by Jonathan Kamkhaji and Claudio M. Radaelli
Scenarios about the likely future of the Euro-zone have proliferated in the current discussion among policy-makers, journalists, bloggers and social scientists. However, if we look at what is common in the different predictions about the future, we find a shared normative position. Take out the most extreme position, and look at the norm that is conventionally, albeit often implicitly, enshrined in the median opinion delivered through the media. It is a belief about the necessity to rescue the Euro and consequently the European project. If there is something good in the bad, the crisis has shed light on the value of integration and what could be lost by European dis-integration.
Given this common ground (i.e. “the necessity of integration”), the discussion is about what sort of change is desirable. Here observers diverge in terms of their expectations about the capacity of the EU as political system to produce non-incremental change. In this contribution to the debate, we focus on an argument that has been aired more than once, most recently in a paper on a possible European light federation produced by Marco de Andreis (an Italian civil servant and economist) and Emma Bonino (Vice-President of the Italian Senate, former Commissioner and leader of the Radical Party). Interestingly, their proposal draws extensively on the Ventotene Manifesto, a document we discussed earlier. Ventotene or not, we have often heard the argument that a federalist turn is in principle better than tweaking with the status quo. It is a kind of ‘if only we had…’ them where one can add on the dotted line words like ‘an economic government’, ‘a EU corporate tax’ or ‘a budget of 5% of the EU GPD’. There is little appetite for a European super-state or big government at the EU level. Even in the USA we don’t have the states and a super-state in Washington, but fifty states and a federal government. However, a light federation is still a non-incremental change.
If we look into the (light) federal scenario, two major objections arise: 1) The preferences of key political leaders, concerned with their short-term electoral horizon and the protection of state power, are such that non-incremental change is not feasible. Light federation will simply not happen; and 2) Even if this leap towards a federalizing Union were possible, it would take place in the absence of consensus from the citizens, who do not trust the EU. Indeed – this is the point – the Germans do not trust the Greeks enough to assist them, the Nordic citizens do not have sympathy for the profligate attitudes of the Mediterranean Member States, and soon.
Are we therefore stuck in front of these two insurmountable obstacles? This seems to be the conventional view: there is a solution that seems efficient and, for some of us at least, desirable. Yet practically we’ll never get there. We question the wisdom of this conventional view by using learning theory, specifically the advances in learning theory generated by behavioural economics (for objection 1 above) and the analysis of trust (objection 2).
Consider the first objection to non-incremental change towards a light federation. Deep down, this objection hinges on the limited scope for learning lessons from the crisis. The EU leaders are too slow to learn – so the argument goes. Their process of learning is hindered by their short term electoral-political horizon, or, in another version, their lack of vision. We do not have the kind of leadership that in the past proved indispensable to come out of difficult situations with a creative quantum leap. This argument arises from a classic but flawed understanding of the relationship between learning and change. To achieve change in the political and institutional context of integration – conventional wisdom has it – the leaders have to learn first. The deeper their learning process, the more likely is that preferences and consequently behaviour will change.
However, research in behavioural economics has shown that the likelihood of change depends on the contextual conditions, even relatively small modifications of the context can nudge decisions effectively. Learning is not a necessary condition for change. This body of research suggests that if actors operate under different conditions, for example because their political-institutional context has changed, they re-adapt the structure of their preferences. They learn as a consequence of change, rather than first learning and then producing change. Further, to accept change, one does not need to be visionary leader. Even an ordinary leader, with short-terms electoral horizon, will be forced into change if the context presents extraordinary pressure. When the very existence of integration and domestic state structures is questioned by an extremely challenging context, decision-makers may choose whatever non-incremental change enables them to survive, even if their core preferences would tell them to go for more limited change. Our point is that even reluctant and weak decision makers, pressed by vital threats, can learn to “love the bomb” (read: a federal EU) later on, when they benefits of a light federation emerge. It is change that triggers a process of learning and adaptive preferences.
We do not need our European leaders to learn that the federal scenario is better before they jump into it. They can jump into it reluctantly in a ‘change or die’ scenario, and then learn that it is fit for them. If you wish, this is not too different from saying that political actors know how to make a virtue out of necessity – nothing new in the history of European integration. Deeper integration typically spills over gradually, but emergency policy-making is faster and produces accidental, unwilling heroes in a short timeframe. Under these conditions, change or die may produce the non-incremental choices that that the literature on policy learning usually associate with reflexivity and endogenous, modifiable preferences. In short, we can live with accidental federalist heroes and still have the light federation.
