Europe is in crisis. Looking at the last few months, people may feel like saying sarcastically ‘not again’ or ‘still?’ If we take stock of Europe over the last few years the results look pretty meagre. The Lisbon Treaty, formerly known as the European Constitution? Saved at the last minute but only by the skin of its teeth! A global leader on climate protection? Once upon a time, perhaps! A force for peace? National rhetoric seems more important than the European External Action Service! An active player in resolving the financial and economic crisis? Almost destroyed by petty nationalism! No wonder then that any trust in the political institutions – at all levels – is rapidly disappearing.
The EU and its 27 Member States are clearly stumbling from one hopeless situation into the next. Yet it is legitimate to ask whether Europe really is now plunged in a deeper crisis than ever. European integration has been marked by ups and downs since the post-war era. As early as 1956 the then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer spoke of the ‘European need’ and the fact that Europeans could not rouse themselves to anything more than a series of conferences and that joint action was the exception rather than the rule. So is all the talk about crisis just hysteria?
No, on the contrary! During the last century, cooperation was propelled by a common vision: to prevent wars ever happening again by means of closer European cooperation. Today, however, the heads of government are primarily concerned with clinging onto their own powers. The European spirit has degenerated into a means of boosting one’s own position. Unlike in 1956, the European Union and its Member States are facing a crisis of identity which looms over every (ordinary) day-to-day crisis like a sword of Damocles. As a result, every European downturn becomes a crisis about the meaning of Europe. Constitutional crisis, democratic crisis, financial crisis – the Member States keep sliding headlong into the abyss until at the very last moment one of them finally summons the European spirit. This cannot go on much longer. It is time to call things by their name.
‘Generation of faint hearts’
This is a ‘generation of faint hearts’. Looking round Europe today, you will find that nearly all the heads of state and government regard the EU as a meal ticket rather than a political project. From Madrid to Warsaw, from Vienna to Sofia, all the governments of the 27 EU Member States want to know is how they can grab the biggest slice of the EU cake while avoiding any loss of their own sovereignty. What they choose to ignore is that even a cake needs ingredients, a recipe and a baker before it can be handed round.
Nobody is prepared to invest more than they also expect to receive in return. By investing we mean not just money, but primarily political capital. The climate, financial and economic crises have all shown that this is a very short-sighted and risky card to play. The UN climate summit in Copenhagen failed largely because the EU Member States played the ‘you first, then maybe I’ll follow’ game, instead of putting pressure on the other global players, such as the USA, China or even Brazil, by acting independently. We know what happened. They all went home empty-handed. Much the same is true of combating the results of the global financial and economic crisis. Instead of acting resolutely as a united EU and laying down new regulations for the financial markets, the big Member States spend far too much time quarrelling about which one is best at protecting its own national financial market interests and picking out special rules for its bankers.
However, the real danger with this ‘generation of faint hearts’ is that it wants to ignore the unwritten limits of national self-interest and no longer knows or disregards the reasons why it is sometimes worth giving more than you receive. When Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in the Bundestag at the moment of Greece’s greatest need, did not exclude throwing that southern European country out of the EU as a final resort, she was not just showing her ignorance of the EU Treaties. She was also sending a signal to her European neighbours that Germany, as the largest and economically strongest EU Member State, was prepared to break with European integration. In so doing she was not just putting our common values in question.
If we look at the broad political spectrum, we find to our consternation that this ‘generation of faint hearts’ has managed to paralyse European policy throughout our continent. European policy is being pursued in the style of short-sighted project management, with a view only to ensuring that there are as few conflicts to resolve as possible. The winners in this crisis playoff are the nationalists, deregulation fetishists and eurosceptics. They take pleasure in tearing out individual building blocks from the European house. The tragedy is that neither the householders nor the many workmen, fellow occupants and architects tell them to stop. The political leaders in the Member States tend, especially at times of election campaigns, to make Brussels the scapegoat in order to conceal their own inertia. Even many deeply committed Europeans of this generation have been infected and increasingly follow the maxim: whatever you do, don’t fashion any big European plans; it is better to think in small steps or just to keep still. Then the problem will sort itself out one way or another. And so it will: sooner or later the house will fall down.
Unless we soon begin to strengthen the foundations of our European house, the pressure of neighbouring houses on our structure will increase even more. Those who want to prevent the collapse of the European house, which is being converted on the outside but is divided within, which some tenants want to pull down and others are happy to accept as it stands, must first strengthen the foundations of that house. They will also have to decide clearly which walls and floors need to be modernised, who else can move in, and also what investment costs that will require and how the household community is to be involved in this project. But we should not expect the ‘generation of faint hearts’ to draw up the building plans.
It is time our generation, which only remembers the walls and borders in Europe from childhood, finally dares to look at the plans for building Europe and to take practical steps to expand the European house and set out its aims. We believe that a united Europe is not a vision but something that is felt in real life and is self-evident; perhaps the Erasmus EU exchange programme is a symbol of that. For us, not being able to travel around Europe or study there freely, not to have and visit European friends, is not an option. Like the founding fathers – although for quite different reasons – we believe there is no longer any question of ‘going back’ to narrow nationalism. Like the question a well-known chain of furniture companies asked, our question with regard to our European house is this: are we inhabiting it or actually living in it? We know the answer to that question, but many people still need convincing that ‘living’ is more than ‘inhabiting’ if we want to succeed.
