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Europe must overcome the politics of fear around the debt crisis

As the former prime minister of Greece, my experience with the debt crisis confirms my belief that this is a political crisis more than a financial one. We have adopted a passive, almost defeatist attitude in Europe. We must break this cycle of fear and mistrust now.

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The EU’s complex decisionmaking process has been an outcome of a delicate historical balance between member states. Today, however, people feel they are sidelined by these decisions. In trying to confront its fiscal deficit, Europe has run up a democratic deficit.

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As we take the next steps toward European integration, we must give ownership of this process to the people. Policies imposed on citizens without their active consent are doomed to fail. Already, a frustrated, educated but unemployed younger generation is losing faith in our European institutions and values.

This vacuum has created fertile ground for populism and extremism. When our citizens feel disempowered, they will turn to saviors or target scapegoats, as they do not participate through dialogue and responsible deliberation to understand and solve common problems.

Europe can regain the confidence of the markets, but first we must regain the confidence of our citizens. That is why I called for a referendum in Greece, so that people could debate and decide on their own future.

There is nothing wrong with European countries ceding sovereignty in the interest of creating a stronger Europe. (Indeed, they already have.) But as we do so, we need to rethink how our representatives in the union are elected and how decisions are made. An EU president, elected by a European Parliament (or even a directly elected president), European-wide referenda, forms of more direct citizen participation, and the use of social media are ideas already ripe to explore.

This new Europe, as I see it, will not be the product of one grandiose decision, dictated by an elite minority of powerful nations or some anonymous bureaucrats in Brussels. Small, incremental but complementary steps – made by each of us individually and all of us together – will build the values and the foundations for the Europe that we want.

Democracy and education will give new capacity to our citizens, and that, in the end, will empower Europe and reinforce its legitimacy in our societies and around the world.

We do have a choice. Either we empower Europe and its citizens and become a catalyst for humanizing our global economy, or globalization will dehumanize our societies and undermine the European project. As a citizen of Europe, I vote for the first choice.

George Papandreou is the former prime minister of Greece.

© 2012 2012 Nicolas Berggruen Institute/Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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