05/08/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

What Really Divides Northern and Southern Europe?

Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. He is the author of the forthcoming piece: The Crystal Curtain: a postscript on Europe's North-South divide.

BERLIN-- As Europe celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Eastern enlargement, a crystal curtain has descended across the continent's North-South axis.

Europe's sovereign debt crisis may have subsided for now, but it has left behind a widening gap between the fiscally pious nations above of the Alps and the profligate countries in the South. Over the past half-decade, this rift has been explained through a myriad of perspectives: from social trust and tax collection, to solidarity and liability. But underpinning all these explanations is a deep-seated governance divide, which is eroding Europe's social and political fabric.

The Euro crisis made apparent a wide divergence in practices and standards, from the quality of public services, to the ability of a government to implement policies, to the capture of the state by special interests. According to the World Bank, on some of these issues the best Southern performer, Spain, scores 15 percentage points less than Germany; the gap between the Netherlands and Greece is over 35 percent. Squeaky clean Nordic countries regularly make the top ten list in Transparency International's index on corruption perception; Italy ranks a miserable 69, between Montenegro and Bosnia.

The sources of this divide are much older than the crisis. What distinguishes the two halves of Europe, argues political scientist Francis Fukuyama, is the presence, in the North, of a "political coalition protecting the autonomy of the bureaucracy." Here civil service is largely perceived as impartial and entrusted with providing continuity to policymaking. Governance failures in Southern Europe, on the other hand, are inextricably tied to more or less pervasive forms of clientelism, which buries merit and frustrates reforms.

In the South, the legitimation of unelected Brussels bureaucrats used to originate precisely from their ability to fill this gap. In turn, European institutions have operated on the assumption that reforms are in every country's best interest and, backed by Northern member states, have imposed austerity measures on the South through a standardizing language of gradual convergence. Yet, the Euro crisis has revealed that Southern Europe is really asked to adopt a set of norms -- such as those behind labor market reforms -- that take the diligent North as their model. The widely divergent performance results from a fundamentally different understanding of the obligations and even of people's expectations on the social contract.

As Europe plunged deeper into crisis, cultural explanations gained currency. Southern observers reminded obsessively that Schuld in German means both "debt" and "guilt"; Northern European tabloids trumped up the mortgaging of the Parthenon as a solution to the Greek crisis. Not too far beneath the surface, lurked the implication that the South is simply incapable of reform.

The governance gap has led to a phenomenon that might be termed "meridionalism." Cultural critic Edward Saïd famously argued that Orientalism is the "distillation of essential ideas about the Orient -- its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness -- into a separate and unchallenged coherence." By replacing the Orient with Southern Europe, one gets a general idea of how prejudices have played out in the European narrative: not all of what is argued about Europe's South is incorrect, but "meridionalism" has been defeating the very purpose of crisis resolution.

The upcoming European Parliament elections are set to mark a nodal point in this development. The bone of political contention has long shifted from being between left and right, to being between a shrinking center supporting EU orthodoxy and the populist fringes that oppose it as the principal source of stagnation. Just staying the course on budget discipline and structural reforms will not suffice to counter the Eurosceptic agenda.

In order to earn a mandate for reform and growth, pro-Europe policymakers have to stop taking the North-South divide at face value. Most voters can grasp the nature of this issue, if only because of the wide misconceptions that surround it. Debating its origins will expose the poverty of Eurosceptic arguments; the technocratic agenda that has driven European policy making will also receive a reality check.

Above all, the public policy debate must strive to qualify the governance gap by explaining the consequences for European stability and prosperity. A divided Europe feeds parochialism, stereotyping and, ultimately, extremism. If the aim of an election is to rekindle the bond between institutions and its citizens, starting by recognizing the limitations of our political constructs is not only clever tactics. In the long run, what is at stake is the future of Europe's democratic peace.

This blog post is drawn from a forthcoming study on the North-South governance divide commissioned by the German government from the German Marshall Fund.

Fabrizio Tassinari is Head of Foreign Policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. He is the author of the forthcoming piece The Crystal Curtain: a postscript on Europe's North-South divide