Shake-up of European politics is as important as saving the euro

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The current debt crisis that many EU countries are struggling with had a crucial impact on their political systems as well, transforming the role of the state, argues Pawe? ?wieboda from demosEuropa. The question of how can this be handled is as important as saving the euro.

Pawe? ?wieboda is president of demos EUROPA – the Centre for European Strategy in Poland.

"You ain't seen nothing yet. There are new governments in a number of EU member states in reaction to the economic mismanagement of the past decade. The angst of the people translates into revolving doors of leadership changes.

Yet this is only the beginning of a major redefinition of the way politics is done on the continent. Its outcome will be as important as saving the euro. The original sin behind today's crisis lies not only in the failure of technocratic design but much more so in its indiscriminate abuse by political leadership, eager to believe that eurozone members can have their cake and eat it.

The real question now is what happens to the political systems and political culture on both national and European level as a result of the current crisis.

The struggle of the left and the right will be replaced by the battle of the constructive and the destructive, we heard from Steve Jobs. If we follow the televised version of the events with abundant expressions of social angst, we may be tempted to subscribe to that reading.

However, the true problem in many European countries is not only that the political system has failed to keep up with the changing needs and aspirations of the citizens. Worse still, the left and right have often become fiefdoms of vested interests, rather than sources of new ideas. Parliaments have been turned into rubber-stamping machines.

One key question concerns the role of the state which has been changing in the most profound fashion. The state retreats from its position of an interventionist actor in the economy and moves to a three-fold function: that of an insurer of last resort, provider of essential public goods, including infrastructure and finally, guardian of a level-playing field.

The withdrawal of the state from its interventionist function removes the old ideological content from politics and opens the way to multi-issue politics with a growing number of cleavages.

Two issues become key for the reinvention of politics in the context of the changing role of the state. Firstly, it is the ability to orchestrate consensus in support of the basic rules of the game within the system and a definition of what the state is meant to deliver.

Countries which are able to generate such a consensus within their political systems will fair better. The low level of British yields is at least partly a testimony to the country's ability to establish a fairly broad consensus about its future direction.

Constitutional changes may be necessary in some countries to ensure that arrangements are in place to work out a compromise about the future socio-economic model. Details of these arrangements will differ from country to country but they will need to ensure that broad agreement is worked out on fiscal sustainability scenarios with the participation of key political and institutional actors.

Secondly, politics will need to become more responsive and inclusive. This means that the systems will need to open up with more flexibility allowed in the electoral procedures and ways of funding political parties in Europe.

In order to strengthen civic engagements, there should be more democracy within political parties. They should be allowed to hold by-elections in the course of a parliamentary cycle to put forward best candidates to address the challenges of the moment.

The other key question is how this relates to democracy and politics at the EU level. An instinctive reaction to the attempts to create a fiscal union is to enhance the powers of the European Parliament or contemplate setting up a separate parliamentary assembly should the fiscal union be created outside of the existing EU treaties.

The old slogan of "no taxation without representation" is meant to be replaced by its up-dated version – "no debt issuance without representation". But can representation solve the problem of accountability? Unlikely so, because the EU remains a contractual relationship in which it is up to the national governments to negotiate the best possible terms for the set of obligations they undertake.

The key lies not only in enhancing accountability at the European level but also in anchoring it more strongly in national democracies. In fact, as Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre rightly observes, both levels of democracy are linked to each other, thus mirroring the "existential interdependence" between euro countries.

Europe can still learn all this the hard way. Some opinion polls show that the extreme left and the extreme right combined enjoy close to 40% of support among the Greek society. In one or more of the EU countries we may well see power being won by unorthodox political forces.

Isolation from the rest of Europe will then contribute to the blame-game and national soul-searching. The hard way or the soft way, there is no doubt that a thorough change in the way politics is done around the EU will be necessary.

If there is one single reason for not pressing the ECB button, it is this lack of conviction that hardship has been sufficiently suggestive for the political change to take its course. The real battle is for the condition of democracy in Europe and how it will resonate in the wider world. The stakes are as high as those for saving the euro."

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