With prospects of economic stagnation at best, the timidity of European leaders appears more reckless than the gambles of insurgent parties.
Sometimes the European Central Bank dares speak truth to power. The recent flagship annual meeting in Sintra, Portugal, was one such occasion. The bank’s economists presented a very serious projection, claiming eurozone unemployment is to remain in the double-digits even once the recovery cycle completes and demand returns to normal.
Indeed, projections of eurozone GDP growth predict an abysmal average of 1.6% in the period through 2019. And even that, with the optimistic assumption that Ukraine, ISIS, or Grexit- and Brexit-induced financial chaos do not worsen the scenario.
This pairs up with recent worries of secular stagnation, or the idea of a future marked by neglegible growth unable to create jobs and to support the economic redistribution at the basis of a social market economy.
This much for the future. The present we know well. In different parts of Europe it is a mixed bag of mass unemployment, a lost generation, pauperisation of the middle classes, retrenching welfare, and rising xenophobic and anti-European forces, which now include France’s second party and the new President of Poland.
What would serious leadership be in such worrying scenario? It would be to show a credible way out and to build the political alliances necessary to reach it.
But our established leaders seem otherwise occupied. On the one hand, they trump up a narrative of a miraculous recovery to come, a narrative that is undone by their own economic projections and that citizens increasingly refuse to believe.
On the other, they muddle through.
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy have just advanced proposals to improve the functioning of the eurozone. There is much to be done. The divergence between so-called central and peripheral countries cries out for more effective and radically different social and economic policies. Huge democratic gaps wait to be filled, fuelling angst with the EU amongst a majority of its citizens. Decision-making no longer delivers: the paralysis over the hecatombe in the Mediterranean is just the latest example of a system that is institutionally, as well as morally, bankrupt.
But the proposals they have come up with are insulting in their timidity and detachment from reality. They include completing some of the left-overs from last year’s banking union, focussing the work of the European Commission on a more limited number of priorities and challenges, or streamlining the European semester by which the Commission sends recommendations on the budgets of member states. The Italians came up with the only reasonable proposal of the package: phasing in a European unemployment insurance. Watch it get shot down.
This is the vision that eurozone leaders outline, and this is their plan to emerge from the greatest threat to collective well-being in Europe since the second world war.
It would be a farce, if it were not still a tragedy.
And so it is that insurgent parties appear more reasonable than our traditional leaderships. Syriza may be inexperienced, the new mayors of Barcelona or Madrid may have radical backers, social movements may be economically illiterate. But they are able to mobilise citizens for a positive cause of change, recuperating trust in the transformational power of politics and resisting the emergence of xenophobic shortcuts. That’s what good politics looks like.
Most importantly, they are aware of the gravity of the situation Europe is in, they are not afraid to outline it publicly, and they show an alternative direction forwards. That is what leadership looks like.
One may agree or disagree with the exact prescriptions that such parties advance. But one thing is certain: they introduce a generational change and ask Europe to face reality. Europe, and its old leaders, badly need to listen.