It’s about time we spent some time looking at other things beside the Greek debt crisis, but I can’t let it go without drawing attention to this piece by Jeffrey Sachs from a week ago – just before agreement, of sorts, was reached in Brussels. Like others (including me), he makes the link between the European Union’s economic and political difficulties, but he is more explicit than most about where the problem lies and what a solution would mean:
Like the newly independent US, the EU today lacks an empowered and effective executive branch capable of confronting the current economic crisis. Instead of robust executive leadership tempered by a strong democratic parliament, committees of national politicians run the show in Europe, in practice sidelining (often brazenly) the European Commission. …
The Eurogroup, which comprises the 19 eurozone finance ministers, embodies this destructive dynamic, meeting every few weeks (or even more frequently) to manage Europe’s crisis on the basis of national political prejudices rather than a rational approach to problem-solving. Germany tends to call the shots, of course, but the discordant national politics of many member states has contributed to one debacle after the next.
Sach’s comparison is with the United States under the Articles of Confederation, but it’s easy to imagine the same sort of thing in Australia. Imagine if COAG was the most powerful federal institution, frequently sidelining the federal cabinet, and imagine cabinet itself consisted of ministers who often saw themselves as representatives of their respective states, and were only half-heartedly responsible to federal parliament – which in turn was made up of MPs mostly elected on state issues.
Getting any sort of coherent federal policy made would be incredibly difficult, and whatever emerged would lack basic democratic legitimacy.
Of course, such comparisons are somewhat question-begging. We already think of Australia and the United States as single countries: the whole point is that we don’t think of the EU that way. But until we do, it’s hard to see how else the governance problems are going to get solved.
Federalism doesn’t have to happen all at once; it may continue the same gradual progress that has characterised the last few decades. Indeed, despite the current atmosphere of crisis, I still think that’s the most likely outcome (although whether or not it’s compatible with continued British membership is an open question). All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there are some major decision points that can’t be avoided for much longer.
And while Greeks might have strong views on some of those, the project of European integration predates the Greek troubles, and its unsolved problems will still be around long after Greece has faded from the headlines.