What about the second problem, i.e., trust from the citizens? Would a step towards the light federation generate a spectacular failure via popular opposition? In their Ventotene Manifesto (1943), Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli made several references to the ‘lava of popular passions’ as indispensable element of a democratic and federal EU. Surely there is no widespread enthusiasm for the EU, although the same could be said of the enthusiasm for political parties and domestic institutions.
Yet again, however, it is useful to identify the key causal mechanism between change and learning. This time we add trust to the change-learning equation. The orthodoxy on transnational trust is grounded in the belief that a common cultural legacy and economic-political development fuel trust in people from other countries. However, culture and economic-political development do not change swiftly in the EU Member States. If anything, eastern enlargement has made the EU more diverse and therefore the scope for common cultural legacy, whatever that may be, has become narrow. But recent scholarship argues that trust can be learned. Drawing on Karl Deutsch’s intuition about theories of learning in political communities, two political scientists, Hans-Dieter Klingemann and Steven Weldon, have started to look at transnational dyadic trust in Europe between 1954 and 2004. Transnational dyadic trust is a form of generalised trust (as opposed to individual trust between two people who know each other personally). It is more abstract that individual trust. Thus, it involves heuristics or cognitive shortcuts to just the trustworthiness of citizens of another country. This is still work in progess, but the data examined by Klingemann and Weldon show that trust is learned. Specifically, it is learned via processes of communication, cross-border interaction, and inter-connectedness – a point made by Karl Deutsch in 1950s but up until now not tested on survey data.
There is an interesting implication of these findings for our discussion. Give the EU citizens a light federation: communication, inter-connectedness and cross-border interaction will increase. At a minimum, venues and opportunities to learn trust will increase. A sense of political community (to paraphrase Karl Deutsch) will emerge as a consequence of deeper integration. It should not be seen as pre-requisite for a scenario of light federation. Yet again, it’s the direction of causality that matters in this argument. There are caveats of course: the data do not stretch beyond 2004, so they miss the effects of enlargement to the East. And generalised trust at the transnational level (as measured by surveys) is not trust in EU institutions, it is trust in citizens from other countries. But there is enough to be sceptical of the common argument that ‘Europeans do not trust each other, so there is no point in switching to a more integrated EU’.
Actually, thinking specifically of trust in the EU, we believe that us, the citizens, are right not to trust this EU of technocrats and ministers. But if we were to see a functioning light federation, we would also learn as a result of adaptation to a changed context. Today, in Italy only 8% of people trust the political parties. And they rightly do express distrust in the parties they see. This does not mean that we have to get away with political parties altogether. Rather, the implication is that we have to build a more transparent, accountable party system in Italy, something that the Italians can trust. Our argument about trust in the EU is more or less the same.
Citizens judge and trust what they see. Give them a radically changed EU political system, and trust could (indeed should, according to what we have said) change accordingly. Indeed, this is an opportunity for a new covenant between the EU institutions and the citizens – a new pact built around the commitment to protect citizens from the abuse of economic and political power by their governments. Dyadic trust is negatively correlated to economic depression and corruption (more generally degradation of rule of law). The new social contract with the EU citizens should be built around the protection of economic welfare and rule of law, especially in those countries where politicians have engaged massively in the plunder of the state’s resources and in corrupt practices. In this connection, some of the conditions put by the EU institutions to Greece (explicitly) and Italy (more implicitly, but with the same substance) go in the right direction.
To conclude: we must be cautiously realistic when we discuss the scenarios for the future of Europe, but our understanding of the relationship between change and learning suggests that we may be able to count on accidental heroes and a sort of federal fuel for trust to work in a light, democratic federation.
Jonathan Kamkhaji is a doctoral student in the department of politics and associate research fellow at the Centre for European Governance, University of Exeter. Claudio M. Radaelli is professor of political science and director of the Centre for European Governance, University of Exeter. Radaelli is directing a project funded by the European Research Council on theories of learning and applications to public policy analysis (ALREG).
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