Accusations of Arrogance

It is no secret that Europe is facing multiple crises. Migration, deflation, Greece, and Ukraine top the list, but the issues that come after are no less challenging for being less prominent. Let’s not forget, Europe was ‘in crisis’ at the turn of the century and before any of these headline issues emerged. That earlier agenda – which includes population aging, welfare state reform, energy security, industrial change, market competition, and connecting ‘Europe’ to ‘the people’ – still needs to be addressed. Then as now the two questions are whether Europe will hold together and whether European leaders will energize and focus that unity with a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, increasing accusations of ‘arrogance’ suggest that neither unity nor purpose should be expected.

My goal here is not to spread doom and gloom. It is easy enough to announce that the sky is falling even when Europe itself is resilient. That’s what all the talk about ‘progress through crisis’ among Europe’s supporters is about. And as a supporter of Europe, I hope they are right. Hence my goal is not to say that Europe is failing but rather to find some kind of indicator that the forces behind potential failure are gaining importance. I think I may have found that in the use of the term ‘arrogance’ – along with a mechanism that explains why pride such a deadly sin.

Consider the relationship between Germany and Greece. During much of the first Syriza government, you could often find German voices complaining that the Greeks are so arrogant – that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras talked as if he alone had a democratic mandate; that Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis acted as if he alone had insight on how economics works; and so on. The easy thing was to discount these accusations of arrogance as somehow a function of generational and cultural differences – where older, more straight-laced Germans looked with horror at brash, younger Greeks who couldn’t even be bothered to wear a shirt with a collar (let alone a tie).

Looking back, however, I wonder if the real message was about legitimacy and not difference. When Germans said that the Greeks were ‘arrogant’, they meant inappropriate and not unfamiliar – and so long as the Greeks were unwilling to abide by the rules and to accept the legitimacy of Germany leadership, they were also unworthy of support. The threat to exclude Greece was the logical extreme of this thought process; and the offer of ‘solidarity with conditionality’ was the next best alternative. If the Greeks do not abide by the rules and accept German leadership in the future, they will quickly find themselves in trouble.

If this read on the use of the term ‘arrogance’ as an indicator of how the Germans perceive the legitimacy of the Greek government’s position in the euro area crisis is accurate – and there is a lot of un-coded and plain spoken pronouncements from prominent Germans to say that it is – then we might be able to use accusations of arrogance to decode other areas of potential conflict where there is less supporting material available. More important, we might expect to see accusations of arrogance emerge first, as a kind of leading indicator, with other more direct challenges to follow.

A good illustration is the controversy within Germany about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration and refugee policy. When Chancellor Merkel announced that Germany would open its borders, she informed but did not consult her closest political allies in the governing CDU/CSU-SPD coalition. The explanation was the sudden and pressing nature of the humanitarian emergency. That explanation left her vulnerable to criticism from local and regional officials who have been dealing with the steady flow of migrants and refugees for much longer than the headline writers at the major national newspapers. Merkel’s response to the criticism was to say that if her accusers would not support her in making a humanitarian gesture, then it is not her Germany. A firestorm of accusations of arrogance quickly followed.

Again, I think all this rhetoric about arrogance floats on top of a more important popular (and elite) assessment of the legitimacy of the Chancellor’s decision and the policy she wants the rest of Germany to embrace. The question is not whether Chancellor Merkel will lead but whether Germany will follow. A consistent run of public opinion polling data suggests they will do so only and increasingly reluctantly. It also suggests that opponents of the Chancellor’s policy will challenge her leadership role. They cannot easily replace Chancellor Merkel but they can complicate her ability to initiate and implement other policies and so tip the balance of power (and hence also leadership) among prominent members of the coalition.

Chancellor Merkel is not the only European leader facing accusations of arrogance. The list of her fellowship runs from left to right, Matteo Renzi to Mariano Rajoy, and these are the most successful. Indeed, it is harder to find a politician who is immune to the charge than to find one who have already collapsed under its weight – both knowingly, like Ed Miliband, and unknowingly, like Francois Hollande. This is both part and parcel of the explanation for why anti-elite populism has gained so much ground. Europe’s political elites are facing a crisis of legitimacy intertwined with a crisis of solidarity. The challenge is for Europe’s leaders to combine humility with purpose and unity with compromise. This is a preachy conclusion. But then again, so is the alternative: Left unchecked in their current style of leadership, Europe’s politicians will quickly learn how pride goes before the fall.