Muddling through won’t solve Europe’s problems. Why we have to attempt the impossible to overcome them Benjamin Zeeb is the CEO of the Project for Democratic Union Germans call it ‘Politik des Machbaren’, the politics of the doable or translated a bit more freely the politics of the possible. It’s a political strategy that concentrates on the micro problems of the day, one step at a time and avoids or postpones all issues that seem too big or too far removed from the average citizens’ immediate concerns to tackle head on. It’s an excellent strategy as long as things are going reasonably well; and for roughly a decade after the introduction of the single currency Europe went by just fine following its very gradual path towards deeper integration, gently undermining national sovereignty without forcing any kind of major change in its political system. It was believed then that the government that governs best is the government that governs least, and by this standard Europe in general and the eurozone in particular had set up a perfectly adequate system for themselves. Those calling for a deeper integration of the continent, lamenting the unfinished state of its political Union could be easily waved off: At best they were ever pessimistic doom-sayers, hopeless romantics at worst. The United States of Europe was a fanciful dream harboured only by those with little experience in the complicated realities of European policy making and for those proposing such an agenda it revealed a naive believe that complicated problems could be resolved with an easy fix. Europeans are rightfully weary of anybody proposing easy solutions to hard problems and anybody who tries to sell any kind of political agenda as some kind of magic elixir should always be regarded with the highest degree of scepticism. The hard fact is that federalization will neither be easy nor will it solve any of our most pressing problems instantaneously. But if we can’t bring ourselves to complete Europe’s political union we won’t be able to solve any of them. The failure of the current European system of sovereign nation states to deliver results that ensure the continued security and prosperity of its citizens have become most visible in two policy fields: foreign policy and the politics of the single currency. Europe’s politicians should stop asking what little they can achieve within the narrow confines of our existing confederal structure but should focus instead on what actions need to be taken to put Europe in a position to actually be able to address these challenges and give us a chance to overcome them. The single currency For a while there in recent days it looked like Europe’s leaders were on route to accidentally stumble across the Rubicon on Greece. With an inexperienced and undisciplined new government in Athens hardly able to control its radical backbenchers and the eurozone’s captains determined to continue on the path of strict austerity for debtor nations, an unprecedented exit of a member country from the euro area suddenly seemed to be a real possibility. Most likely, by the time this article is published a deal will already be in place. Analysts will debate who won and who lost in the negotiations and base this on the size of Greece’s allowed primary surplus and the details of the reforms Greece will have had to agree to. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. There is no deal to be made within the existing legal framework that fixes the single currency’s deep structural flaws and whether or not Greece is forced to cut down on pensions might be relevant in the context of national politics, but it won’t be of any greater consequence further down the road. Merkel, who has by now taken over the negotiations from Schäuble, will claim to have stood firm on pacta sunt servanda of course, but it is clear that each time we arrive at these critical junctures the eurozone’s rules have to be bent further to the point that they will eventually lose all meaning. That is not to say that no progress has been made at all in the last couple of years. The huge gap between German unit labour costs and those in the rest of the eurozone has shrunk significantly. Greece has proved able to stomach an astonishing amount of internal devaluation while Germany’s unions have come out of crisis mode (where they traditionally show restraint and support Germany’s national business interests) and have started to demand higher wages. We shouldn’t however assume that this development will continue. With youth unemployment across Europe’s battered South remaining painfully high and social unrest translating into political change there is little chance that a healthy balance can be found in the relative competitiveness of European nations. The partial realignment might help mask the fundamental flaws of the single currency for some time but it can’t change the fact that the eurozone, once designed on the principles of mutually beneficial cooperation between sovereign actors, has devolved into a creditor-debtor relationship where solvent countries call the shots and the constituents of weaker member countries have lost their say in all matters European. To return democratic legitimacy to the eurozone there are but two solutions: either a breakup and a return to truly sovereign nations in control of their own national currencies, or true political Union, with a budget of the size that allows for automatic transfers and so enables the euro to work in a way similar to the US dollar. Whatever the outcome in Greece, the eurozone will remain under pressure. With the Spanish elections approaching rapidly, there will likely soon be another country that, like Greece, feels it has done enough austerity. Paying back its debt might not be the principal problem here but another one arises: the new Spanish government will have to ask itself how to pay for its citizen’s demands and whether it will be able to do so within the confines of the single currency. The initial deal that traded financial support by Europe’s northern bloc for though reforms in the South is not sustainable in the long run. It must be supplemented by a structure that takes into account that once Europe’s nations gave up the right to control their currencies they also bought into shared sovereignty. We now need to supply this European sovereign that was essentially created with the introduction of the euro in 1999, with the means to exercise its democratic rights. Foreign policy A split has occurred in the transatlantic relationship. It is not really political let alone philosophical in nature. But European and American interests have started to diverge. With the Middle East in flames, radical Islam on the verge of making its transition into statehood, thousands of refugees losing their lives in the Mediterranean all while an emboldened Russia keeps pressing on our eastern borders it is clear that within the Western bloc it is Europeans who are affected most by recent developments. While the US continues to be the only actor on the world stage capable of decisive action, military as well as diplomatic, their appetite to reengage in parts of the world that yield little to no economic or strategic benefits, has clearly diminished. They might not have pivoted to Asia quite yet, but the TPP is moving ahead, their dependence on oil imports has been greatly diminished, and the Iran nuclear deal is almost done and dusted. There is reason left to keep an engagement that was once as crucial to their global ambitions as it is now to Europe’s security interests. European nation states, however, find it difficult to see the bigger picture. With France mainly concerned about the threat of Islamic terrorism, the Poles feel left alone in what they rightfully perceive an increasingly perilous neighbourhood, while the Italians lament the lack of European solidarity in policing the Mediterranean. