The return of the big government raises questions for Europe

VSCLASS THE the power flowing through a building and the lights shine even brighter. Without upgrading its wiring, however, fuses will soon blow or smoke will come out of unexpected places. The political structures are much the same. A ramp-up thrills everyone involved, until some not-so-welcome things start to happen.

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All over the world, the political current is swelling. The role of the state is expanding. The pandemic has eroded the already fragile consensus on the limits of the role of governments in liberal societies. National politicians, those centuries-old edifices, have vast experience in navigating such pushes and sags. For the European project, a jumble of creaky foundations and makeshift shaky extensions over the years, more state power will require rethinking the institutional wiring that keeps the lights on.

A great government should be familiar territory for Europe. Inquisitive public sectors are the norm at the national level, crowned by EU institutions long ridiculed by critics as a mad bureaucracy determined to dictate the curvature of bananas. In fact, the European project has more often been a force of government restraint. Since its origins in the 1950s, the Brussels machinery has been less a Leviathan dictating new policies than a self-imposed straitjacket binding national politicians. Why, according to the consensus, should Europeans compete in senseless ways when all too often the climax of such competitions involved soldiers crossing borders and bombers flattening cities?

The most impressive accomplishments of the project (and the emergence of its latest iteration, the EU, in 1993) came at a time when politicians around the world recognized that the public sector was bloated and too powerful. Few national leaders have tried as hard as Margaret Thatcher to contain it. But many have outsourced the work to the Eurocracy. Brussels has become an unexpected force in the control of government power, a source of edicts for reluctantly obedient national politicians not to do things they might have otherwise gotten away with.

The single internal market, created 29 years ago, still demands the removal of all obstacles to the free movement of goods, people, money and services — tying the hands of politicians who want to stem the tide. migration others EU country, for example. Schengen prohibits the erection of border barriers between its members. The trade agreements negotiated by the EU remove tariffs in a continent where protectionism is sometimes popular. State aid rules prohibit politicians from spending public money on favored industries, no matter how keen they are to promote national champions. Importantly, the introduction of the euro in 1999 eliminated the possibility of devaluation and, in theory at least, imposed strict control of budget deficits.

Now those in favor of more government have the upper hand, from London to Washington and from Paris to Berlin. Can Europe, and more generally the fluid distribution of competences between the national and federal levels, adapt? Not easily. For the EU, banning stuff is simple: you just have to decide what to ban. In fact, doing things is more difficult. First you need to decide what to do, and then figure out how to do it. Take public subsidies to industry. Banning them, as Europe has done for a long time, is simply to chastise those who break the rules. But creating new documents involves choosing which companies should receive public largesse and how much. Should they be microchip factories or defense companies? Who decides when the priorities should change? Who pays?

Europe can shift gears in two ways as government swells, argues Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels. The first concerns the EU get out of the way. Countries can just start doing what they were once forbidden to do. For example, the rules on state aid and budget deficits were suspended as covid-19 raged, and they are unlikely to fully recover. This gives national governments more leeway to engage in behavior that was previously prohibited. The downside is that it reverses the European project. The second way is for great government to happen at European level. Some powers pass to EU establishments. In 2020, the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, was given the task of sourcing vaccines for everyone from Finland to Portugal. Europe’s ambitious green agenda is largely driven from Brussels. The next generation EU (NGEU) The fund, a 750 billion euro ($ 846 billion) pandemic response, is a step towards a federal budget. All of this is in addition to already powerful elements of the edifice, notably the well-run European Central Bank.

EU tour if you want

This “more Europe” approach raises the question of whether the EUThe current institutional cabling of is quite good. The Brussels machine is a formidable regulator and legislator, but are its executive skills up to the task? If we stick to the vaccine supply episode, the answer is no. The first breakaways meant that the Europeans got their first jabs long after the Americans and the British.

Much more centralization would also require more oversight. The commission acquires vast new powers. For example, he can remember NGEU funds from countries that do not implement the reforms they have promised in order to get their hands on some of the money. With such powers come greater accountability. However, what happens in Brussels is rarely scrutinized beyond its bubble. The European Parliament should do the job, but often focuses on the dogmatic demand for a greater role for the EU (and for himself).

Homeowners faced with large electrical projects are often content with makeshift solutions. Europe is likely to do something similar. No one is in favor of a broad set of institutional reforms, which only heavy treaty changes and the referendums that result from them could bring about. A new EU program here, a new fuse box there, will do for now. But that may not prove to be a lasting solution.

Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:

How European politicians began to think of themselves as Europeans (January 1)
Emmanuel Macron’s delicate Christmas present (December 18)
Angela Merkel, the invisible European (December 11)

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Rewiring Europe”

Mary I. Bruner