The Great Leap Forward: In Search of a United Europe

By Thomas Darnstaedt, and Helene Zuber

Part 2: Politicians Are Out of Their Depth

Photo Gallery: Europe in Search of a Vision Photos
DPA

Nowadays, the members of the parliament's European Committee pay close attention to the minutes of closed-door sessions of the European Council, the body that comprises the heads of state and government. "We can check which positions the government has supported, and which compromises were made," says Krichbaum. The constant suggestions provided by ministries on how to word things are also a thing of the past. "When it comes to the rights of the Bundestag," says Krichbaum, "we have to take matters into our own hands."

But the attempts to furnish the German government's European diplomacy with greater democratic legitimacy quickly run up against limits. The parliament, with the backing of the German Constitutional Court's decisions, had hardly approved Germany's participation in the EFSF in a dramatic vote in late September before the trouble began all over again, because the government had quietly expanded the potential scope of the fund from billions into trillions with its plan to leverage the EFSF. Within a few days, the Bundestag had to vote again, but by that point hardly any of its members had a clear idea of what exactly they were voting on.

The constitutional and European law expert Christian Calliess believes that many elected officials are out of their depth when it comes to debating complicated European issues. "The parliamentarians are no different from their voters," says Calliess. "Europe is simply hard to understand." Very few committees charged with making decisions on European matters actually have European subcommittees. In many cases, says Calliess, language barriers prevent the members from keeping up with the discussions in Brussels. Many Bundestag members have only a limited command of English, for example.

The legal scholar believes that it should be mainly up to the parties to improve this state of affairs. "They need to pay more attention to the candidates' abilities in relation to the EU."

'Small Men with Small Visions'

But who could have an interest in this? Ordinary voters are not impressed by EU expertise, and every national government is happy when members of parliament don't know everything. Besides, no party has ever won an election because of how effective its representatives are in the European Parliament. As a rule, politicians who are no longer overly useful to the party in domestic election campaigns are sent to the European Parliament. "Europe is governed by many small men and women with small visions," says Mario Chiti, a professor of European law in Florence. These sorts of politicians are unlikely to connect with citizens.

As a result, when it comes to Europe, there is no effective formation of the people's political will. Instead, citizens feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction. In a survey by the YouGov opinion research institute, 82 percent of Germans said that Merkel's performance on managing the euro crisis is "somewhat poor," while two-thirds were opposed to providing aid to Greece or other countries.

Peace, freedom and prosperity for all Europeans -- it's not a concept that is very appealing in the national marketplace of ideas. The drawbacks of a European Union that is based on the intergovernmental approach becomes all the more noticeable, the more the crisis divides the EU into winners and losers.

For European thinker Jürgen Habermas, the fact that, under the EFSF regime, rich nations are being held accountable for the debts of poor countries for the first time is a "paradigm shift," which subjects European cooperation to a stress test of unknown proportions. Issues such as the redistribution of wealth across national borders go beyond the ability of national democracies to reach consensus.

Sharing the Gains

And how stressful will it be when citizens notice that the so-called "transfer union" is not just a temporary solution? No matter how big the bailout fund gets, some countries in the euro zone will continue to suffer from poverty and underdevelopment. Social justice can only be achieved on the European level if the losers are allowed to permanently share in the profits of the winners in the European competition. For the citizens of the wealthy nations, a transfer union sounds like an unreasonable demand. But anyone who identifies themselves as a citizen of Europe would take such redistribution for granted.

The big question remains: How can Europeans be made into citizens of Europe?

Until now, finding answers to this question was reserved for the officials in Brussels. The Commission, the continent's massive executive arm, has long done all the talking on the subject of a "Europe of citizens." It expresses its views in the form of countless documents imprinted with the EU's blue-and-yellow logo that are constantly flooding the 27 member states. They are well-intentioned words and lots of paper.

It was, in fact, the job of European Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso, who holds the role of the supreme guardian of the treaties, to promote political union. But the Portuguese politician tends to promote things that benefit his own institution. When his own power is at stake, the future of Europe is of secondary importance to Barroso. For example, he hardly ever makes proposals that call into question his personal role or that of the Commission.

The Commission is the executive of the EU, and its members are akin to ministers in the German cabinet. The only difference is that the cabinet in Berlin consists of 15 ministers and the chancellor, while the European Commission, which is headquartered in the Berlaymont building in Brussels, comprises 26 commissioners and the president.

Bigger and Bigger

The body gets bigger with each EU expansion. Plans to restrict its membership to 20 commissioners were thwarted in 2008 by a relatively small member state when the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. To convince the Irish to support the treaty after all, the rule of one commissioner per country was retained.

But the fact that he presides over a group of 26 commissioners isn't at all inconvenient for Barroso. A larger number of commissioners is a guarantee that there will be more initiatives and press conferences, which makes the Commission seem more active to the public. In addition, having a large number of commissioners prevents individual members from developing too high a profile and competing with the president. Over the years, the issues have been divided up among several commissioners, and in some cases they are responsible for policy areas where the EU has in fact no jurisdiction.

