Brexit was a shock. Huge numbers of citizens are asking how we can make the European Union more attractive. The journalist Alexander Marguier provides some food for thought.
Alexander Marguier is the editor-in-chief of political magazine "Cicero". The 48-year-old economist is also the Managing Director of the Res Publica publishing company and has written several books.
As an editor-in-chief and magazine publisher, you really get to feel the full brunt of the European problem. To give an example: in May 2014, just a few weeks before the most recent European Parliament elections, we wanted to do something to counteract the wide-spread gloomy sentiment surrounding Europe. We published a front-page story where ten big names described the most important achievements of the European Union in their very personal view. These included issues such as "peace", "prosperity", "democracy" and "rule of law". So, we weren't really talking about trifling matters, but genuine success stories — particularly in light of our continent's history — that had actually had a direct impact on each and every European.
However, the outcome of our Europe edition was not just sobering, but an out-and-out disaster: the number of issues sold by newsagents was over 20 per cent below our average. This once again confirmed our industry's maxim that, when it comes to Europe, you'll only sell copies when you're dealing with bankruptcy, bad luck, and breakdowns.
This isn't particularly hard to deal with for a political magazine like Cicero; after all, there are plenty of other things worth writing about in the world. For an institution like the EU, however, it is hard to survive over the long term when the majority of your inhabitants show no interest or even openly reject you.
Purely by nature, a supranational entity like the European Union is harder to identify with than a community, city, familiar landscape or your home country. Nevertheless, this does not explain why it is so easy to create a negative atmosphere about it, as was the case in the "Leave" campaign prior to the Brexit referendum, for example.
While the British people's decision to turn their back on the EU may have been a positive wake-up call for many people in the remaining 27 member states, the actual problems are a long way from being solved and may rear their head again at any time. The problem concerns nothing more than the lack of transparency in political decision-making mechanisms, a lack of democratic legitimation, inefficiency in the face of major geo-strategic challenges, and poor understanding of the different mentalities and attitudes among citizens in the individual member states. And, last but not least, it's about national interests being permanently pitted against community spirit. Whatever way you look at it, as long as national leaders use EU-bashing as a tool for winning elections in their home countries, things aren't looking promising for the European project.
From my own point of view, the past ten years have seen the world become more dangerous, not safer, while political trends are generally more difficult to predict nowadays: the USA is saying goodbye to its role as a global power; Russia is putting itself forward as a latent aggressive counterpart to the West; Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, is turning into an autocracy, while the states in the Middle East are crumbling, pushing an unimaginable number of migrants towards Europe (along with huge numbers from Africa). At the same time, China is becoming an increasingly strong competitor, even for knowledge-based high-tech companies from Europe.
In light of these challenges, the much-vaunted "common European home" is not only in urgent need of superficial repairs, it also needs a new, more stable foundation. First things first, a European Union must prove that it is efficient, otherwise it could lose its citizens' backing for good. The EU needs to stick to its most important duties while also improving its capacity to act in all of these areas. This would be a brave step forwards.
The principle of subsidiarity plays a decisive role here and should ultimately be actively pursued instead of just being revered in various political sermons about Europe. Duties that are easier to solve together than at a national level fall within the EU's remit – everything else is for the member states to deal with.
Achievements that have long since been made in the field of trade policy now urgently need to be extended to other areas. Sure enough, a European army is now no longer a fantasy, it's the future project of the moment. A joint approach to protecting Europe's external borders and a shared asylum policy have to follow if the pressure of migration is to stop causing further upheaval within the EU. After all, uniform standards are the only way to stop the dishonourable game surrounding the distribution of refugees between the individual countries in Europe. The fact alone that Brexit supporters managed to successfully exploit the issue of migration shows just how explosive the topic can be. The only way to diffuse the situation is with Europe-wide consensus.
In a democracy, however, consensus requires an ability to compromise. And this still seems a long way off in some areas – clearly reflected in the refugee crisis, for example. While countries like Germany are pushing for a pro rata distribution of refugees between the various EU member states, countries like Slovakia, Poland and Hungary in particular are categorically against taking in people, specifically from the Muslim cultural community. You may find this sad or you may be all for it, but their stances seem to be set in stone and leave no hope for any agreement.
"It's not about promoting the idea of a European superstate."
Calls for morality do not seem to be helping at this point; rather, the citizens of Europe are starting to believe that the bid to tackle the refugee crisis is being foiled by incompatibilities between various national attitudes, such as the German welcome policy on the one hand and a rigorous approach to compartmentalisation in eastern EU countries on the other.
However, this problem cannot be solved by commands and political threats. Quite the opposite: its calls for the consistent application of basic democratic principles at European Union level. Indeed, the lack of democratic legitimacy within the EU cannot simply be dismissed. The European institutions are anything but a perfect example of the will of the people: while the European Council — containing the respective heads of states and governments — may be the dominating body within the EU, its representatives come from national elections, not European ones. As a result, the Council members primarily feel tied to the interests of their home countries as opposed to the dream of a unified Europe.
Then again, we have the European Commission, an unusual hybrid of a government and a controlling body that checks compliance with European treaties. While members of the Commission are approved by the European Parliament, they are in fact nominated by the individual member states.
And the European Parliament itself is not a "representation of the people like the British lower house, the German Bundestag or the French national assembly," according to historian Heinrich August Winkler. Not only is it unable to put forward its own legal bills but its composition also does not follow the principle of "one person, one vote": small countries like Malta, Luxembourg and Estonia are given preference in the allocation of delegates, making it possible for their candidates to make it into the European Parliament in the first place. In short: the EU is still a long way from becoming a prime example of democracy.
Taking inspiration from Willy Brandt, Europeans need to "take a chance on more democracy" instead of abandoning the EU to become an obscure network of institutions with too much red tape and, in some cases, with too many conflicting interests.
To achieve this, the main thing we need is cross-European parties that can be elected in all EU countries – and these parties need top-class candidates who compete for the office of President of the European Commission (and not just as a formality). When it comes to cultivating a "spirit of European community", the current method of forcing representatives from various national parties together into often very disjointed "families of parties" in the European Parliament is likely to be unsuccessful.
Why don't we have a party of European social democrats or European conservatives? Why are the majorities in the European Parliament so unclear? And above all else: why don't we have a "real" EU government that is formed by "real" parties with "real" majorities in a "real" European parliament, which is preceded by "real" democratic elections? In other words: why doesn't the EU trust itself to become a "real" democracy?
So as not to cause any misunderstanding: it's not about promoting the idea of a European superstate. The responsibility and legislative capacity of a democratically upgraded European Parliament should in no way mushroom out into all possible areas of regulation. Quite the opposite: European members of parliament should only be able to vote on matters where Europe-wide legislation makes more sense than national regulations.
This could, for example, be matters relating to the common budget, foreign trade or the security of the EU's external borders. And, of course, this also relates to the migration policy, which ultimately affects all Europeans and can therefore only be solved in a Europe-wide approach. Issues such as education, the police, health policy and pensions, on the other hand, will remain left to the individual member states.
Nationalism, leave the EU, less democracy: this is what populists are calling for in an age defined by a lack of transparency. Nowadays, the exact opposite should be happening: more capabilities for the EU — but only in areas where European problems clearly require European solutions. There has to be more democracy and a European Parliament that really lives up to its name, Europe-wide parties, and a Commission President elected by the European Parliament.
Incidentally: a transparent, comprehensible and, above all, unquestionably democratic community policy would also change the interest that citizens show in "their" EU. And, as a result, magazine publishers would no longer have to fear the worst when they put Europe on their front pages.
Published on KfW Stories: Wednesday, 6 December 2017