This week i have watched the unedifying saga of the Cypriot bailout with rather less disbelief than I would have liked: given the length of negotiations, it is somewhat surprising that everyone is washing their hands of it, but at least it suggests that all involved recognise the bad politics (and the questionable economics) of the move.
I have also completed a mini-tour of European institutions of late and it is clear that everyone is concerned about British exit, not only from the EU but other European organisations too: time and again, I was asked “why is this happening?” and “what will happen?”
The common theme that strikes me is one of an inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility.
Thus in the Cypriot case, the EU waits for the Cypriot government to sort themselves out, while the Cypriot wait for the EU to concede, and even the Russians hesitate to lead. In the matter of the UK’s European policy, the view from the European end seems to be that it is up to London to decide what it wants.
This is understandable, in the sense that both situations are now rather thankless and there’s lots of downside risk. There are no elegant, self-reinforcing options for Cyprus, and any push on the UK would have to be fought for.
Unfortunately, the consequence is drift, as everyone hopes that something will come up or someone else will step in: hardly a constructive agenda at a time when European integration is in need of some focus.
Conventionally, this is the point where I offer a solution, but I too struggle. When people have asked “what can I/we do to address this?” I’ve usually found myself either recommending keeping a low profile (to European institutions wishing to influence the UK) or to focus on the production of constructive outputs (which is not easy in the current economic and political climate). As much as fonctionnaires can do some things, so we have to recognise that leadership is a big part of the situation.
This was rather brought home to me yesterday during a lunchtime conversation about who would replace Herman van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton next year. Assuming that Jose Manuel Barroso will also be looking for new employment, we were unable to think of three serious political figures who would both provide direction and focus to the institutions and be acceptable to member state governments.
At one point, I offered Vaclav Klaus for President and William Hague for High Rep, on the basis that then they’d have to work within the system. This was – unsurprisingly – shot down, but if we imagine it for a moment, then I might argue that introducing contentious politics might not be such a bad thing. It would stimulate public interest and critical engagement; it would give scope to the EP to act as a more active check and balance; and it would show that the Union is a genuinely broad church, so making it harder for sceptics (from any country) to argue otherwise.
The value of consensus in integration has been very strongly made (and I was certainly positive in my support in last week’s entry), but we also need to see that there is also sometimes a benefit in contestation. Certainly, as long as no one wants to get their hands dirty, it is hard to see an end to the Union’s woes.