Diversity and Community: On the Future of the European Union

Diversity and Community: On the Future of the European Union

Nov 06, 2012


Diversity and Community: On the Future of the European Union

"Sevilla: Former pavilion of the European Union," by harry_nl, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Ralf Fücks
Crises are accelerators of change. The financial crisis has already fundamentally changed the architecture of the European Union (EU). That no state would be liable for the debt of another was a cornerstone of the Treaty of Maastricht. Now it has crumbled to dust. In addition to the international rescue funds, the European Central Bank now guarantees the refinancing of heavily indebted states. The Bundesbank model has become obsolete. A European banking regulatory authority is coming; the recapitalization of troubled banks will take place via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). These are nearly revolutionary developments. They followed no plan, no clear concept of the future of the EU, but were forced by the normative power of the factual.

That a common currency requires a stronger political integration has become a platitude. The catchphrase is “fiscal union.” What exactly this means, however, is very much up for debate. Should it function via a permanent financial transfer scheme from the financially strong states to those in deficit? How far should this common accountability go? Does it necessitate harmonization of taxation policies and welfare systems? If so, it would cut close to the budgetary authority of the member states, the parliaments’ chief power over the governments. It would have to be subject to strict parameters and controls. After all, a transfer union without the right to intervene in the policies of the member states would be an invitation to organized irresponsibility. Conversely, there will be no European finance minister as a watchdog over national budgets without an expanded joint and several liability; in this respect, Wolfgang Schäuble and François Hollande’s demands are simply two sides of the same coin.

The economic divides within the Eurozone are greater today than before the outbreak of the crisis. Political differences have grown sharper as well. We are a long way from a European sense of “we.” Instead, old ressentiments are roving freely through the countries of Europe. As protestors in Greece attack the “financial nationalism” of the Germans, the German fear of becoming the paymaster of Europe is running rampant. The return of national stereotypes undermines European solidarity. After years of hesitant crisis management, one thing is clear: the currency union will only survive if Germany is prepared to enter a European burden-sharing arrangement. Greece, Portugal and Spain are caught in a downward spiral, which austerity alone will not cure. Their interest rates must fall, and investments rise. Without partial collectivization of their debts, this won’t be possible. This is the price “Germania” must pay for the defense of the Euro. It is, in any case, less than the financial and political costs of the breakup of the currency union. At the same time, the risks of a union of joint liability are plain to see. If mutual guarantees cancel out the individual responsibility of the member states, things will get dangerous. In the long-term, after all, the only effective debt brake is responsibility for the consequences of one’s own policies.

The question we are confronted with, then, is with which institutional arrangements the EU can once again stand on firm ground. For European firebrands like my friend Dany Cohn-Bendit, the current crisis is a historic chance for the big leap to post-national Europe. From this perspective, strengthened integration is synonymous with the ongoing transfer of sovereignty: from the national parliaments to the European Parliament (EP); from the national governments to the European Commission (EC); and from the federal constitutional court to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The process of European unification is conceived of as the evolution of the EU into a state, as the progression from a community of states to a European federal state. The transfer of powers appears as a zero-sum-game: what the EU wins in authority, the member states lose. The European space is consolidated, while national politics are emptied of significance.

The vast majority of the population does not share this view, however. According to current polls, 68 percent of Germans wish for a politics closer and more responsive to the citizenry. How can we reconcile this with the calls for “more Europe?” A substantial majority rejects a “United States of Europe,” since this is understood as a concentration of power at the European level. Most citizens would like to have more intensive European cooperation, but no far-reaching surrendering of national sovereignty. They already have the feeling of ever-less influence on the processes that shape their lives. The outsourcing of political decision-making to European committees only intensifies this impression.

One can counter this position with the good reason that Europe will only be able to maintain its sovereignty by bundling its powers. The core of the matter is, how do we conceive of this unified Europe: as a structure governed from the center, or as a flexible network of European states with communal institutions, in which they administer their common issues? I believe the dual character of the EU, as a union of states and of citizens, is an appropriate response to the tense relationship between European unity and diversity. The states make up the fundament for the communal institutions, in which we recognize and conduct ourselves as Europeans. This is especially true for the European Parliament, which must advance more to the center of European politics.

For the foreseeable future, national governments and parliaments will remain the decisive actors in the European concert: collectivization, yes, but as horizontal integration, not as a centralization of European politics. The EU is no empire, ruled from a single center. It needs common goals and rules, without suspension of the individual responsibility of its states. It remains essential for the ability of the EU to function. This is also a lesson from the debt crisis. Failure of politics in the member states cannot be compensated by “more Europe.” The future of European democracy will first-and-foremost be decided in the respective states. That is where the dangers for a free political culture originate. We need both: binding norms and goals, decided at the European level, and the competition for the best solutions, left to the states and regions. The spirit of federalism holds that only where obligatorily European decisions must be made, should they be made in Brussels.

In the digital age, centralization is an anachronistic model. We are living in an epoch of rapid, far-reaching changes. In a dynamic environment, decentralized systems have the upper hand. They are more flexible and adaptable than sluggish, complex organizations. Europe should therefore forge a third way between centralism and Balkanization. Today’s EU of 27 (with Croatia soon to be 28) member states is already too heterogeneous to march in lock step. The solution to this problem is called differentiated integration. The Eurozone is one prominent example of an area of deepened cooperation within the EU. The Schengen Agreement, too, applies to only a subset of the EU member states. Instead of relentlessly pursuing the fixed idea of leveling the economic, political and culture differences in Europe, we should view the EU as a framework for diverse networks of cooperation. Those who wish to pursue the integration of armed forces, harmonization of taxation and welfare systems, or the cross-border network infrastructure for renewable energies, should be allowed to do this without having to wait for everyone else. Such a system of variable coalitions is something different from the idea of a cemented “Core Europe,” which would split the EU into an inner and outer circle. It would offer room for Great Britain and other countries skeptical of integration, without dictating the tempo for them. At the same time, it would be open for new members from the western Balkans to the Black Sea. The method of flexible cooperation makes both possible: deepened integration and the widening of the union, instead of pitting one against the other.

When we speak of the future of the EU, it’s about more than saving the Euro. The community must solve its internal problems, so that it can be capable of acting outwardly. Neither can we afford to write off the east of Europe (including Russia), nor can we stand by as mere observers of the upheavals shaking the Middle East. Should Europe give way as an anchor of stability and beacon of democracy, the lights will go out for millions of people. In recent years, the attraction of the EU for its neighboring states has drastically dwindled. This is partially due to its internal crises, but also the fading prospects of enlargement. Navel-gazing has become commonplace; no one wants to be bothered by the scuffles in the Balkans or in the Levant. One cannot speak of a consistent policy towards Russia or Turkey. In security policy, Europe remains dependent on the alliance with the United States, without playing an active role within NATO. The question is whether Europe wishes to remain relevant as a strategic actor. If it does, then we must strengthen internal solidarity, as well as our capacity to act externally.

Ralf Fücks is President of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin



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