Asia's view of Europe's 'weak democracy'
When leadership is caught in a limbo
by John Nugée
Mon 14 Dec 2015
The closer you are to a problem, the harder it is sometimes to see what is going on. Those standing further back may have a clearer view. At the end of a year when the European Union has faced multiple challenges on many fronts, we may get more information by talking to those who see the continent from afar.
I have had first-hand experience of this during a just-completed trip to Asia. Many contacts and acquaintances were fascinated (in a slightly macabre way) by Europe's confusion and crisis. In varying degrees they were concerned that Europe's leadership appears overwhelmed by manifold tasks. The complexity of each individual issue seems to make the combined difficulties beyond the capacity of the political system to solve.
The consensus from my Asian conversations is that the root cause of the malaise lies less in the nature of the individual issues, far more in the EU's chosen system of governance and decision-making. The view from Asia is that the Union is struggling because it falls between two extremes of strength and weakness: it has neither a strong democratic regime nor a strong autocratic one.
Either of these would give the political leadership the power to act. Yet, instead, Europe is burdened with a 'weak democracy'.
The authorities have sufficient strength to try to rule without popular consent. But they are too weak to ignore the negative populist response such action inevitably incites and which, in turn, exacerbates their initial weakness.
We are all familiar with the shortcomings: from the euro area's weak and imbalanced economy and Greece's troubled membership of the single currency, to the challenges of immigration and extremist parties. There is a sense that the Union is drifting towards some form of calamity – the end of free movement of people, or the exit of Greece from the euro, or the departure of Britain from the Union itself.
Europe has so far tried to maintain its existing structure of decision-making via national politicians acting in council. This is the much-prized inter-governmental approach. Member states voluntarily cede some sovereignty to the Union in pursuit of consensual agreement on common solutions to common challenges.
This system works comparatively well in ordinary times and for administrative matters. Yet it appears a much less robust structure when the Union faces sharp crises on which there are genuine differences of opinion and consensus is hard to find. And the system is all but impotent when it comes to issues of common finance and taxation (for example a common deposit insurance scheme for Europe's banks, adamantly opposed by Germany), or immigration policy and the control of the EU's external borders.
In consequence, the EU leadership is caught in a limbo. It is incapable of obtaining the electorate's support for decisive action, since the democratic mechanism is too weak to organise the necessary dialogue. But, in the absence of such a mechanism, the leadership is not strong enough to move forward. Instead, we have vacillation and prevarication, mixed with a sense of rudderlessness.
To Asian eyes at least, this leads to a political leadership that is not in control of the continent's destiny: a Union that is much less than the sum of its parts. Individual governments meeting in Brussels do a great deal less than what is expected of them – because they are afraid of negative reaction at home.
For a European this is not exactly uplifting. But after a week in Asia, I find it hard to argue that the Asian view is wrong.
John Nugée is a director of OMFIF.
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