European Political Poker

Germany’s political summer break has started with a hangover. After weeks of very long days spent on the Greek debt crisis, an exhausted-looking Chancellor Angela Merkel is off to her usual recreational program, starting with some Wagner at the festival of Bayreuth, and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, is trying to gather strength on the North Sea island of Sylt. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is wondering whether the headache will ever subside. We’ve drunk too much of the Greek crisis, and the booze has revealed some uncomfortable truths.

The past round of negotiations aimed at resolving the Greek debt crisis has once more shed light on one of the European Union’s core flaws, namely, its lack of democratic legitimacy. On the European level, some basic mechanisms are kaput. It all starts with the broken conversation between governments and their voters.

During the weeks of negotiations, the usual intercourse of policy deliberation — the government comes up with an idea, the news media pick it up, it is discussed at the pub and opinions are echoed back to the political sphere by pollsters — was interrupted. It was replaced by poker-table communication: Instead of saying what they wanted, Europe’s leaders engaged in doublespeak, saying things publicly to strengthen their negotiating position in Brussels, even if those things were often at odds with their actual intent and thoughts.

Mr. Schäuble proved a master gambler. Take his ministry’s well-timed leak of a paper, through the newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, arguing for a temporary “Grexit” — just days after the Greek referendum and in the middle of a meeting of European Union finance ministers in Brussels. Referring to sources within the administration, the newspaper claimed that Chancellor Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, the minister of economic affairs, also knew about the proposal.

Four weeks later, Mr. Schäuble’s Grexit paper is still a topic of exegesis in Germany. Was it placed in the press as a threat? Was Mr. Schäuble trying to raise the stakes for Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, in order to force the wayward state to consent to more painful reforms? Was Mr. Schäuble really gesturing at France, intending to build negotiating capital for future emergency rounds concerning other debt sinners? Were Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schäuble playing good cop/bad cop?

And if the Grexit plan is real, is it the revenge of an angry old man fed up with Greece’s socialist government — or a means to render a possible debt haircut for Greece’s creditors, which wouldn’t be legal within the framework of the euro? Mr. Schäuble won’t say; instead he has continued to feed speculation by publicly toying with the idea of stepping down. Whether he actually wants Greece in or out, however, is hard to tell.

This might be a good negotiating strategy, but it’s bad news for European democracy. That’s because Germany’s poker-face politics isn’t an exception, but rather an inherent part of the system. Decision-making processes in the European Union are an open invitation for political double play of all kinds. As long as many crucial decisions are made by the Council of the European Union, the heads of state or their ministers, political communication remains triangular: Governments communicate and negotiate with other governments; their home electorates are relevant only at the margins.

This multilevel game allows for a whole set of different poker strategies. Sometimes, voters serve as a valuable hand. The implicit threat by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain to push his electorate toward a Brexit in a referendum next year is a good example. He is playing his people in order to force the rest of Europe to concede to reforms in favor of Britain. But does Mr. Cameron personally want the Brexit? Nobody knows.

Sometimes, Brussels serves as a scapegoat, as a seemingly anonymous set of institutions that make unpopular decisions in the place of national governments. If you come back from Brussels with a result other than the one you have vowed to push for when you went there, you can still blame 27 others for it — even if, in the end, you want the same thing they do.

Mr. Tsipras combined both strategies. He tried to improve his hand at the debt crisis poker table by staging a referendum at home that resulted in a loud no to the European Union’s proposal for reforms. When he was aced out, he could still go back bemoaning his tough luck.

Such gambling strategies are great material for Europe’s political media. From the electorate’s perspective, however, strategic communication equals no communication at all. The citizens are left in a blur of inconsistent information about the people who ostensibly represent them.

This is not a small problem. It is a threat to the idea of political accountability, which relies on the identification of a person or a party with political actions and ideas, which in turn relies on knowing what they do and what they want. The whole idea of poker, however, is not letting anybody read your face or guess what card you are going to play next.

The answer to this problem is neither new nor easy to realize, particularly not in the current climate of European self-depreciation and existential doubt And still: Europe’s voters need a more direct influence on the European decision-making process, by way of the European Parliament. If Europe really wants to overcome its crisis, the people of Europe must claim a place at the poker table.

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

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