Energizing Europe

In France’s pre-presidential electoral campaign, European affairs are mentioned or whispered, but almost never debated. France is mostly concerned with its own problems, particularly the supposed malfunctioning of its political class and the apparent laziness of the French public, which is blamed for weak economic growth, especially when compared to the United States. France needs a debate on European Union affairs, but only as long as it does not degenerate – as is common in Europe – into self-flagellation.

But the germ of such a debate exists, and it sounds very different from that which dominated the failed constitutional referendum campaign in France two years ago. The operation of European institutions – the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the Stability Pact – is facing severe criticism, but not in the name of a nostalgia for national sovereignty. Europe is not being rejected; instead, the criticism has been in the spirit of improving European institutions in the name of the common good.

Both of the major candidates for the French presidency, Ségolène Royal and Nicholas Sarkozy, have called for the creation of an economic government for the euro zone. Of course, such a “government” already exists in the form of the European Central Bank. But what is needed is an institutional framework that would establish greater political responsibility concerning the primary economic objectives that Europe should pursue – full employment and growth – and that would at least partly close the democratic deficit implied by the ECB’s takeover of monetary policy from euro-zone states.

A moment of seeming political disunity, such as exists today, may not seem the right one to initiate such a project. But, historically, Europe has succeeded when, at moments of danger, it has initiated irreversible processes that outweigh any other consideration. Europe’s founding fathers understood this when they hatched the idea of creating the European Coal and Steel Community: encouraging old enemies to pool some of the most powerful tools of war under the pretext of advancing their economic interests was a strategy of rare intelligence.