In the reverse order

The hectic developments of the Greek crisis in the last couple of weeks have exposed several important weaknesses of the European construction, both in economic and political terms – and also in cultural ones. Among many striking weakness, there is one concerning the dysfunctional relationship between the Eurogroup ministerial meetings and the leaders’ summits.

During the crisis, the following pattern has been chosen: a meeting of the Eurozone finance ministers is convened, while the heads of state and government meet later in the day or the following day. As a result, the Greek issue is discussed at the political level by the ministers, who either agree to disagree or make a deal. The outcome of their debate then gets rubber-stamped in the following summit meeting. This pattern – ministers first, leaders second – appears highly dysfunctional, and it has probably contributed to this endless crisis.

Why should finance ministers be in charge of fundamental decisions on the fate of the euro, or even of the EU altogether? They have little political legitimacy for that. Heads of government chose their finance ministers with several different considerations in mind: their party affiliation, their economic expertise, their views on their country’s economy, and so on. Finance ministers were not chosen for their views on European integration, and they were not endowed with the task of promoting their country’s conception of European integration. Each country’s line on European integration is rather set in the foreign ministries and in the cabinets of the heads of state or government, and it is promoted by them.

As a consequence, finance ministers cannot be endowed with the task of deciding the fate of the euro. To decide on the fate of the euro and of the EU should be up to the leaders. It is them who have the political capital and legitimacy required to take difficult decisions on fundamental political issues. They are expected to have a clear comprehensive view of the domestic and international aspects of the issues at stake, both in political and economic terms. For this reason, good and credible deals can only be made by the leaders, and it is them who should take responsibility for the compromise.

Given the gravity of the Greek crisis, the convening of an extraordinary meeting of the European Council makes sense. The convening of the Council after the finance ministers’ meeting does not make much sense though. If ministers have already agreed on a compromise, what is the point of convening the leaders? It is little more than a mere photo opportunity. The opposite pattern would make more sense. Leaders would meet and discuss the substantial political aspects of the Greek crisis, bearing in mind its real and potential import for the entire enterprise of European monetary and political integration. They would (possibly) find a compromise, defining the fundamental traits of the solution deal. The main details of the deal would later be defined by the finance ministers, who would discuss more circumscribed aspects of it, both in economic and political terms.