Critics of Germany’s actions in the eurozone debt and banking crisis often berate Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor, for lacking a “vision” for Europe. Not me. I am with Helmut Schmidt, West Germany’s plain-spoken Social Democrat chancellor from 1974 to 1982, who once said that people who have visions should go and see a doctor.

What is the view of Mario Monti, the distinguished former European Union commissioner, who worked closely with Merkel during his 17-month spell as Italy’s prime minister from November 2011 until last April? Monti now chairs a committee on promoting a united Europe at the Berggruen Institute on Governance, a non-partisan think-tank headquartered in California. I contacted him earlier this week in Milan, and as usual his thoughts were perceptive and full of common sense (and quite long sentences).

He told me: “By and large, I believe that we may or may not like the policies pursued by Chancellor Merkel, and her prudent and slow method of steering the German and European response to the Greek crisis and other crises annoyed many of us on many occasions, but retrospectively I think we have to recognise that was the price to pay.”

The price to pay for what?

Well, Monti continued, the eurozone crisis has intensified a populist, anti-EU trend in European politics that may deliver some nasty surprises in next May’s elections to the European parliament. This trend was, of course, already visible a decade ago. Remember shocks such as the 2005 referendums in which Dutch and French voters rejected a proposed EU constitutional treaty on closer European integration?

But the economic slump that struck Greece after 2009 increased support for the far-right Golden Dawn party in a way that, according to Merkel’s critics, would not have happened if Germany had acted more quickly and decisively to restructure Greek debt and limit the devastation to the economy.

Monti’s point is that such rapid German action might have backfired on Europe, by stirring anti-EU populism in a German electorate that was never entirely convinced it had been a good idea to give up the Deutschemark in 1999 for the euro. “I would be more scared if this sort of [Golden Dawn-style] movement had gained ground in Germany because of a faster response to the crisis which might easily have alienated German public opinion from the euro.”

In other words, Merkel is a shrewd judge, when it comes to driving forward European unity, of how far and how fast to take the German people. The price that Europe might pay if she were to get this judgement wrong does not bear thinking about.

Still, Monti added, political leadership matters. One problem in today’s European democracies is “the predisposition of political leaders to be political followers – to give the people what they want in the short term”, rather than what might be good for their nation and Europe in the long term.

Perhaps it is this lack of courage that creates space for the populists? “The cause of European integration is particularly vulnerable to populism,” Monti said, “because populism is simple reasoning, it is the rejection of complex solutions, and nothing is more complex than the EU.”

I could have sworn he made that last remark with a sigh – but maybe it was just that the line from Milan was fuzzy.

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