Crisis in the EU: Damage Control Isn't Good Enough to Save Europe

A commentary by Ralf Neukirch

With its ongoing bailout strife and Denmark's recent decision to erect border controls, the EU is mired in the biggest crisis yet. As leader of the EU's most powerful country, it's high time for Angela Merkel to breathe new life into the idea of a united Europe.

Mitterand and Kohl's gesture at Verdun became a symbol of the European idea. Zoom
DPA

Mitterand and Kohl's gesture at Verdun became a symbol of the European idea.

The photo has been reprinted enough to be branded into the collective memories of Germany and France. It shows Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand standing hand-in-hand during a 1984 commemoration ceremony at Verdun. Their gesture illustrates the astounding reconciliation that took place between their respective nations after two world wars. Today, its emotionalism is both moving and oddly foreign.

Back then, what would ultimately become the European Union was more than just a body for administering financial transfers between member countries. When people talked about "Europe," they focused on the big issues: open borders, international understanding, war and peace. These weren't just empty words but, instead, things that statesmen like Kohl and Mitterand felt deeply about. And since it came from the heart, people believed in what they said.

This passion has disappeared from the debate over the European Union. Indeed, these days, merely saying that the European idea transformed a war-torn continent into an island of freedom and stability would seem rather quaint to most. Now the issue is whether Europe can even be prevented from becoming a transfer union -- or, in the words of Germany's tabloid press, how much we want "to pay for the lazy Greeks?"

Turning the European Idea on Its Head

In many countries, Europe is no longer seen as a historic stroke of luck. Instead, we ask ourselves how we can protect our countries from African refugees and -- depending on our various perspectives -- from supposedly greedy southern countries or the overbearing Germans. These are the questions that dominate the discussion about Europe.

And now it is the Danes who have made the most important move in the modern era by deciding that they want to reintroduce border controls. Doing so would mean turning the very meaning of Europe on its head.

Yesterday's Euro-enthusiasts share at least some of the blame for this. They accepted problems associated with implementing and using the euro because European integration seemed more important than focusing on boring technical questions about finance. Likewise, the EU was expanded without properly adapting its institutions. Since the European idea was supposed to light every corner of the Continent, no one really put much thought into whether every one of its members was really ready for membership.

Indeed, the European idea seemed so urgent that people could carelessly skim over the details. Doing so merely gave a boost to those who were already skeptical about the EU, and ignoring the problems did nothing to make them disappear.

Germany as Necessary Adversary

Now the EU finds itself in its biggest crisis yet. Its problems -- from the euro crisis to the refugee debate -- won't be solved by European rhetoric. But, at the same time, they won't be solved without a European "vision." A reason has to be provided for why Germany should help Greece and Portugal out of their money problems. And this reason must transcend the merely financial.

Europe is still a great idea. There is no guarantee of freedom. Instead, it has to be fought for repeatedly, and the EU is still the best guarantor of freedom on the Continent. By itself, no European country -- whether it's Germany, France or Great Britain -- is strong enough to fight for its interests on the world stage. As things are, the EU can be a big player, but not its individual members. And it's in the interests of each and every member state to help the others out.

At the moment, it seems like no one remembers this fact. But there is someone who should: Angela Merkel. Germany's chancellor is the leader of the largest and most powerful EU member state. As such, she bears a special responsibility toward Europe -- and she has the most to lose.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas recently pointed out a big dilemma in Germany policies toward the European Union. He argued that, if the community is to have any future at all, Germany must force the EU to pattern itself more closely after the German model. However, he added that this would lead other countries to increasingly view Germany as an adversary. Berlin could then replace Brussels as the thing that all of the EU's non-German citizens could be upset about.

'Merkel Isn't Even Trying'

This dilemma is admittedly difficult to resolve, but Merkel isn't even trying. Granted, her actions haven't been anti-European, and Germany hasn't tried to go it alone in crises past. But the government also hasn't openly declared to its own citizens or those of other countries why it believes in Europe.

For Merkel, the EU's problems are primarily technical in nature. But, still, they won't be solved with pure pragmatism. Of course, Merkel doesn't have to be photographed holding hands with Nicolas Sarkozy -- because it would appear somewhat ridiculous. But it's still not enough to justify European policies with arguments that are merely focused on damage control. Without a statement of belief in Europe, without pro-European gestures and without a little bit of feeling, it just won't work.

Europe is more than the sum of its individual nations. Right now, this appears in danger of being lost on most. It's high time that Europe's most powerful woman remembers it.

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