There is increasing evidence of a German takeover of EU policy making, not least through measures introduced — and imposed — in response to the financial problems of Eurozone states in the European South. There is also increasing sense that central EU institutions are sidelined by new structures put in place by and run under predominantly German influence. While this may be justified on the basis of Germany’s relative weight and actual monetary contributions, as well as the country’s constitutional approval processes, its generalization would not bode well either for Europe or for Germany.
The modern history of Europe has been marked by major wars between Germany, on the one hand, and Britain and France on the other, with the rest of Europe and the world eventually drawn in on one side or the other. After a second devastating defeat in the Second World War, the German miracle of discipline and systematic work has again brought the country to the top. The European Union has served as a more benign and consensual “Lebensraum” that guarantees a minimum market for German industrial products, under rules and monetary policies that suit Europe’s industrialized North. In contrast, one sees a lack of organization and propensity towards the good life, deserved or not, in the European South, and thus a North-South split within the EU, which is becoming increasingly pronounced.
German- and North-led policies and structural arrangements may have contributed to the bad state of the South, but a big part of the blame lies undoubtedly with the South itself. Some examples from my Greek experience: Loads of EU subsidies have often been used unproductively, in infrastructure and other projects and training not connected to the local economy’s comparative advantages and strengths. The state machinery has been populated by an excessive number of people often selected not on the basis of merit but after the intervention of politicians wanting to secure individual and family votes. A resulting low productivity and low or non-existent sense of responsibility by civil servants and workers in the broader public sector, including utilities. Widespread tax evasion, while benefits are milked out of state coffers for undeserved, occasionally criminally forged reasons. While similar incidents occur in all countries, their frequency and extent clearly increase the further South one goes in the European Union.
Is the imposition of German discipline on others the way to deal with this? Is it a German Europe that is the only solution, or there are alternatives? Before attempting to answer this rather specific question let’s go back to the realm of ideas. The source of a lot of the European Union’s troubles can be traced in the inability to articulate a narrative of Europe that is inclusive of and goes beyond its individual national parts, be they strong or weak, productive or rotten. Different histories, often of wars, languages and cultures seem to make European unification a pipe dream. The alternative way of functional integration has apparently reached its limits, occasionally descending to extremes of standardization, which further increase the democracy gap that exists between the peoples of the EU and its central structures, notably the Commission, without delivering real and lasting unity. This year’s first-ever EU budget to be passed with reductions compared to previous budgets can be seen not only as an expression of empathy with the Union’s governments and peoples going through austerity, but also as the beginning of the reversal of unification, towards re-nationalization.
In light of Germany’s being the undisputed engine of growth and basis of stability for the EU and the Eurozone, what could be an alternative scenario to uniformly “Germanizing” Europe? What could balance out German influence while preserving Germany’s positive contributions? Such a European “third way” should rely on some basic understandings:
— That Europe is diverse and cannot be dominated or represented by a single nation, no matter how strong or virtuous it may be;
— That Europe is rich in culture and languages, but it now de facto has a lingua franca, which is English that can be used for official business at least, containing the current Babel and allowing to have one discussion without extinguishing the national and local languages;
— That Europe has a model of social free market that has worked in the past and can work again, if both its public and private sectors do their job properly;
— That Europe needs to be united because divided it will fall, as it is falling, next to giants like the US and China;
— That Europe has technologies to reduce its energy dependence on outside powers like Russia, if only it makes good of its own talk about green economics and sustainability;
— That Europe can come up with policies that serve both the interests of its North and of its South, if only both are properly represented and empowered in the discussions, and if decision-makers at the EU level, including the European Central Bank, try to think of Europe as a whole rather than the nations they originate from.
The above principles can be developed further and can lead to concrete guidance for action. For that, a proper panEuropean debate is needed, across borders, cultures, languages and regions, bringing the peoples together to contemplate their common future. Such a debate should take place in the lead-up to the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament and should be decisive in allowing panEuropean thinkers and leaders to emerge. Beyond the new Parliament and Commission, this could also lead to new EU institutional arrangements, be they in the form of an EU Constitution or otherwise.
One could easily see, for example, a move towards a more federal centre, with a bicameral assembly, one of elected representatives as is the case now, and one of national and regional authorities, that would replace the European Council. The EU Executive, with one President and unitary structure, should be accountable to these two chambers for its actions according to the competencies attributed to the panEuropean/federal level of government. The system of national representation on political and bureaucratic posts in the central EU institutions should be discontinued and merit should be established as the main consideration instead. And there should be plenty of light shed on the proceedings at the European level for Europe’s peoples to see and understand what is going on.
Some final thoughts on our question about the desirability, feasibility and irreplaceability of a German Europe: Such a Europe would have balanced budgets, trade surpluses and a well-oiled industrial base producing the latest in engineering. Could this model be extended to the European South too? I doubt that it could be adopted in Cyprus, Sicily, Portugal or the south of France. The oranges and the olive oil that they produce is another kind of treasure that industrious Germans want to introduce into their diet for better health and mood. The warm beaches of the Mediterranean should be enjoyed for what they are, plus as a source of powerful solar energy, but not much more than that. The tourism industry of the European South can get better organized but taking away the relaxed feeling of the summer would defeat the purpose and undermine the interests of even the visitors from the North.
European unity will not come with enforced homogenization and extreme discipline that foresees only penalties without forgiveness or growth. It will come when the Spaniards and the Greeks appreciate the Germans for what they do well and what they bring to the table, which cannot be only money, and the other way around. And a well-run Union will be one that balances its peoples strengths and interests, and provides through its monetary, investment, and other policies the framework for all to thrive, in a complementary and mutually supportive way, with unity in diversity.
Brussels, 15 April 2013