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Phoenix Europe: How the EU Can Emerge from the Ashes

The old European Union didn't work, that much has been made clear by the ongoing debt crisis. But many in Europe think there is now a clear path to a new, more integrated -- and smaller -- bloc. What must happen first? Greater democracy and less nation-state sovereignty. By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: The Path to Europe's Future Photos
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The jogger is undeterred by the wet, foggy weather in November. Once again, Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and eminence grise of the Green Party, has taken to running regularly through the quiet neighborhoods of Berlin's Grunewald district. It is the kind of exercise, he says, which gives him time to think.

"While I was running," he says, it occurred to him "how things could work in Europe."

To stabilize the continent in crisis Fischer, an avid European, wants to see a resolute political body consisting of the leaders of euro-zone countries. They should, he believes, be outfitted with far-reaching authority and granted sufficient power by their parliaments back home.

Fischer is thinking about a rescue plan. Not just a rescue plan for the banks, for Italy or the euro, but for everything. He envisions a fire brigade of European Union government officials, and sees it as an "avant-garde of the United States of Europe."

It is, in other words, time to stop complaining. Europe can only be saved if it is completely reinvented. The financial crisis is the turning point in the history of European unification.

The old EU is finished. The 27-member bloc has never been as unpopular as it is today. Citizens have taken note that the massive bureaucracy in Brussels clearly lacks the power to master the crisis spreading through the currency union. It has likewise become apparent that the national governments they have elected are in the process of dismantling the historic project of European unification. After all, it isn't the European Council, the European Commission or the European Parliament that the world is relying on to pull Europe out of crisis. It is Angela Merkel.

Old Europe No Longer Exists

The German chancellor and French President Nicolas Sarkozy more or less singlehandedly implemented the bailout plan for Greece, brought down the government in Athens and placed ailing member state Italy under international supervision. The words "History is being made in Cannes" were emblazoned on posters in the city during the G-20 summit there in early November. But that's new history. Old Europe, that construct of unity housed in imposing buildings in Brussels, that visionary collection of ideas about peace, freedom and prosperity, the Europe of big words and impenetrable treaties, the Babylonian monster that spits out tons of paper in 23 languages every day, meddles in everything and tries to spoon-feed its citizen. That Europe no longer exists.

Citizens in Athens and Brussels, Madrid and Berlin are taking to the streets of the tottering continent to protest against their politicians. Has Europe turned into a nightmare?

It is time to stop complaining. The new Europe will be a dream, not a nightmare.

Unlike Fischer, not everyone with ambitious plans the future of Europe goes jogging in the November fog. There are many other big thinkers in the most influential nations of the European Union, people who are hard at work developing plans for a European house, one that will be better, more democratic, more unified and more impervious to crises than today's Europe.

In capitals across the Continent, governments have assembled their experts for brainstorming sessions, while international law experts and political scientists gathered at think tanks are busy developing models and seeking a future for Europe. Influential thinkers like German philosopher Jürgen Habermas have weighed in on the debate as they try to shape a united continent.

'Opportunity to Do Great Things'

The experts seek to escape the current crisis by taking a significant step forward. For the first time in years, those government officials seeking an end to the crisis have begun thinking about "more Europe," a new Europe with expanded powers and a real government. The crisis, says Munich sociologist Ulrich Beck, is "an opportunity to do great things."

"Neither a Frankfurt group nor a troika, and certainly not the G-20, which answers to no one, should have the right to decide what Europe's citizens should pay for and how much they should save," says Ulrike Guérot, the fiery Berlin spokeswoman of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the international think tank to which Joschka Fischer also belongs. According to Guérot, such decisions ought to be made by a strong European executive branch, "supported by a parliament for the entire euro zone."

"We must invent and establish Europe a second time," says Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of Germany's center-left Social Democrats (SPD). It's easy enough to say this from his standpoint as leader of the opposition. But many in Merkel's party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), tend to agree -- they just don't talk openly about it. Officials at the Chancellery are also looking for concepts for the day when the crisis is over.

It's an opportunity to change the world. Why, for example, shouldn't it be possible for "the Europeans" to pull together, just as the 13 new American states did in 1787 for their constitutional convention? Then, too, the states were jostling for power and money. But, after a long struggle, they managed to constitute themselves -- under the motto "We the People" -- into a powerful, democratic, federal state that has endured to this day.

The Americans enshrined "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. But is that any different than the European dream of peace, freedom and prosperity? Could the words "We the People," or "We Europeans," also be chiseled into the constitution of a European federal state one day?

A Well-Thought-Out Vision for Europe's Future

Just how close this historic idea has already come to real-life politics is reflected in the passion with which German philosopher Hermann Lübbe rejected the notion of a United States of Europe in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a few days ago. If, in the wake of the "common currency," a similar "common nation" were now to be proclaimed, Lübbe warns, it would only "accelerate the catastrophic outcome" of the crisis. For Lübbe, there is "no prospect" of achieving consensus among "Finland and Greece, Slovenia and Portugal, Austria and France."

