Before the European elections 2014: European Union – yes, but more regional decisions on local issues!

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From 22th-25th May the European elections will take place. 375 Million Citizens from 28 countries of the European Union (EU) are going to vote about the future composition of the Strasbourg EU parliament. According to surveys it is expected that because of the growing Euro- skepticism, right- wing populist parties will obtain a significant amount of votes. In France it is expected that 24% of the electorate will vote for Marie Le Pen’s Front National FN (as a commentary in the German “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” [FAZ 9.Jan.2014] noted in an analysis entitled “Enemy Image Europe”). An increased share of the votes  could also be obtained by the “Austrian Freedom Party” (FPÖ), the “Party for Freedom” (PVV) of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and by the ”United Kingdom Independence Party” (UKIP) in England, just to name a few examples. It is generally expected that between 90 and 110 seats in the European parliament could be won by independent candidates and by party members belonging to the Euro-skeptic group. The EU parliament would thus have a critical block up to 15% of the total 751 seats.

One of the great Euro-skeptics is Great Britain. A year ago the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in a much publicized speech that in 2017 (2 years before the next European elections) a referendum will be held where the British citizens should decide whether or not England should stay in the EU. The internal debate in England and the arguments put forward by David Cameron for a change of course have also been recently the subject of many articles and comments, in particular in the German press.

The future of Europe from a British perspective

End of October the Bonn based Mid- Atlantic Club (MAC, a private association of former military, diplomatic and industrial representatives with offices in the U.S., Great Britain and Germany, which devote their work to the strengthening of transatlantic relations) organized a meeting in the Bonn City Hall in cooperation with the City of Bonn. At that time the author had the chance to participate at the event. The British Ambassador Simon McDonald was invited as speaker as well as a delegation from the British MAC. MAC chairman and former German Secretary of State Friedhelm Ost (Bonn) stated in the introduction that the key question which must be debated today is the “future road map of European integration” and to what extent Germany and England share common goals in this debate. He made reference to David Cameron’s planned referendum, where according to surveys 65% of the British see a disadvantage in the EU membership and only 36% an advantage. Ost underlined that Germany in particular Chancellor Merkel wants to keep the UK in the European Union “since for us the UK is an indispensable partner”.

In his speech “The Future of Europe from a British perspective”, the British Ambassador made clear that what is  at stake in the debate about the future of Europe is the “roadmap of European integration” and the question to what extent “Germany and England have common goals.”  “The Union is not an end in itself but a means to an end for us. We see it as a tool to promote prosperity and stability, as an anchor of freedom and democracy, not only in Europe”, McDonald said. At the same time he pointed to the global challenges which Europe is facing:

* Firstly the “problems in the Euro-zone” to which “we must respond in a flexible way”, so that our institution and procedures really serve the interests of the Member States.

* “Europe is in crisis of competition while other states around the globe are moving ahead.” Therefore the internal European market should be deepened and extended and we must engage more in foreign trade.

* The gap between the EU and its citizens has grown dramatically in recent years.

“The lack of democratic legitimacy and acceptance is particularly felt in the UK, but not only there.” While the EU represents only 7% share of the world population, it provides 25% of the global economic output and has to pay for 50% of the global social benefits.

According to McDonald Britain has no plans to join the Euro. What is crucial from a British perspective is the development of the “European internal market”. With regard to the EU institutions the Ambassador called for more “flexibility”. “We should be clearly committed to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality”, the Ambassador said, stressing that one must look for a variable geometry in order to find the right solutions for solving the tension between the Euro Zone and the European Internal Market. The real question one must ask today is how Europe should look like in the next 20, 30 or 50 years. The issue is not any more to create peace in Europe, “but what counts is how we can secure our prosperity in the global competition. The EU will only be able to maintain its global position as a community of values, if it responds to the challenges and expectations of the younger generation. Here our countries share a strong common interest.”

Instead of austerity – some kind of “German Marshall Plan?

Some of the concepts outlined by the British Ambassador concerning the future development of Europe were reflected and supplemented in a series of articles and commentaries, which were published in the German press at the beginning of this year. Exemplary is an article by the Senior German historian Hans –Ulrich Wehler, who published a commentary in the German Weekly “Die Zeit” (Nr 2 January 2014) under the  title: “Überfällig: Ein Kurswechsel” (Overdue: A change of course).

According to Wehler the following key elements for a reorientation of the German European policy are needed: Europe suffers from too much Brussels centralism. Wehler recommended to the new CDU/SPD coalition in Berlin to take the growing Germanophobia in Southern Europe seriously and respond in an appropriate way. He mentioned that the German austerity dictate had “devastating effects “ and  triggered waves of a vehement, deep-rooted nationalism. This in turn was caused by unemployment, the crisis of the state and the economic situation of the respective countries. The budget policy, which the Federal Republic demands from Southern Europe, as Wehler warned, should be defused by a generous assistance program under the maxim to “challenge and promote”. Wehler spoke of some kind of a “German Marshal Plan” which while being European based should be primarily financed by the Federal Republic as the strongest economy.  “What about the credibility of the European project, if for example youth unemployment in the Southern European countries is between 50 and 60%?”  Wehler asked.

The cultural heritage of Europe- a valuable heritage

In a critical assessment the historian noted that by looking at the developments in the EU over the last decades there is neither a “Single European state” nor a single “European people”: “All parliamentarian and political decisions are made in the various member states!” He further noted that there is also no “European linguistic community” i.e. the Germans can’t follow the public debate in France, Greece, or Poland and in return the Italians, Hungarians and Portuguese can’t follow the public debate in other member states. Despite a common but differently experienced history, according to Wehler, there is no authoritative “common historical experience” as European community.

Despite all compromises the nation –state traditions had proved very powerful. However the wealth of European traditions, as Wehler stated, is an expression of Europe’s cultural diversity and its most valuable heritage which must be defended against the trend to homogenize everything. Wehler therefore recommended a “change of course” in European politics: get away from an overly bureaucratic, “centralist” Europe towards a more “decentralized system”. “Brussels’ instructions should not dominate everywhere, but what should instead prevail is the principle of Subsidiarity, according to which individual matters should be treated as long as possible by national institutions.”

The question is not over- regulation imposed by some bureaucratic EU institutions, but  complex and cross- border problems, such as the regulation of the financial markets, the control of the banks and the security and foreign policy should be left to the central Brussels institutions. In respect to England, which correctly demands some curbing of the wildly proliferating centralism, Wehler stated that such a “change of course”  would also make the relations with the UK easier.  In a more “decentralized Europe”, according to Wehler, the “participation of London in the EU would be much easier. No sensible European wishes to renounce to the cooperation with England given England’s valuable political experience and its predominantly pragmatic, political style.”

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