The European Political Centre Cannot Hold (But the EU Can)

Europe’s politicians have cleared the last hurdle in accepting Greece’s third financial bailout but the voting was uncomfortable for everyone. The left-wing populist government in Greece relied on representatives from the more traditional centre-left and centre-right to cover for defections from the ruling coalition; the German government used Social Democrats within the ruling coalition to cover for defections from the Chancellors own Christian Democrats; and the Liberal (VVD)/Party of Labour (PvdA) government the Netherlands got extra support from the left-liberal D66 party to add to its slender one-seat majority.

As a result of these different movements toward the political centre – and similar developments in other countries – the Greek government will get the money it needs to keep up with its debt payments and shore up its banks. That is a good thing for anyone who wants to see Greece have a reasonable chance at recovering from this ongoing crisis. Unfortunately, that centre cannot hold. A populist party like Syriza cannot govern easily with the old pillars of the Greek political establishment; Germany’s grand coalition is an historical anomaly; and the result of eight years of close cooperation between VVD, PvdA and D66 was bad for all. So the question is whether Europe’s political centre will splinter before the Greek situation becomes sustainable.

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The EU Needs to Admit Mistakes

The European Union (EU) is good at writing rules; what it needs to strengthen the capacity to suspend, ignore, or replace rules that are obviously not working or inappropriate in a given situation. In other words, the EU needs to get better at recognizing when following the rules is a mistake. This is not going to be a popular argument. Rules are supposed to be rules, after all. Nevertheless, it is vital. So long as policymakers lack perfect foresight, they will never be able to write rules that work in every situation. They will not be able to anticipate the conditions for every possible exception either. Hence they will always need some mechanism to recognize and respond to unexpected situations in a timely manner. In case of emergency, break glass. They will also need some way to hold policymakers accountable for any exercise in emergency discretion. Successful innovations will not always be rewarded but they will be accepted and used to improve the functioning of the organization; abuse will be punished. That is – or at least should be – the  measure of political union.

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