This is a Weakends (pun intended…) post, so bear with me please. I am asking the following: Is the European Institution (Union, Commission, etc.) a weak institution? What lessons should we take away from this?
Recently we have seen several noteworthy decisions by a European institution that shows a certain lack of cojones to see things through when it comes to serious decisions. Examples are plenty.
Just recently the European Union’s position on the import of highly polluting tar sand changed out of nothing (hat tip to Marco Ploeger):
A European Union plan to label Canadian tar sands oil as highly polluting as part of its fight against climate change has been abandoned after years of opposition from Canada, clearing the way for exports of tar sands crude to the European market….
EU sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that given the situation with Moscow, the desire for a trade deal with Canada had been a factor in the commission’s move to remove the “dirty oil” tag.
In a similar vein, the European Commission craved in to the pressure from UK and gave the green light for the construction of Hinkley Point C, a nuclear power plant that sees unforeseen subsidies by the UK government. Apparently, one of the main reasons for this decision was that the English Prime Minister threatened that UK would leave the EU in case the EC blocks Hinkley Point C.
So what makes an institution weak? There is an enlightening definition out there by Arjen Boin, who defines a weak institution as follows:
When its influence wanes, and it is no longer taken for granted but formally still persists, we speak of a weak institution.
Well, the European institutions still formally persist, we know that because each year national governments are providing them with a total of roughly 120 billion Euros.
How about its influence? (source here) Well, the proportion of Europeans who trust the European Union fell steadily from its high point of 57% in 2007 to its current all-time low of 31% in 2013. During the same period the proportion of Europeans who have a positive image of the European Union has steadily decreased from 52% to 31%, while the proportion holding a negative imagine has steadily increased from 15% to 28%.
During the period 2004 to 2013 the proportion of Europeans who feel that their voice does not count towards decision-taking at the European level has increased from 52% to 66%. Does this surprise you? Obviously it should not. For example, despite the fact that close to 600 000 Europeans signed an online petition against Mr Arias Cañete as the new European “Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy”, his position has been confirmed by the EC a couple of days ago. I mean, how difficult can it be to at least find someone with more expertise in Green Growth and at the same time with fewer personal connections to the lobbies?
This is one of the major defaults in Europe (especially in contrast to the US): People with little expertise hold high political positions because it fits the strategic agenda. For example, in Germany, Mr Rössler was Health Minister from 2009 to 2011, and then from 2011 to 2013 he was the Minister for Economics and Technology. Nearly every minister in the cabinet in Germany held another minister position before that had nothing to do with his/her current position. Mr Arias Cañete became a European Commissioner because of pressure from Spain. This position shoving is simply short-term thinking and does not get us anywhere!
Is there a general lack of spine, of backbone, of cojones out there among those holding political positions? Yes, there is, but maybe also for a good reason. Nowadays, the popular press jumps on anything and everything that may somehow weaken a person in an official position. For example, most of the critique that Mr Cañete had to bear rested on two points: a couple of sentences related to women and his financial relation to an oil company. We know basically very, very little about his real expertise. He might have been the best choice for the position at hand despite his unsightful comment about women and his financial relation to an oil company. While his track record (see bottom HERE) is not putting him in a green light either, this could also simply be due to Spain’s financial constraints during his time in office. Point is: We simply do not know. And this is what I am criticizing.
So here is a simple three-point agenda for the European Union’s politicians to get their trust back:
1) Be transparent and informative! If 600 000 people sign a petition against a new commissioner, then the EC must be even more transparent and informative about why they choose him nevertheless. And it should not be the people that need to google and try to find information on what is going on, but instead the EC should go to the people and provide full information. If someone doubts you, then you do not erase this doubt by doing nothing or hoping that that person comes to you and questions you. Instead, you have to go to the person.
2) Get a backbone! Though we know that all cats love fish, we also know that they fear to wet their paws. If you start to give in to some unreasonable pressure and take wrong decisions, then you are going to end up taking wrong decisions even without the pressure…
3) Think long-term! We have enough national governments that plan short-term. We have enough companies that can’t see further ahead than a year. If an over-arching body like the EU is useful, then it is useful for something that others tend to do less. Long-term thinking, setting an overall agenda, envisioning a future that others don’t. This is what the EU should be about. And in the moment national short-term thinking is able to exert enough pressure to change the framing of this long-term agenda, in that moment the EU becomes a weak institution that simply transfers finances from one country to another and pays itself a high salary for that. In that case the EU won’t have a future. The future of the EU is in building the future.
For that the EU needs to think long-term, to have a backbone to see things through, and to be transparent and informative so that the citizens understand why decisions are taken, what decisions are taken, and where this will take them.
And this is to the popular press out there: Be kinder, a little bit clever, don’t just jump on any headline that’s out there but do proper journalism from time to time. I know that is difficult, but that’s your job. Don’t just feed the beast but be careful to wisely choose its food!
And now, for all those that having been reading through all of this only in order to know what the heck this was all about, here are the Weakends with their own strategy for weaklings, weekends and EU institutions, enjoy, and that’s it from me for this weekend. Have a great one!