Italy: This Time is Different

Seasoned observers of Italian politics will tell you that there is a fairly consistent pattern to political crisis. The pattern starts with infighting among the governing coalition; it accelerates suddenly when one of the coalition partners ‘pulls the plug’ on the government; and then things slow down again as the various stakeholders realize how much is at stake for them personally if they let things fall apart. Parliamentary seats are prestigious, the salaries are high, and the pensions are generous provided the members just stay in post long enough to qualify. More important, real crisis comprises a lot of work with very uncertain pay-offs to be gained from an often-fickle electorate. Meanwhile, bad things can happen to the country’s economy, particularly vis-à-vis the banks and bond markets. In such a context, it is only reasonable to expect that cooler heads will prevail. Given the possible threat that an Italian meltdown would pose for the future of the euro (and hence also the European Union), we should all hope these observers are right. Nevertheless, there are four good reasons to believe that this time is different.

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Europe’s Complicated Democracy

Europeans are heading to the polls now in one of the world’s largest and most complicated democratic experiments. Moreover, these European elections are probably the most consequential we have seen since Europeans started voting directly for members of the European Parliament in 1979. This is a good opportunity to think hard about how Europeans are represented, how they make their decisions about voting, and what kind of Europe is on offer. Three recent books suggest new and important lines of argument. Christina Schneider shows that much of the responsiveness of Europe to the voters actually takes place through the Council of the European Union; Jennifer Fitzgerald reveals how votes on the extremes are more likely to be local than national, even if they have an anti-European tinge to them; and Sergio Fabbrini argues that many of the tensions we see surrounding the European project could be resolved if we just changed the way we think about constitutional federalism. These arguments are challenging and sophisticated in ways that much of the commentary that surrounds the European elections tends not to be; they are also counterintuitive. Now that everyone is focused on Europe, it is a good time for some well-grounded, lateral thinking.

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The Forces Behind the New Europe

The European Parliament that will be elected in 2019 will be different from the one it replaces. The two main political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will both lose seats. For the first time since the parliament began direct elections in 1979, those two groups will be unable to form a parliamentary majority together. They will have to enlist the support of the liberal democrats (ALDE) to control the legislature, perhaps with the support of Emmanuel Macron’s movement, but that grand coalition will leave significant representative gaps.

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Re-framing Brexit in Terms of Discrimination

The debate about whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has taken place within a number of different rhetorical frames. Of these, ‘taking back control’ has been the most powerful. Anyone could understand what was at stake and take a position in the debate. As the debate about membership became a process of leaving, however, ‘taking back control’ became more confusing as a frame for the conversation. Over the past two years it has been hard to determine who is taking back control, how much control can be repatriated, and how much – under any circumstances – the British people will remain constrained and perhaps even powerless to shape their own destiny.

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Avoiding another Twenty Years’ Crisis

On 4 December 2018, United States (U.S.) Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo gave a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels about ‘restoring the role of the nation-state in the liberal international order.’ At the core of that speech, he posed a fundamental challenge to world order: ‘Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.’ He insisted that: ‘nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.’ And he went on to explain: ‘Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them.’ In the language of the most recent U.S. national security strategy, this perspective on world affairs is characterized as ‘principled realism’. Pompeo describes it more simply as ‘common sense’. While Pompeo is right that his view is common, he is wrong to believe in its realism or even that it makes sense.

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Populism and Economic Policy

On 28 September 2018, Lorenzo Forni of Prometeia invited me to give a short comment on the relationship between ‘populism’ and economic policy-making.  Although, I hadn’t thought about that relationship before, I came up with four things I think we might want to consider (in addition to what we might useful think of as ‘populism’ in the context of the question Lorenzo asked).  My argument was that populists bring new people into the policy-making process.  They also bring a healthy dose of unpredictability.  Their messaging on policy issues is not great, which causes problems in a world defined by rational expectations, and they tend to be skeptical toward independent agencies like central banks.  Finally, populists are disinclined to international policy coordination.  The combination is not wholly bad — sometimes change is for the good! — but the results are often below the promises that populists make to the electorate.  The text of the presentation follows.

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