OPINION

Europe’s shaky leadership

Europe is in a mess, and Greece is not the only reason for the wave of doubt regarding over-borrowed countries, banks and the common currency. A bigger problem is the lack of coordination and strategy at a continental level. Just when we thought we were moving closer to unification, with the much-delayed ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in December, Europe appears more divided than ever, with each of its 27 separate countries beset by its own doubts. The mechanism at the center of the Union is uncertain, the countries do not coordinate with each other, and many governments are weak and have to conduct policy in accordance with domestic political demands and not what is best for the EU. This is all happening at the moment that Europe needs to strengthen ties between its members in order to deal with the economic crisis and to forge an identity and strategy in the face of several political challenges. The longer the EU delays in finding its way, the greater the damage will be to the European economy. In its latest report on the global economy, the International Monetary Fund on Friday forecast world growth at 4.6 percent this year, with Asia at one extreme (9.2 percent) and the eurozone at the other (1 percent), and with the USA achieving 3.3 percent. (The forecast for Greece this year is 4 percent because of the severe austerity measures.) To get out of the crisis, Europe needs vision and strategy. It needs inspired leaders who will be able to persuade their own people and the 500 million Europeans that the venture of a united Europe will succeed, improve their lives and increase their potential. It also demands European mechanisms that will be able to coordinate and enforce the policies which will be adopted. At both levels we see Europe’s great political problem: National leaders are caught up in domestic problems and do not easily reach agreement with their partners; the EU is turning into a Tower of Babel with several decision-making centers. We see a number of bodies that compete with each other or move at different speeds and with different criteria. At the very top, we have the council of national leaders, with their president, Herman Van Rompuy; the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, with its president, Jose Manuel Barroso; the Eurogroup, made up of the 16 members of the eurozone, chaired by Jean-Claude Juncker; and the European Central Bank, under Jean-Claude Trichet. Each of these bodies becomes a stage for disagreements. Since July 1, Belgium, a country with a caretaker government and a real danger of breaking up into French- and Flemish-speaking parts, has held the EU’s rotating presidency. The continent’s two leading economic and political powers – Germany and France – have gone from unshakable pillars of unification to intensive squabbles over economic policy, with Germany insisting on fiscal discipline and France on greater efforts to stimulate development. At home, Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a serious blow in the difficulty she had in getting her candidate elected president – a questioning of her authority that compounds the problem caused by the Germans’ discontent with her handling of the economic crisis. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has seen his approval rating plummet to 26 percent, amid allegations that some of his aides were caught up in corruption scandals. And that was before last week’s claims that he accepted illegal campaign funding in 2007. In Britain, the first coalition government in 65 years is trying to deal with a 12 percent deficit and ballooning debt, with measures that will strain the public’s patience and the coalition’s cohesion. Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland have taken harsh austerity measures in an effort to escape Greece’s fate and the need to turn to the IMF, prompting public protests that are sure to worsen as the measures hit incomes. The economic crisis, however, forced the EU’s member states to adopt a joint position and create a mechanism for supporting any country that should need help. Weak leaders were forced to surpass themselves and take an historic step toward Europe’s unification. They managed to prevent the Union from falling apart. But they still do not appear convinced that only when they are united can they be strong.