries. The EU may display less enthusiasm for embracing new Balkan member states — a deeply divisive issue in western Europe. But the new leaders will try to develop a more autonomous foreign and international economic policy profile, in order to avoid an unpalatable dependence on either the US or China.

All these policies, shaped with past experiences in mind, make perfect sense in their own way. It is probably a good thing that the team-in-waiting’s two most important figures are German and French. The rest of the world is left in no doubt about the willingness of the EU’s two biggest countries to defend the distinctive European model of welfare capitalism, pooled sovereignty and a rules-based global order.

However, the unexpected will happen, and in some respects there are grounds for worry. As a predominantly “soft” power, for example, the EU is poorly prepared to cope with violent conflicts — as in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and since 2011 in Syria. Insofar as the world is turning into a stage for US-Chinese rivalry, the EU has little influence outside trade and business regulation.

Inside the EU’s borders, the societies of most member states are split between citizens who embrace and benefit from the EU’s ideals and policies, and citizens who do not. Youth unemployment is high, trust in politicians is low. The fragmentation of party politics at national level makes coherent EU policymaking ever harder. The days when the passive consent of electorates for EU integration could be taken for granted are long gone.

Over the next five years, it cannot be excluded that the truly unexpected — a radical change of leadership and political direction, or a breakdown of order — will take place in one or more EU countries. Then the question facing the new leadership team will be by what methods, and at what price, to hold together the EU in its present form.

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