European Council on Foreign Relations

Europe’s crisis of trust

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon an article on “Cameron’s Munich” comparing the alliance between the English and the Czechs at the last European Council with the situation of Munich in 1938. This is just another example how ‘war rhetoric’ has returned into the public debate. I always thought that European integration was always about reconciliation, education, youth exchanges – and peace. Suddenly, this all seems to be forgotten as Nazi-rhetoric, Reich-allusions and war analogies are back in the mainstream media. “Toute est langage”, everything is language; Francoise Dolto’s famous concept applies once more to Europe these days. The best piece in this context - and on how careful we should be with our language came last week from Joschka Fischer in the German Daily SZ, where he argued that perceptions matter and that especially Germany should take into account how it is being perceived by the rest of Europe.

The question we need to ask ourselves is simple: How does the EU want to build a deeper fiscal and political union without trust between its members? Language is - in many ways - the basis of trust. But - if the language we use gets darker and more hostile, trust between people erodes – until it finally disappears.

Do we trust Greece to solve its problems? Do we trust the Italians to play along? Do we trust the Poles will do what it takes to join the euro - after the envisaged entry date was ditched? Do we trust, that the UK will not torpedo (more than usual, one should say) the new treaty? Do we trust the Germans to eventually push for Eurobonds? Do we still trust European institutions to deal with the crisis? And above all:  How do we restore trust among the younger generation to support the European project? It seems that we lost trust in Europe, but trust is crucial for developing good policies. The best fiscal compact, the most automatic sanction cannot replace trust.

Peace cannot adequately be captured as ‘the absence of war’. In today’s Europe, peace should be defined as the absence of mistrust, because without trust you cannot engage in truly common policies. Yet, if we use this new concept of peace, I would argue that Europe is increasingly in a state of war.

Europe needs ‘confidence-building measures’

We desperately need ‘confidence-building measures’ between the European centre and the periphery. And for those who consider the EU to be a potential empire, it is clear that the centre always has to support the periphery for the sake of survival. The alternative is the break-up of the empire. During the Cold War in Germany a similar mechanism was known as the “Zonenrandausgleich”.

In 1998 Martin Feldstein argued that the euro will lead to war in Europe - and I was shaking my head about another American who wouldn’t get the unique European story. However, the erosion of trust is palatable all across the EU as every country seeks to keep a national asset in its pocket, just in case something goes wrong. From energy supply to security, from trade to taxes, or from interest rates to immigration – competition and opt-outs increasingly win over cooperation in Europe. Just to clarify the argument: competition is a good thing. However, when it undermines collective leverage to the outside world, it becomes silly.

Unfortunately this kind of rhetoric is also part of the intellectual discourse these days. During the last months I came across several public intellectuals who used war references to analyse the current crisis. For example Thierry de Montrial (at the “Les Etats de la France” conference in Paris) or Rainer Wieland (Vice-President of the EP at a woman’s’ networking conference in Berlin); both argued that it would be too easy to say that Europe cannot go back to war. They went on and both explained that it obviously wouldn’t be a traditional war, but instead... However, the “but” was not really spelled out which has left a very bad taste indeed. Well, toute est langage, once again. Let’s stop talking about war in Europe! Instead, we need to go back to a debate that focuses on common challenges and common solutions.



W. Born 17th February 2012 at 04:02pm

Please allow me to comment on your article. My perception is that the erosion of trust within the European Union does not only refer to the trust among its members - Greece and Germany, UK and France etc. There is a growing mistrust against the European project as such, especially among the citizens. The monetary union and also the rapid and unprecedented enlargement have led to a growing alienation of the citizens from the European project. It is more and more perceived as an elitist project. People do not feel at home anymore in this European House. The political elites in the EU and the leading member states have turned the wheel too fast too far.
There may be solutions to the Euro- and sovereign debt crisis but it would demand mechanisms that you may find in a federal state but not in a union of nation states. By the way: As you certainly know there is no bail-out in the USA. Federal states like California have to cope with its debt crisis alone, without the help of other US states ofr the national level. Why does it has to be different in the Euro-Zone?
At the EU political level and in the states that are the receiving end, there are claims to introduce such mechanisms like Euro-Bonds. They neglect that there is no societal consensus about how a European “state” should look like, about the role of the state and a common curreny, especially with regards to public debt and inflation. There was never an honest public debate about this. There is not even a European public sphere to discuss it. Under the pressure of the crisis, developments seem to be acceptable and are pushed for that were beyond consensus in normal times. To introduce them as an answer to a self-made crisis (the adoption of Greece and other less competitive countries as members of the Euro-Zone were political decisions that disregarded the logic of a monetary union; the Maastricht rules were never really accepted etc.) without a proper discussion with the European peoples raises mistrust, and finally has lead to the inappropriate language that this article complains about. Why should the European peoples trust such a misleading political attitude? As an elitist project, the EU will fail because the peoples will find ways to get rid of it. To me, it seems more promising if the political leadership admits that the Euro-Zone in the current shape was a mistake that has to be corrected. Problems tend to grow bigger the longer they are neglected. More honesty is needed. Mistakes need to be corrected. The call for more and more money leads to a failure of the Euro-Zone and finally also the EU. The Euro cannot survive as a political curreny. It is too expensive for Greece, Portugal and others, while it is beneficial for Germany as it is cheaper than the Deutschmark would have been, thus favouring German exports and leading to imbalances. Only countries with a similiar societal contract and economic competitiveness are appropriate to have a common currency. Of course, this paradigm does not correspond to the “European dream” but to neglect this economic truth leads into disaster. To defend the status of Greece (and others) as a EURO-country is by no means sustainable - and endangers the whole system. When will the political leaders learn that.

K Bledowski 21st February 2012 at 04:02pm

Ulrike is right to claim that Europe lacks trust – in institutions, in political leadership, perhaps also in ideas taken heretofore as conventional wisdom.

Trust is another word for a social contract when applied to a body politic. In Latvia and Ireland, the governed agreed to harsh measures that ended up impoverishing the taxpayers but sparing creditors and shareholders. These are examples of social contracts built on confidence in foundations of a country’s comparative advantage and economic strength.

No such trust is visible in Greece. If the Greeks can’t live up to their national social contract, what chance do they have to subscribe to one at the supra-national, federal level? This is one weakness of a future political union that is little discussed.

The EU may be aiming too high: it looks to me as if it were trying to fit a political framework over an economic space that is obviously too large. Perhaps there is no feasible way of building a political union that is commensurate with the monetary one at this time? Sad as it sounds, I am beginning to believe some ideas floating around aren’t entirely realistic.

james 9th January 2013 at 03:01pm

it is the same issue all over the world

Holger Reinhard 27th February 2013 at 04:02am

We in Germany are the poor ones that will pay the unity of a europe tht has no borders. But never mind, time will come and the others have to pay.

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