How policy debates in Europe become untethered from reality

How policy debates in Europe become untethered from reality

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IN 2016 the election of an American president with a wilful disregard for the truth inspired some observers to return to “On Bullshit”, a monograph on hot air written in 1986 by Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher. Europeans delight in this sort of thing. They enjoy contrasting the “fake news” and “alternative facts” that characterise the Trump administration with their own, more honest, brand of politics. Yet they should not be so sanguine. Worryingly, bovine waste seems to be spreading in Europe.

Take the recent spat in Germany, where Horst Seehofer, the interior minister, came close to blowing up the coalition between his Bavaria-based Christian Social Union and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Although migrant arrivals in Germany have plummeted, Mr Seehofer wanted to turn back from the southern frontier asylum-seekers registered in other countries, an action that could have triggered a domino effect of border controls elsewhere. Denied by Mrs Merkel, Mr Seehofer resigned, unresigned, huffed and puffed, and finally struck a compromise to accelerate screening procedures which, by one measure, might apply to fewer than ten migrants a day. His strutting had nothing to do with managing immigration and everything to do with boosting the CSU’s standing before Bavarian elections in October. (Polls suggest his gambit has backfired.)

Mr Seehofer’s psychodrama troubled the rest of the European Union, too; a mini-summit was arranged to help resolve it. “It cannot be that some Bavarian party decides how Europe works,” sniffed Luxembourg’s prime minister. But other Europeans should not be too haughty about Germany’s debate, for their own rows on asylum are barely more rational. For three years the EU’s leaders have locked horns over how to distribute asylum-seekers across the EU. The contest has become a pure power play, decoupled from the reality of irregular migration. One estimate is that a realistic relocation proposal would have applied to a mere 16,000 asylum-seekers over two years. “Do you really want to break Europe for this?” asks a frustrated official.

Another case in point is a new proliferation of ambiguous phrases designed to paper over political disagreements. To add to its already-impressive lexicon, the migration debate has lately thrown up “control centres”, “regional disembarkation platforms” and “transit centres”. The purpose of such proposals is rarely elaborated, the details never worked out. That means leaders can all provide their own interpretations and claim victory at home, while hapless officials are left to work out how to transmute the empty phrases into meaningful policy. When they inevitably fail, the political argument returns, usually in fiercer form.

European politicians have developed a habit of turning thorny substantive debates into poisonous symbolic ones. France recently came close to torpedoing the start of EU membership talks for Macedonia and Albania. Its fine words about corruption and the rule of law were really cover for fears of handing nativist French politicians a vote-winning argument before next year’s European elections. On the debate over euro-zone reform, which has momentum for the first time in years, the German and Dutch parliaments groan with deputies who threaten to blow up deals over a “transfer union” that no one is proposing.

To a degree this is nothing new. Insoluble domestic disputes have long been outsourced to “Europe”, or simply dumped on neighbours (Austria was infuriated not to have been consulted about the Seehofer-Merkel deal, which assumed that it would take back Germany’s rejected migrants). But in a more fractured electoral landscape, politicians have bigger incentives to wage largely symbolic battles. These in turn are boosted on social media, riling the base and drowning out moderate voices.

And Europe’s posing leaves real casualties. French intransigence means Macedonia’s government will find it harder to win a tricky autumn referendum on the deal it recently struck with Greece to rename itself. The euro-zone debate may yet be derailed or diluted by restive parliaments in creditor countries battling ghosts of their own imagination. On Europe’s migration rules, no one pretends a solution is easy. But governments are wasting precious political capital on disputes that succeed only in setting them against each other.

Enter the expert

As for Mr Trump, his particular brand of baloney is now affecting Europe. At this week’s NATO summit he launched a fusillade against America’s allies, especially Germany, for not meeting their promise to spend 2% of GDP on defence. But if Mr Trump genuinely cared about this he would parade the growth in defence budgets across NATO as a personal triumph, rather than berate allies for not doing more. His real gripe is America’s trade deficit with the EU; military free-riding just offers an excuse to press his case that America is being stiffed. “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong,” writes Mr Frankfurt. Mr Trump is indeed right that Germany should spend more on defence.

But that should be the start of the debate, not its conclusion. The nature of the security threat to Europe is changing, and America has growing commitments in Asia. This should lead to a serious discussion in Europe over how the allies can best pool military resources, spread risk and exploit national specialisms to take more responsibility for their own defence. Germany is well overdue a national debate over its security strategy. Instead, the discussion has been eclipsed by a fixation on a number that is a poor proxy for how NATO allies should share military burdens.

The challenge posed by Mr Trump demands a clear-eyed and unified response. Instead, Europe finds itself bogged down in squabbles that have become increasingly untethered from reality. If Europe has had enough of Mr Trump’s nonsense, it might help to stop peddling so much of its own.

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