But Van Rompuy’s self-described “quiet diplomacy” illustrates what critics say is a fundamental problem dogging the Europeans: How can you manage a crisis when no one is really in charge?
The euro, unlike any other major currency, is rooted in an arcane set of treaties and a spirit of European unity rather than a formal central leadership vested with the authority to manage. Europe’s failed attempts to resolve a debt crisis that is threatening the global economy, observers say, are exposing the pitfalls of that governance system, with competing national interests and highly diffused leadership making it nearly impossible for the region to take bold, fast and successful action.
To a great extent, the leaders of Germany and France — the two largest nations that use the euro — have sought to fill the void, becoming the chief architects last week of yet another new plan to save near-bankrupt Greece and expand the firepower of a rescue fund aimed at propping up the larger troubled economies of Italy and Spain.
But their presumption to make decisions for the region is increasingly frustrating smaller euro-zone nations, such as the Netherlands and Finland. Worse, their authority is being severely undermined by the Greeks, who shocked Berlin and Paris on Monday by calling a surprise national referendum on the terms of the hard-won deal struck last week. In one blunt stroke by Athens, Europe’s entire rescue plan could fall apart.
Those tensions reflect the bigger quandary facing the Europeans as they seek an endorsement of their latest rescue plan from heads of state, including President Obama, at an economic summit in Cannes, France, this week. A longer-term solution may require European leaders to do something they are largely reluctant to do: give up more power.
With a storied constellation of cultures eager to retain their identities, Europe is unlikely to ever resemble a true United States of Europe with a single central government. But effectively acknowledging flaws in their system, European leaders agreed last week to take fresh steps to strengthen central governance, with the first draft of a plan due next month.
Any further surrender of national sovereignty will be hard-fought. And few examples underscore the reluctance of European leaders to cede power to a central authority more than the position now occupied by Van Rompuy.