The It-Won't-Work pragmatists are keeping the Let's-At-Least-Try-It idealists in check. As a result, only very few politicians are able to develop a well-thought-out vision for Europe's future anymore. "After all, everyone wants something," complains Habermas, a passionate proponent of Europe. The ultimate goal, he says, has become obscured.

Peter Altmaier, the influential conservative parliamentarian and an important ally of Merkel's, says that although an American-style European federalism is not "in our immediate future," it should be possible "to at least talk about it."

There is no lack of bold ideas. Charles Grant, founder of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank, has come up with a vision for a democratically united Europe in which the citizens of the various member states vote directly for European commissioners -- replacing the present system whereby they are chosen by national governments behind closed doors. Grant's model sees the EU president selecting the 10 best of the 27 citizens' picks, with the remaining 17 becoming deputies. This concept would produce a strong and democratic European government.

The idea of a single, robust Brussels government for all EU countries -- or at least for the euro zone -- is also shaping plans promoted by certain groups within the European Parliament. And most agree that citizens in any future United States of Europe must have a stronger voice and Brussels have greater powers. Which would in turn mean a transfer of sovereignty from individual countries to the European Union.

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1. Realpolitik
Trojan Horace 11/18/2011
Problem with utopian pieces like this is that whether your readers agree or not, such enthusiasm for greater integration isn't broadly shared... as the meeting today with Cameron and Merkel all too clearly demonstrated. All solutions have to begin from where we really are
2. Ashes to Ashes.
coffejohn 11/18/2011
I tried to read this article but failed, turned off by it`s messianic ranting. We in the UK have a saying, when you are in a rut top digging. I can see great benefit in the UK and Germany co-operating but non in Germany co-operating with Greece etc. I do not wish to rain on your parade but it is pouring down out there in the cold, has nobody told you?
3. Don't Put the Cart before the Horse
David, New York 11/19/2011
The solution to Europe's further economic integration will follow after, not before the resolution of it's crisis in democracy. The french I believe are right to think of a USA of Europe as absurd. The USA is a federation of 50 states which entered into the union separately between 1776 and 1949. Each state was admitted as its population and economy reached a certain level and from the beginning each state knew exactly what its political and economic situation would be when it was given the status of statehood in the union. Several wealthy states were even kept out of the union because of politics at various junctures. And let's not forget the union exists today because a civil war which killed more americans than all the other wars combined was fought and won by the Yankees, americas northeast. Those victors in that war founded key cities across the continent where their elite families formed regional banks and urban institutions and quite simply colonized the whole continent. By the way, all the land was stolen and the wealth was built from slavery. America's unity comes from successful imperialism. Europe couldn't replicate that story even if there was a reason to try. But Europe has a clear democratic model right under its nose in Switzerland. It's just that nobody really admires swiss ideas for various reasons—but that's Europe's logical role model for democratic unity—cantonize. Let each nation be as culturally idiosyncratic as it wants to be and stop the bureaucratic obsession with standardization. You could completely standardize all of Europe and it could still turn out to be a complete flop. This is not a logical social goal on any level it is simply an idea which seems secure—but ideas are never secure in the long run, you'll always need new ones, evolution never stops. Then when the nations feel confident and free within the cantonized union the economy can be made to function better through the simple method of a central bank with the power to print money and make good on it's commitments in the bond markets. Europe needs further integration, but not to save the euro, it needs it to prevent the disaster that a resurgence of irrational nationalism would bring. It doesn't need it inorder to be or become more wealthy—it needs it to prevent a return to its disasterous history of constant competitive warfare for political gains. That is why Europe can't turn back—because the past was so ugly. The Euro only matters if it achieves unity, if it doesn't bring about such an end than let the experiment go and try another one in open honest good faith.
4. Awkward prejudice.
PierreG 11/19/2011
"only as a means of expanding French self-aggrandizement" I am French, interested in politics, and never ever heard of that (but already heard this prejudice against France). It would have been more professional to quote some actually elected people, or political leaders. To fact that an idea has spread in your country or editorial office (which may or may not be the case, I do not know) does not mean that idea is true. Also, Védrine is against a federal Europe, so he naturally fancies scaring you with his "Germany has to pay more" quote, fair enough. However, wrinting "in France, federalism has a different meaning than in Germany" seems exagerated to say the least. I may be wrong but I do not see much room for misunderstandings here.
5. New europe ?
12098kojak 11/20/2011
How many europes Germans needs ?. They try twice to rule the europe with blood and terror. This time with the swindle by devalue of own currency, at the expense the purer neighbours. Do they think that people are stupid ?. Let see the end of german/franco swindle. Do they pack with gold Swiss banks as they did at the end of the II world war ?. More questions how will look the end of this swindle rather than how they fix the present shamble.
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