Let us leave crisis mode!

, by Ludger Wortmann

Let us leave crisis mode!
Photo: CC0

Brexit is the last bit in a long chain of events that have put our politicians in permanent crisis mode. “This needs to end: We must look to the future!” says Ludger Wortmann.

On 11 April, EU governments agreed to extend the deadline for Brexit in order to avoid the UK leaving the EU without any agreement. Their course of action may be noble and fair and their behaviour rational in limiting the damage, but it has one shortcoming. It will extend the political agony that Brexit has brought upon Europe. As long as Brexit looms, the EU won’t be busy with anything else but Brexit. This is part of a larger trend.

The EU has been doing nothing but grapple with its own institutional problems for more than a decade now, while the rest of the world is building its future. In 2008, the global financial crisis befell us, caused mainly by a market failure in the United States real estate market and European banks’ happy participation in it. The financial crisis as such occupied the minds of politicians for about a year, and the answer to it, saving the banks, was national, not European.

This set the scene for the mode in which European politics have been conducted since then. There are two main characteristics in EU politics ever since 2008. First, it is national governments that call the shots, while the EU institutions are sidelined. Second, political decisions are not made with a better future in sight, but with catastrophe looming.

From 2010 to 2014, the national governments were busy solving the Eurocrisis, a crisis caused by their own failure to build a feasible currency union fifteen years earlier. Their poor attempt to clean up the mess they had caused resulted in endless conflict and bizarre intergovernmental institutions such as the EFSF, the ESM or a gain in power of the Eurogroup. It was also ultimately unsuccessful. The main problems of the euro remain and it was only Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” statement that stabilised the situation. Apart from failing and damaging the EU, the attempt to solve the Eurocrisis also occupied politicians’ minds and time in the EU, so that nothing forward-thinking could be done, while China and the US were able to move on, the latter even despite being gridlocked between Congress and President.

From 2014 on, national politicians were in crisis mode. While Hungary’s government had been destroying Hungarian democracy for four years, Poland’s new government now jumped on the bandwagon. Attempts by the European Commission to solve the problem were sabotaged by national governments. Soon, however, a new crisis appeared. It was the failure of national governments to set up a reasonable asylum system that resulted in Italy and Greece being overwhelmed by the number of refugees on their islands. Germany’s government accepted the people they previously considered their Southern neighbours’ problem and then called everybody else for help. For this issue, EU politicians have not found a permanent solution either.

There was, however, no break to the permanent fire-extinguishing mode of governance: In 2016, the UK decided to leave the EU. After two painful years of negotiations between an EU that – surprisingly – kept its composure quite well and a British government without any composure at all, the EU heads of government have now decided to keep themselves occupied with Brexit until October 2019.

This is the state of the Union today: While some politicians spend all their time trying to destroy the EU, most spend all their time trying to save it, and the half-measures the latter take contribute to further problems. Politics in Europe is in crisis mode.

But does it need to be? Sure, crises need to be solved. But they cannot be solved if fear of collapse is our motivation. Fear of collapse did not build the grand cities on our continent, it did not inspire the philosophers of the Enlightenment and it did not create the World Wide Web. Our politicians need a better reason to solve problems. They need an idea to strive for, some kind of a vision as to what the future should look like. We all, as Europeans, have to push for such an idea. We need to tell our politicians what we want.

Here is my proposal: We want a Europe that offers the highest standard of living and the best quality of life in the world. We want a Europe that attracts the best and brightest from every corner of the earth. We want a Europe that leads in science and technology. We want a Europe that shapes global culture. We want a Europe that inspires people’s dreams everywhere. In short: We want a Europe that shows us a brighter future.

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