Merkel and Monti offer some hope
The measures now agreed by the leaders of the eurozone and by the European Council are not in themselves sufficient to save the European single currency, but they are a significant step forward. They appear to have bought the countries of the eurozone some time – appearances will be tested by this week’s auction of Spanish government bonds. They may even grant the European Union some respite from the existential crisis that has raged in recent months.
If the EU is to benefit from some peace from the events of last week, then let us hazard three pertinent lessons that might be of medium- to long-term importance.
The first looks incontrovertible and irreversible. The second and third lessons can only be interim conclusions: both are subject to revision in the light of subsequent events.
The first is that the gulf between the eurozone and the rest of the EU is widening rapidly. The summit was transformed by the decisions taken by the 17 leaders of the eurozone. They have embarked on co-operation that will drag others along in their wake (though probably not the UK).
The second conjecture is that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, might just find it easier to operate on the European stage without Nicolas Sarkozy as French president. Although she campaigned for his re-election and her centre-right politics are a long way from those of Sarkozy’s successor, the socialist François Hollande, it was not easy for her to operate as part of a Merkozy axis. The departure of Sarkozy may, perversely, make it easier for her to play a more agile game during European negotiations.
If that proves true, it will also be because of other changes within the European Council. Hollande is a more nuanced figure than early caricaturing would suggest, particularly in his attitude towards Europe. Mario Monti is a subtler operator than his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, as he demonstrated when forming his alliance with Mariano Rajoy, insisting on emergency measures to help the eurozone. He acted in the interest of both Italy and the eurozone as a whole.
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This may, however, prove to be the high-water mark of Monti’s premiership. Italian politics looks increasingly problematic for him. So it is worth making the point now, as our third lesson from this European Council, that the next president of the European Commission should match or emulate a Monti Standard.
To some, the idea might seem outlandish, but the vagaries of Italian politics catapulted Monti into that strange club of prime ministers and ex-prime ministers whose membership has become an apparent prerequisite for taking the presidency of the Commission. So Monti is at least a plausible candidate for the next Commission presidency.
Granted, the next Commission president is not due to take office until November 2014 and at this stage it is not clear how that president will be chosen. Those who want to make the elections to the European Parliament more meaningful (and incidentally improve the turn-out) argue that the political groups should put up candidates for the Commission presidency as part of their platform for the June 2014 elections. That would probably mean selecting candidates during 2013. Whether that will happen or not is still up in the air. It may be that the Commission president will simply be chosen, as the Lisbon treaty provides, by the European Parliament voting on a candidate put forward by the European Council.
The Italian prime minister surely burnished his credentials at last week’s summit. He has shown he has weight in the Council and knows how to use it. He may also have broadened his political support. As a Berlusconi appointment to the Commission, he was considered of the centre-right, though never a party apparatchik. But he has put space between himself and Merkel’s hard line on austerity.
The question over the next 12 months, as putative candidates emerge, ought to be: would this person be better than Monti? He has at least set a standard for others to live up to.