AS MUCH as it may wish to, it is impossible for the African National Congress (ANC) to avoid the uncomfortable parallels between its policy conference taking place in Midrand this week and the European Union (EU) summit that starts in Brussels later today.

This is the 19th such summit of European leaders since the region's debt crisis erupted, a sign that they have either failed to properly diagnose the root cause or are unable, for reasons of domestic politics, to bring themselves to take the steps required to resolve it. So the tough calls keep being postponed, with each leader conceding as little as absolutely necessary to keep jerking the eurozone back from the brink of disaster at the last minute.

Already there are indications that little of substance will emerge from the Brussels meeting, with Germany rejecting France's suggestion that the zone's sovereign debt and banking liabilities be pooled as a precursor to greater political union, and France balking at Germany's demand that eurozone members surrender aspects of their sovereignty before expecting German taxpayers to bail them out.

Meanwhile, Cyprus has become the latest eurozone member to request a financial bail-out, joining Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Spain has already had to go cap-in-hand to Brussels for help to recapitalise its banks and the country's prime minister conceded this week that it cannot afford to finance itself for much longer at the rates it is having to pay in the international bond market.

Bank of England governor Mervyn King reckons the world is not even halfway through the financial crisis that began in 2008, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has warned that the decisions made at the summit could make or break the monetary union, and billionaire investor George Soros says Europe is days away from "fiasco" if its leaders stall again.

The main lesson the ANC should be taking from Europe's miserable condition is that economic policy actually matters in the real world as well as in the often surreal world of politics, even if the consequences of adopting bad policies are not always felt immediately.

The eurozone got itself into this pickle by adopting bad policies and failing to implement good ones, such as those requiring fiscal discipline from aspirant member states. Germany was as culpable in this respect, although for different reasons. It took a global liquidity crisis to expose the flaws in the eurozone model and reveal the political expedience that was glossed over during the good times, but once they were out in the open the markets refused to be placated by mere talk. They want action, not a succession of summits.

The focus will remain on Europe for now, but the same rules apply to SA. President Jacob Zuma is right in saying that decisive action needs to be taken to get the economy growing, creating jobs and generating tax revenues that can be used to improve the delivery of basic services. But the markets - and credit rating agencies - are as tired of endless talk, empty promises and debates that never reach conclusions as the long-suffering and still poor average South African.

French President Francois Hollande's Socialist Party managed to secure control of almost all of the country's political institutions by promising to reverse austerity measures and raise taxes on business and the rich, but now that he is in power the practicality of doing so without falling into a debt trap along with Spain has to be confronted. Pursuing growth is all very well but sustainability can no longer be ignored as it was in the past.

Mr Zuma's rhetoric will go down a treat with ANC conference delegates, but if the policies that emerge do not put a brake on current expenditure, curb corruption and waste, or remove some of the obstacles that are increasingly hobbling the private sector, SA will eventually share Europe's fate.