That also means that we must oppose the lack of ambition and the passivity in Europe today with our ideas and above all with our European visions. We cannot let ourselves go on being irritated by people who allege that these no longer have the support of the majority. We are not looking for a ‘make-a-wish Europe’. Surely the process of European integration teaches us how much can be achieved if people formulate their aims and stand up for them, however long and stony the road?
The idea of a common European currency was first mooted just after the Second World War. It took some 50 years before it was introduced, but it was introduced. Does that mean Adenauer, Schuman and others were dreamers when they drew up those plans? In 1945, following two world wars, Europe was faced with a level of distrust and scepticism among the various states we cannot imagine today. Yet thanks to European integration it proved possible to overcome the real borders and those in people’s minds. Today we can travel from Finland via Poland to Portugal without even having to produce an identity card. We regard all that as a matter of course. People in other parts of the world still find that inconceivable; when they travel to another country the norm is visa applications, changing money and border controls.
As members of the ‘Erasmus generation’ we therefore say quite deliberately and pragmatically: if we want to save our house from collapse, we need a new debate about European visions that goes far beyond the next EU summit. Precisely because we know how long processes of change take in the European Union we must make a start now. However necessary practical politics are on a daily basis, we can no longer embroil ourselves in everyday trivia but must dare to look beyond the horizon.
Perhaps the reason we have been so lazy in the past is that we took all the achievements of European policy for granted. It is difficult to explain to a 22-year-old German or French citizen what things used to be like, when you still had to change money if you wanted to travel to a neighbouring country. Even the young generation of eastern Europe is beginning to forget what the iron curtain once meant. It is now six years since the major round of EU enlargement and the earlier euphoria has given way to a general realisation that unfortunately even the EU and its western European Member States are no different from anyone else. At the same time our self-centred approach and at times our ignorance of global developments have prevented us from noticing all the big new houses the Chinese, Indians and the Brazilians have long been building around our European house.
It is time, therefore, for us to ask what part of the European house we want to be able to look back on with pride in 30 or 40 years’ time, knowing that it is we who built it. We should not wait for the ‘generation of faint hearts’ to act. It is up to us to reiterate the importance of old objectives as much as to put forward new ideas. As it was for the generations before us, our foundation stone for the European house is the lesson to be drawn from two world wars that brought unutterable suffering (not only) to the European continent. The experience of the Balkan wars of the 1990s also made it painfully clear that peace and understanding are not automatically guaranteed on the European continent either. That means that only by remembering the past and constantly emphasising the value of what has been achieved can we shape the future.
We neither can nor want at this point to define, down to the last detail, what a ‘United States of Europe’, ‘Federal Europe’ or ‘United Europe’ mean. But we believe in further-reaching integration. We want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren a Europe that goes a step further than the Lisbon Treaty. For us that means a Europe of values such as solidarity, peace, welfare, diversity and sustainability. A Europe based 100% on renewable energy and in which our grandchildren only encounter petrol engines in museums. A Europe where it is a matter of course that everybody can spend part of their education and professional life in another EU Member State and be entitled to social security there. A Europe that speaks with one voice in the world and that sets human rights as the yardstick of political decisions both at home and abroad. A Europe that is not intimidated by national tub-thumping when faced with upcoming projects such as European economic governance, strengthening the regions or the future distribution of European funding. A Europe in which subsidiarity is an incentive for cooperation between Düsseldorf, Berlin and Brussels. Some pro-Europeans will immediately agree with us, others will ask – with some justification: ‘and how will that happen in practical terms?’ Well, we do not have an answer to everything either. Yet we have answered the central question as far as we are concerned: ‘do we have enough confidence in the European institutions to let ourselves be ruled by a European Parliament, a European Commission and a Council in which German representatives are one minority among many, in which political problems are viewed not just from a German, but also from a French, Polish or Maltese, i.e. basically from a European point of view?’ Our answer is quite definitely yes! Do we believe that this will still leave enough margin for action for national, regional and local politics, because ‘Brussels’ must not run everything? Our answer is quite definitely yes!
Yes, because we need a new European convention for this debate about the Europe we want to bequeath to our children! For many people, the collapse of the European Convention has meant a loss of purpose and direction. Yet we are convinced that Europeans deserve an honest answer to the question of what will happen now following the entry into force of the Lisbon ‘compromise treaty’, in terms of both institutions and substance. The necessary foundations have been laid. The Convention on the EU Constitution showed the positive force that can be unleashed if as many social groups as possible take part in the process of discussing Europe’s future. For the first time the European Treaties now officially provide for convening a convention. Now it is primarily up to us, as the ‘Erasmus generation’, to stand up for this new convention and also to discuss our vision of a ‘United States of Europe’ there. The Europe we envisage is not afraid of public discussion about the best ideas and projects for the future, and we warmly invite everybody to join in.
Berlin, October 2010
Jan Philippe Albrecht, MdEP
Annalena Baerbock, Vorstandsmitglied Europäische Grüne Partei
Franziska Brantner, MdEP
Silke Gebel, BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN LV Berlin
Manuel Sarrazin, MdB
Michael Scharfschwerdt, BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN LV Berlin
Jan Seifert, BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN LV Schleswig-Holstein