Henrik Enderlein has granted me the privilege of making a couple of introductory remarks on the topic of the conversation between our illustrious guest Emmanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel, our Foreign Minister who recently rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Both men’s names are associated with courageous responses to a challenging situation. Emmanuel Macron has dared to cross a red line that has remained sacrosanct since 1789. He has broken open a constellation between the camps of the political Right and the political Left that seems to have become deadlocked beyond compromise. Since nobody in a democracy can stand above the parties, it will be interesting to see how the political spectrum is rearranged after a victory in the French presidential election.
We are witnessing a similar impulse in Germany, albeit under different auspices. Here Sigmar Gabriel has also chosen his friend Martin Schulz to play an unorthodox role. Schulz is being acclaimed in public as a largely independent Chancellor candidate who is supposed to open up new horizons for his party. Although there are stark differences between the political, economic, and social situations in our respective countries – indeed, as regards the economy, the differences are too stark – it seems to me that the general sentiment among the citizens reflects a similarly irritable mood. There is widespread irritation at the frenzied stagnation of governments which, in spite of the marked increase in the pressure of problems, are muddling through without developing any perspective for shaping the future. We find the lack of political will numbing, especially in the face of those problems that could only be solved jointly at the European level.
Emmanuel Macron personifies the antithesis to the quietism of those authorized to act. During their overlapping terms as economics ministers, he and Sigmar Gabriel promoted an initiative to strengthen cooperation in fiscal, economic and social policies within the eurozone, though this has remained without consequences. If I remember correctly, they proposed to establish a finance ministry for the eurozone and a shared European budget controlled by the European Parliament. With this proposal, they sought to create room for maneuver at the European level for a flexible economic policy designed to overcome the primary hurdle blocking closer cooperation between the Member States – namely, the sharp differences in levels of rates of growth, unemployment and public debt, especially between the economies of the northern and southern members of a monetary union which must enforce convergence even as the countries concerned are drifting apart – and whose political cohesion is also being eroded by persistent, indeed widening, differences in economic performance. In the course of imposing the present austerity regime, which was bound to have a dramatically asymmetrical impact on national economies in the North and the South, contrasting experiences and opposing narratives in the corresponding public spheres promoted mutual aggressions and a deep split running through the eurozone.
Initiatives for addressing this dangerous development can fail for many reasons, including institutional reasons. Thus, for example, the governments of the Member States, which must derive their legitimacy from their respective national publics, are the least suited to implementing Community interests; and yet, as long as we lack a European party system, they are the only actors who can achieve anything at all. What interests me is whether an extension of European competences is bound to fail because of a lack of acceptance of possible redistributive consequences if restructuring the burdens reaches across national borders. Concisely put: Are appeals to solidarity, for example in Germany, condemned to failure because of the population’s response to the “transfer union” club that certain politicians as so fond of wielding? Or are political elites avoiding the problem of the still simmering financial crisis because they simply lack the courage to address the burning topic of the future of Europe?
On the concept of solidarity, I would just like to point out that, since the French Revolution and the early socialist movements, this expression has been used in a political rather than a moral sense. Solidarity is not the same thing as charity. Someone who acts in solidarity accepts certain disadvantages in his or her long-term self-interest in the expectation that the other will behave likewise in similar situations. Reciprocal trust – in our case: trust across national borders – is indeed a relevant variable; but so too is long-term self-interest. It is not a fact of nature, as some of my colleagues assume, that political issues of distributive justice are exclusively national issues and could not be fairly disputed within the wider family of European peoples across national borders – especially since these peoples have already formed a legal community and most of them are affected by the systemic constraints of a shared monetary union – though in rather different ways.
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European unification has remained an elite project to the present day because the political elites did not dare to involve the general public in an informed debate about alternative future scenarios. National populations will be able to recognize and decide what is in their own respective interest in the long run only when discussion of the momentous alternatives is no longer confined to academic journals – e.g. the alternatives of dismantling the euro or of returning to a currency system with restricted margins of fluctuation, or of opting for closer cooperation after all.