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently felt it necessary to announce a mission to recover drowned refugees’ bodies from the sea to provide his European partners with an undeniable image of the human catastrophe going on at our Southern borders. Meanwhile Germany remains comfortably enclosed by friendly nations, a benefit of Eastern enlargement, and seems unperturbed by its neighbour’s urgent calls for joint action. To help the search in rescue mission and keep refugees from drowning the German Navy recently sent a boat to the Mediterranean. That’s right, one boat. Europe needs to wake up to the reality that it has to start taking up the responsibility for its immediate environment and come up with a strategy that constructively helps shape the global situation, especially when it disrupts local conditions so significantly. After a decade of failed interventions this of course is not meant to imply that Europe should simply pick up where the Americans left of. However, in order to combat the manifold human catastrophes at our borders and within our global vicinity, we need to start thinking and acting on a completely different scale. This again, will only be possible if Europe manages to overcome the nation state as the prime organizing principle of our political structure. The creation of a single European foreign policy, including an army with a single command structure is a vital step in preserving Europe’s security as well as her interests on the global stage. A prerequisite for the creation of such military capacity, however, is the establishment of collective democratic control over such a powerful tool. A grand coalition From the point of view of a national politician federalization is simply impossible. Nationalism is not just an ordering principle of politics, it also shapes our current reality and sets limits to our expectations and political imagination. Europe has succeeded at developing cooperation between sovereign entities to a level never before attempted in the history of the continent. By doing so it has fallen into a trap. The parts are no longer able to manage and adequately represent the whole. European interests and European problems are no longer just combinations of the interests sought and the problems experienced by European national states. In order to rule and manage the eurozone in a democratic fashion it must become possible to bypass the state level when necessary and build coalitions and majorities on issues that do not coincide with the lines drawn by national borders. This is not a problem of civil society as many claim. A real European civil society capable of expressing the majority will of the people of Europe will grow only after the establishment of structures that are capable of acting on their behalf. For there to be a sender there must be a receiver, otherwise all calls to action will just vanish in the depths of unconnected national discourse. Building this kind of cultural and societal Union will take time. What we can do right now is create a prototype of this civil society, a proto-federalist movement that unites around the single issue of changing the ordering principle of our political system and abolish the European nation state. This requires bringing together Europeans who apart from their understanding of Europe and the next steps it has to take to safeguard prosperity and security of the continent, have very few things in common. This means bringing together the anti-capitalists activist on the streets of Madrid, who is afraid that the lack of centralized banking oversight will lead to a system running amok, in the same boat with the manager of a German medium-sized company, who worries about what the breaking apart of the single currency will do to demand for his product in Portugal. It means convincing the security expert and the transparency activist alike, that there is little sense in fighting over privacy or data collection when the outcome of their argument will have no discernible impact on any relevant scale. It means giving the discontented across Europe’s periphery a goal to strive for, a credible way to tackle the crisis they blame on elites that have little to no say in most relevant decisions. It means challenging European business, especially those companies who already transcend national borders, employing Europeans in many member states, to rethink corporate social responsibility and take up the mantle of champions for democratic union. This is not a political choice. All the fights and quarrels we have amongst each other will go on after federalization has been achieved. The example of the US shows that over decades this can mean vast shifts in how the Union as a whole deals with issues like the role of the state in the economy, taxation, minority rights, and matters of war and peace. We do not have to agree on the issues to agree that we need to put ourselves in a position where we can reach a meaningful consensus. This is the nature of democracy and majority rule. Incidentally there are signs that there already exists a majority for federalization within the eurozone. A recent poll finds 42 percent of eurozoners in favour, with just 33 percent against and 25 percent not stating a preference. It is now time to seriously consider federalization as a means to restore democratic accountability, legal security, decency in the face of human suffering and legitimate governance to the eurozone. In the absence of any credible alternatives, attempting the seemingly impossible is our only way forward. Over forty percent of eurozoners agree. There’s no need for them to agree on anything else.
It is now time to seriously consider federalization as a means to restore democratic accountability, legal security, decency in the face of human suffering and legitimate governance to the eurozone