Europe’s Next Great Mistake

PRINCETON – In constructing Europe’s monetary union, political leaders did not think through all of the implications, which led to major design flaws. Worse, they do not appear to have learned from that experience, for they are about to take the same approach to the monetary union’s political analogue.

The logic of the financial crisis is driving Europeans toward greater integration, which implies new mechanisms for political expression. Well before the crisis, the European Union was widely perceived to be suffering from a “democratic deficit.” Now, with many Europeans blaming the EU for painful austerity measures, that complaint has grown more powerful – and Europe’s political leaders believe that they must act now to address it.

Unfortunately, Europe confronts another deficit: a lack of political leadership. The charismatic figures of the mid-twentieth century – Churchill, Adenauer, and de Gaulle – have no contemporary counterparts. Citizens associate the EU with, above all, bureaucratic grayness and technocratic rationality.

European officialdom is now responding to these deficits with an initiative to reform and democratize the European Commission. Current Commission President José Manuel Barroso suggests that ideologically like-minded political parties running in the next European Parliament elections should intensify their cooperation in political “families” that would then jointly nominate candidates for the Commission presidency. Voters would thus play a more direct role in choosing a new European chief executive. They would feel as if they were appointing a government. And politicians would need to beef up their charisma in order to be elected.