Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Book review: Herman van Rompuy, Europa in de storm

ROME – Here is one of the reasons why Europe fails to maintain trust: its most constructive leaders remain invisible and its most visible leaders have become caricatures. There is not much that fills the gap. What is more, some of its leaders argue that there is no reason to fill the gap either. So does Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council. In a short treatise he calls for a Europe of practical solutions instead of a Europe of great ideas. He fails discouragingly, however, to explain how citizens can be expected to support a Europe of practical solutions if do not have the slightest idea about its destiny. It is as if he accepts almost that Europe is too tired to thrive.

Let me start with the interesting bits of this book, particularly because they are disappointingly rare. In chapter ten, Van Rompuy describes the importance of the European meeting table and his personal role. “I have never asserted that I wanted to become a star president, of the kind of Obama, Putin, or Xi, but I did want to build bridges.” The main role of the President, he writes, is not to intervene in day-to-day politics, but to stand ready to step in in exceptional situations. The challenge in this regard is to maintain momentum, to prepare the summits so that leaders can reach the maximum of agreement in a short period of 10 to 12 hours and to encourage them to overcome domestic pressure in the days after the summit. Everything depends on preparation, a climate of trust, personal relations, and a commitment to meet leaders where they are at home, to sense their environment.

The description of the different summits of drama and suspense that addressed the Eurozone Crisis is useful, but does not add a lot of new insights to what we were able to read in the newspapers. Apparently, the president himself was surprised that the Brits came up with a demand to exempt the city of London from new financial rules. That is odd, because British policymakers had been calling for that in the week before the summit during which these rules were discussed. Does it imply that good preparation is not enough or even that the President might not be able to follow important discussions in the capitals? It would have been interesting to read more details about these matters and certainly about the unfolding of the discussions in the working group on economic governance, which Van Rompuy chaired.

It is startling how Mr. Van Rompuy fails to go to the core of important dilemmas. He states for example that the dichotomy between austerity and growth is false. “As if one can end a crisis by means of more public or private debt,” he writes. This is of course true. That is to say, it is true in case of Europe. Other economies have managed rather well to externalize part of the problems by issuing bonds. So, more debt is not an option, the President believes, but what will then reignite growth? Can there be growth at all? Should there be growth? I find it unacceptable for an official of his calibre and a former politician that such questions are not properly addressed and that his personal view seem to be limited to: “Unfortunately, I have no no magician’s wand.”

Indeed, it is van Rompuy’s conviction that we have to demystify Europe and to restore it to its practical reality. But what does that practical reality imply for those governments, those societies, and those youngsters who look at Europe, for instance, to support the creation of jobs? The most important instruments, the author argues, are the 8 billion Euros set aside for the youth employment guarantee and the budget of the European Union of 1 trillion Euros, spread over seven years. As if that is going to get our unemployment rates down. Van Rompuy seems to expect a lot from bigger commercial services companies and IT, but the share of IT in Europe’s total employment has remained very small. Moreover, it is obvious that the new jobs in IT are largely offset by the job losses that automation causes elsewhere.

The President also hints that the current welfare state is not sustainable. With seven per cent of the world population, he says, Europe represents 50 per cent of welfare spending. I have heard that figure before, but it is uttermost nonsense. As if the United States, for example, spends less on healthcare, pensions, and insurances, or the share of these posts are smaller in the GDP of other developed countries, like Japan. The difference is of course that we spend more of that money via the public sector, and, fair to say, tend to get better, yet certainly not perfect, services in return. But should that lead us to the conclusion that we have to dismantle the welfare state? Or should we try to improve it? Van Rompuy has not much to say about this.

The chapter on global affairs is a top-leader unworthy. I had the opportunity myself to discuss international politics a few times with the President and he gave me the impression that he was a rather astute observer of how the world functions. Nothing of that comes back in his essay. Van Rompuy limits himself to highly contestable generalizations: the transatlantic trade negotiations as a game changer, the indisputable advantages of globalization, the futility of military force, the importance of soft power (which he confuses with economic sanctions), Europe still functioning as a magnet to neighbouring countries, including Turkey. He also claims that the major powers take Europe seriously as a political partner and that a new awareness is growing among the member states that they have a common neighbourhood. Without examples, these claims too are dubious. I cannot resist the image of Van Rompuy in Wonderland, a wanderer that takes personal hopes for reality.

It is good that politicians like Herman Van Rompuy are prepared to mediate discretely, to reconcile the different parties around the meeting table, and to subtly influence the process ahead of the summits. But besides such a secretary general, there is an urgent need also for leaders that can lead the way. Van Rompuy is right when he stresses the need for a flexible and dynamic Europe. But such dynamism requires confidence, confidence a stable Europe, a stable Europe legitimacy, and legitimacy a vision. That vision should be about the society that we envision, how it will address the very understandable worries of its citizens, and the concrete steps towards it. Without such vision, I fear, that it will become harder and harder also to justify the practical Europe that Van Rompuy has in mind.

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