The Battle for Post-Crisis Europe

Europe needs a ‘new narrative’ if it is going to move forward rather than falling back into crisis.  That narrative cannot be a collection of policy initiatives or institutional reforms.  New policies are important; so are new institutional arrangements.  But politics and institutions do not by themselves speak to a democratic electorate – and particularly not to an electorate that has focused its attention on legitimate grievances of its own.  Only politicians with a clear vision of the future can wield influence with voters in such a context.  If the politicians with the best ideas are too afraid to forge a vision, they should not be surprised when voters attach themselves to politicians who run off in the wrong direction.  Europeans deserve better political leadership; so does Europe.

But what would such a vision look like? George Papaconstantinou argues that Mario Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ moment is a good model for European leadership.  This is not an argument for pure boldness or audacity; it is also not a celebration of improvisation, although clearly some of that was involved.  Instead Papaconstantinou makes it clear that Draghi’s pledge only had the effect on the markets and on the popular imagination that it did because it was well-flanked by sound policies and solid institutional arrangements.  Draghi offered a vision alongside his commitment.  And that combination of planning and determination is what political leadership is all about.

Drawing on his own experience in politics during the crisis, Papaconstantinou shows how Draghi effectively pushed back against a mistaken diagnosis of Europe’s economic problems.  He also shows how Draghi’s actions fed into creative thinking inside a number of different parts of the Europe Union about how European institutions can be made more resilient.  Finally, Papaconstantinou underscores how the agenda for strengthening Europe remains controversial and incomplete.  There was no inevitability to the events as they unfolded; instead Draghi’s political leadership helped to shape the new environment – with positive results that could nevertheless come unbound.

The challenge now is to round out the vision that Draghi set in motion, building on contributions from both European institutions and the Member States.  Moreover, the need is great.  Although the worst of the economic crisis has passed, Europe confronts a host of other problems.  Papaconstantinou shows how Europe’s political leaders could make progress on dimensions ranging from migration to foreign policy to democratic engagement.

Success, Papaconstantinou argues, will take more than just determination; it will require a narrative that is compelling enough for Europeans to embrace.  Without such popular engagement, Europe’s politicians are unlikely to make lasting progress.  ‘Whatever it takes’ is not only a model for leadership, but also an essential warning that the success of muddling through should not be taken for granted.  Papaconstantinou’s book is required reading for anyone who wants their optimism for the European project to be well-grounded.

Whatever It Takes: The Battle for Post-Crisis Europe.  By George Papaconstantinou.  London: Agenda Publishing, 2019.