Germany in Europe: the politics of disintegration

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Many of us still live in the paradigm that every crisis of Europe will ultimately trigger more integration. I happen to think that this might be wrong this time – or at least that we need a monumental political and civil effort to rebuild a different European democracy (and soon) if we want to go against the current trend of European disintegration.

European politics is at odds. Not only because the ‘too-little-too-late’ approach of 18 months of crisis management has failed to convince the markets and has in fact deepened the crisis, without offering lasting solutions (ECB as lender of last resort would have been such a solution, Eurobonds too, as many argued – but the German government, under the watchful eye of the Constitutional Court, has now visibly decided against). The current Catch-22 is that all good solutions for the Euro-crisis are not legal in Germany.

But even more so, because in the midst of all these technicalities of rescue-packages and levy solutions we lost sight of some simples rules of European democracy and legitimacy. Neither a ‘Frankfurt Group’ nor a Troika nor a non-accountable G-20 should decide what European citizens spend their money for and how much they should save: these proposals should come from a strong executive that is embedded in a political system based on clear and approved rules: in this case the European Commission. And whether these proposals are followed or not should ultimately not be decided by either a Parlamentsvorbehalt of the German Bundestag, nor by a Slovak coalition government or by a Greek referendum – but by a parliamentarian body for the whole Eurozone that is responsible for the expenditure of Euroland. This is the vision we should have for the future European democracy and we should seriously start working on this vision soon if we want to prevent the system from unraveling because we lost the citizens on the way. Jürgen Habermas got it right when he asked for the dignity of democracy to be savedagainst the collective ‘outcry’ about the announced Greek referendum.

The European citizens in Athens as well as in Berlin, or in Paris as much as in Rome, have the right to be outraged: during the months of crisis, a Franco-German couple, which is no longer a peer-relationship by the way, has, as Sylvie Goulard notes, bypassed the European institutions, above all the Parliament and the EU Commission. Citizens turned into spectators of half-hearted euro-crisis solutions and the search for a scapegoat for the sovereign debt crisis (whether you blame the Greeks or the banks depends more or less on your political affiliation) diverts attention away from the real questions: do we want a fiscal union now and thus remedy the basic, but essential flaw of EMU since its introduction? Do we accept giving up the principle of national budget sovereignty? If so, under which conditions of democratic control at the European level? Do we give the EU the right to tax? How do we organise ‘participation’ after all? Are we truly committed to save the Euro, because we want to keep Europe’s leverage in the world? Without a strong currency this would be inconceivable. After all, the US based five decades of global power on the dominant position of the US dollar in the international monetary system.  If we consider ‘more Europe’ as the solution, are we able to organise a fully-fledged European democracy? Europe has less a sovereign debt problem than a problem of national vanity!

Beyond building ‘firewalls’ and recapitalising banks, what we need most is the construction of European democracy. We need to quickly undertake the right short term steps that may open the way to good long term solutions. Frankfurt-Groups are only a distortion of this. And even treaty change to solely create a ‘stability union’, the new German proposal, falls short of this goal. A monetary union cannot be run with tougher fiscal surveillance alone. The system needs sticks, but also carrots.

As it is highly unlikely that the European Parliament proclaims itself into an ‘Assemblée Constituante’ (although one could easily argue that Europe needs a ‘democratic revolution’), intermediate steps need to be designed and many proposals are already on the table. They go from electing the President of the European Commissionto a parliamentarian two-chamber system, or establishing a chamber composed of national parliamentariansas Jean-Claude Trichet  and Joschka Fischer recently suggested. Also, one could imagine a pro-rata Eurozone-Parliament, the  harmonisation of election cycles within the EUto forge pan-Europeans debates and consensus, or, to follow Andrew Duff, British MEP, a certain percentage of MEPs could be elected on cross-national lists.Whatever the solution will be: the patience of citizens is running out.

In other words: it is easy to see how the ‘German Europe’ (in terms of economic paradigms) is now under construction: France has shifted to German austerity with the €65 billion package of cuts announced last Monday, Italy is desperately trying to ‘clean up’, and Greece is de facto a fiscal protectorate. Hence it is not so easy to see how we will get lasting public support for these policies. And it is even harder to see how, under these conditions, broad support for the ‘more-Europe’ argument can be mobilised, after an ever poorer performance in the course of the crisis spoiled the last bit of trust in and value of Europe in citizen’s eyes.

Disintegrationcomes with a certain momentum and develops a logic of its own. It often happens quicker than one imagines. Once it begins, it is hard to stop: the system becomes ever more dysfunctional and, because of this, people no longer support it. Disintegration also means that facts become fluid and amalgamate, which is why some observers are scared the EU may collapse like the former USSR did. In this particular case a banking crisis, a European sovereign debt crisis, a European legitimacy crisis, a general political crisis, cheating by the Greeks (or rotten German Landesbanken, depending on which side of the argument you sit) and the original flaws built into the EMU are melting into one pot of discontent. It’s high time to clean the pot! If not, Europe may go the way of Weimar and we will soon be writing the books about the 10 reasons why the EU failed.

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