At any rate, other current problems that attract more public attention speak in favor of the need for Europeans to stand and act in common. It is the perception of a worsening international and global political situation that is slowly driving even the member governments of the European Council to their pain threshold and startling them out of their national narrow-mindedness. There is no secret about the crises that, at the very least, necessitate reflection on closer cooperation:
• Europe’s geopolitical situation had already been transformed by the Syrian civil war, the Ukraine crisis, and the gradual retreat of the United States from its role as a force for maintaining global order; but now that the superpower seems to be turning its back on the previously prevailing internationalist school of thought, things have become even more unpredictable for Europe. And these questions of external security have acquired even greater relevance as a result of Trump’s pressure on NATO members to step up their military contributions.
• Furthermore we will have to cope with the terrorist threat in the medium term; and Europe will have to struggle with the pressure of migration for an even longer time. Both developments clearly require Europeans to cooperate more closely.
• Finally, the change of government in the United States is leading to a split in the West not only over global trade and economic policies. Nationalist, racist, anti-Islamic, and anti-Semitic tendencies that have acquired political weight with the program and style of the new US administration are combining with authoritarian developments in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and other countries to pose an unexpected challenge for the political and cultural self-understanding of the West. Suddenly Europe finds itself thrown back upon its own resources in the role of a defensive custodian of liberal principles (providing support to a majority of the American electorate that has been pushed to the margins).
These crisis tendencies are not the only thing impelling the EU countries to cooperate more closely. One can even understand the obstacles to closer cooperation as just as many reasons for accelerating a shift in European politics. It will become more difficult to effect such a shift the longer the unresolved crises foster right-wing populism and left-wing dissidence as regards Europe. Without an attractive and credible perspective for shaping Europe, authoritarian nationalism in member states such as Hungary and Poland will be strengthened. And unless we take a clear line, the offer of bilateral trade agreements with the US and – in the course of Brexit – with the UK will drive the European countries even farther apart.
The only response to these tremendous pressures that I can see to date takes the form of groping attempts to promote a “Europe of different speeds” in the field of military cooperation. In my estimation, this attempt is bound to fail if Germany remains unwilling to entertain simultaneous measures to defuse the ticking time bomb of structural imbalances among national economies in the eurozone. As long as it suppresses this conflict, cooperation will not be possible in any other area of policy either. Moreover, the vague formula of “different speeds” misses the proper addressees. The willingness to cooperate is most likely to be exhibited by the member states of the monetary union, hence where the populations, since the onset of the banking crisis, have experienced their mutual dependence on each other. I am not of the opinion that Germany is the only country that needs to reconsider its policy. Emmanuel Macron stands out from the ranks of European politicians also because he frankly acknowledges the problems that can be addressed only in France itself. But, even though it did not choose this role, it is now up to the German government to join France in taking the initiative to pull the cart out of the mire. The blessing of being the greatest beneficiary of the European Union is also a curse. For, from a historical perspective, a possible failure of the European project would be attributed with good reason to German indecision.
A non-decision is also a decision; and it is hard to exaggerate the implications of such a non-decision. The institutionalization of closer cooperation is what first makes it possible to exert democratic influence on the spontaneous proliferation of global networks in all directions, because politics is the only medium through which we can take deliberate measures to shape the foundations of our social life. Contrary to what the Brexit slogan suggests, we will not regain control over these foundations by retreating into national fortresses. On the contrary, politics must keep pace with the globalization that it set in motion. In view of the systemic constraints of unregulated markets and the increasing functional interdependence of a more and more integrated world society, but also in view of the spectacular options we have created – for example, of a still unmastered digital communication or of new procedures for optimizing the human organism – we must expand the spaces for possible democratic will-formation, for political action, and for legal regulation beyond national borders.
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This article was the introduction to a conversation between Emanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel on 16 March 2017 at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.