But there are a few men and women who are not satisfied with the status quo and who won't let up in their efforts to change it. Michel Barnier, the commissioner for internal market and services, is one of them. Hardly any other member of the Commission has as much political experience as Barnier. "I'm a politician, not some super-bureaucrat from Brussels," he says, in a remark that could be interpreted as a dig at the Commission president.

Vision of Reform

At any rate, it wasn't Barroso but Barnier who gave a visionary speech about the future of Europe at Berlin's Humboldt University in May. The Frenchman called for extensive reforms of the EU institutions. His vision includes the following elements:

  • Combining the offices of Commission president and Council president into that of a single European president, who could eventually "even be chosen in direct elections;"
  • Combining the offices of head of the Euro Group and EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs into that of a European finance minister;
  • A European foreign ministry;
  • A real European defense policy with a European military staff;
  • A coordinated immigration policy and the creation of a European border patrol.

Barnier feels a sense of urgency. "We don't have a lot of time to set the course for our destiny," he says.

'A True Federation'

The tall Frenchman is constantly on the road, popping up all over Europe to deliver his message. Sitting in his Audi on the way to Freiburg in southwestern Germany, he is going over his notes for a speech he is about to give to the German Savings Banks Association. "A rift has formed between Europe and its citizens," says Barnier. "For the last 60 years, Europe has been constructed for its citizens and in their name, but this usually takes place without their participation."

Does he want a United States of Europe? The phrase goes too far for Barnier's taste. "We are not a European nation," he says. He prefers to talk about a "true federation of nation states."

What would that look like? It would be more, at any rate, than just the loose collection of states that most of his fellow Frenchmen would prefer. It would at the very least include a Brussels power structure with political decision-makers, and not just national leaders who come to Brussels now and again for a weekend of wrangling.

But for many people this doesn't go far enough. The idea of a United States of Europe has taken hold in Brussels discussion groups, and it enjoys strong support in the European Parliament.

The Crocodile Club

About 100 members from all political factions cultivate their vision of a "new world of unlimited possibilities." They do so under the sign of a crocodile. "Au Crocodile" is the name of the Strasbourg restaurant where the Italian politician Altiero Spinelli and a few like-minded people hatched lofty plans for a united Europe in the 1980s.

The group has outlived the man who gave it his name, who died in 1986. To this day, Spinelli's heirs are still advocating their plans from the "Crocodile." The group includes former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and former European Commission President Jacques Delors. "Our goal is a federal and post-national Europe, a Europe of the citizens," the Crocodile manifesto reads.

On a cool fall evening, a VIP car takes the co-initiator and driving force of the Spinelli Group out to a Scandinavian Airlines flight on the tarmac at the Brussels airport. Members of the European Parliament are usually not given this special treatment, but Guy Verhofstadt is also a former prime minister of Belgium. He is 58, but with his long hair and the leather bag dangling from his shoulder, he seems much younger.

Verhofstadt wanted to become president of the Commission in 2004, but many European leaders stood in his way, most notably then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who categorically rejected Verhofstadt as a "federalist."

Instead, the conservative Portuguese politician Barroso got the job, and Verhofstadt was elected to the European Parliament, where he has been a thorn in the side of the Commission president ever since.

Either-Or Choice

Verhofstadt takes his seat in the first row of business class and pulls a few sheets of paper out of his leather bag. It's the draft of a letter to Barroso, in which Verhofstadt rails against the member states and calls upon the Commission to take initiative. He calls for common European bonds and a European monetary fund, because, as he argues, the principle of unanimity in the current bailout fund means that the euro "is being held hostage by a marginal, euroskeptic faction in a single member state." Verhofstadt also proposes the creation of an EU finance minister post and wants to combine the top posts at the Commission and Council. "We can't wait any longer if we want the euro and the EU to survive."

"There is only one either-or choice," the Belgian says on the flight to Stockholm. "Either the EU dissolves itself, or we now take the leap into a political union." Greece, says Verhofstadt, only accounts for 2.5 percent of the gross national product of the euro zone, and yet it has plunged Europe into this crisis. Why? "Because there is no political union."

Verhofstadt gazes out over the sea. "Look at California, the biggest economy in the United States. It has enormous problems, and it can't even pay its civil servants. And why doesn't this put the dollar under pressure? Because California is part of the political union of the United States."

The Spinelli Group has a concrete plan of action leading to a federal Europe. Its main goal is to increase public awareness of the issue, thereby creating the intellectual foundation for a United States of Europe. Whenever heads of state and government meet in Brussels for a summit, the members of the Spinelli Group hold a "shadow council meeting." It sounds like a shadow cabinet, which is precisely the intention. "We take the real Council's agenda and come up with the resolutions the leaders would have to adopt if they didn't put their own national interests first, but rather the interests of Europe," Verhofstadt explains.

But the path to a united Europe, a political union, doesn't just lead through the conference rooms in the European Council building. It also leads through streets, squares and parliaments, and through the media and a European public sphere. Only if the ideas coming from the European advocates in Brussels reach Europe's citizens will they participate. The question is: Will they participate?

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