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11/24/2011 02:19 PM

The Great Leap Forward

In Search of a United Europe

By Thomas Darnstaedt, and Helene Zuber

It used to be easy to convince people to support the European project back when many benefited financially from the common market. But now that the euro crisis has divided the continent into winners and losers, people have lost faith in the EU. Reformists are warning that the EU needs to become a full political union or it will die.

Europeans are searching for an idea: What should the Europe of the future look like? Could a federation of European nations function? How could a working government in Brussels be structured? And could a continent-wide democracy foster unity and solidarity among European nations? In a three-part series, SPIEGEL reports on new plans to restructure the European Union. This is Part 2. You can read Part 1 here. Part 3 will be published next week.

The architects' vision of Europe is a striking building made of glass on the outside and exotic woods on the inside. It will have a restaurant on the roof, where the powerful can stretch their legs, sip their Kir Royals and enjoy the expansive view of the continent they rule. At night, the large glass cube will glow like a giant lantern.

The new European Council building on Rue de la Loi in Brussels will cost €300 million ($405 million) to build, or about as much as Greece receives from the EU in a single month. The cranes have been in place for some time.

In Brussels, all important buildings have important names. This one will be called "Europa," and it could be finished by 2014. At the euro rescue summit in June, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy placed the glossy brochures for the futuristic building on the desks of European leaders, as if to emphasize that there was also a positive item on the meeting's agenda. But it got him nothing but trouble.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was "immensely frustrated" at the sight of the symbol of European power. "You do wonder whether these institutions actually get what every country, what every member of the public, is having to go through as we cut budgets and try to make our finances add up," Cameron said.

Because of such qualms, the group of European heads of state and government decided that the new Europa building will no longer be mentioned in official documents for the time being. The protagonists of European unification, the project of the century for peace, freedom and prosperity, are taking cover. The fate of the euro and of countries that are in deep financial difficulties hangs in the balance.

Behind Closed Doors

That fate is being decided in an ordinary office building. There is nothing lantern-like about it, no pomp, no hors d'oeuvres, no rooftop terrace. The people working in the gray building that houses the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in Luxembourg spend their time crunching numbers and bargaining, not discussing things. The European flag isn't even flown outside the building. Keeping a continent above water when it is coming apart at the seams financially is a dull, unpleasant business that's handled behind closed doors.

"Something is going to go 'bang' soon," fears Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, 45, a member of the European Parliament for Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Then the lights will go out in Brussels.

The power outage would be the consequence of a serious breakdown in European democracy, a downing of the power lines connecting Brussels and Europe's citizens. If Brussels no longer had the confidence of citizens, or what the Treaty on European Union refers to as the "peoples of Europe," the European Parliament, Council and Commission would be operating without the basis of legitimacy. The idea of peace, freedom and prosperity would be out of juice.

European policy is already being shaped more or less over the heads of citizens, in closed-door meetings between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and executed in the EFSF data center instead of by the European Commission, the EU's executive body. And citizens are already outraged over European politicians who seem to be unable to rescue the national economies from the maelstrom of the financial crisis. Some of those outraged citizens have already pitched their tents in front of the European Council building in Brussels. Meanwhile, the leaders of the project of the century, the project of European unification, feel the need to protect themselves from their citizens with barbed wire and barricades.

'Tight Enough to Break'

It seems that something will indeed go bang soon. The "threads of legitimacy of political decisions" in Europe are pulled "tightly enough to break, and things are squeaking and crunching everywhere," says European parliamentarian Lambsdorff. Many politicians and experts on Europe in the member states hold similar views. The German philosopher and avowed European Jürgen Habermas warns of a "disenfranchisement of European citizens." And the European Reflection Group, a team of academics and political thinkers chaired by Spain's Felipe González, is appealing to politicians in all countries, saying: "We will only overcome the challenges which lie ahead if all of us -- politicians, citizens, employers and employees -- are able to pull together with a new common purpose defined by the needs of the current age. … In spite of all the EU's past achievements there is a worrying indifference, if not disenchantment, towards the European project. We can no longer ignore this challenge."

Only very few citizens in Europe can comprehend what is happening to them. The Euro Group, the German-French crisis meetings, the G-20, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the troika are making decisions about peace, freedom and prosperity, but who exactly voted for them? Who can even understand the reasoning behind the latest attempts to cope with the crisis?

There is growing support on the continent for González's view that only a united Europe, with politicians in Brussels with the power to get things done, can avert the next crisis, offset the economic and social imbalances within the EU and counter speculators on the financial markets. And it will only be possible to implement policies set by Brussels in the nations of the EU if it has a common, sustainable, democratic basis on the entire continent.

Many see the crisis as an opportunity. For Europe veteran Javier Solana, 69, it represents "the chance to make a great leap forward" -- the venture of bringing more democracy to Europe. This, says Solana, a former NATO secretary general and subsequent EU foreign policy chief, is the only way to achieve "true political integration."

Solana describes how this can happen in his classes at Esade Geo, a private Madrid and Barcelona business school, and in lectures around the world. In the opinion of the man known worldwide for his three-day beard, this great leap can even work without massive restructuring. Instead of erecting new buildings and installing new governments, Solana believes the EU should take a simpler approach, which he calls "legitimacy through action."

Crisis of Legitimacy

All of Europe is stuck in a crisis of legitimacy. The democratic credibility of the European project was intact as long as it was successful, and as long as citizens could marvel at -- or, like the Spaniards, benefit from -- the added value of the decisions being made above their heads.

"Federalize their wallets and their hearts and minds will follow," said James Madison, the father of the American Constitution. These words also apply to the Old World. The democracy scholars of the 21st century call it "output legitimacy."

It was easy to achieve legitimacy through action as long as things were constantly improving for everyone. But now, in the crisis, hardship prevails. "The checks made out for integration, solidarity and democracy by the political ruling class were only backed by output legitimacy," says Hauke Brunkhorst, a professor of sociology in the northern German city of Flensburg. The lack of that backing, he adds, means those checks "will invariably bounce with a large bang."

If it wants to prevent such a bang -- and if it hopes to be sustainable -- the political class must avail itself of the classic tools of democracy, which academics like Brunkhorst call "input legitimacy." The input must come from citizens, from the bottom up, through elections as well as through discussions; in other words, the tedious business of forming the political will of the people. Both the Spanish and German constitutions see that activity as the reason for the existence of political parties. The most urgent thing, says Solana, is to create a "European public sphere."

The political class must make an effort to win over citizens, because it can no longer spoil them in material terms. This is "legitimacy through action." The citizens, says Solana, must "go along with us." To ensure that they accept the great leap forward, political leaders must convince their nations.

According to Solana, those who don't keep up will lose out. "If we are not intelligent enough to complete this integration, there will be a privileged economic relationship between the United States and China, and we'll be out," he warns.

The Problem of We

But who is the "we"? The problem in conveying such messages to citizens lies in the fact that nobody feels that they are part of this "we." For German democracy scholar Brunkhorst, this is the greatest threat to Europe's survival. The governments, in his view, will soon "be unable to explain to anyone in their countries why 'we' shouldn't simply allow the euro to fail." As long as Europe is being run by "the Germans," "the French" or "the Spanish," says Brunkhorst, no citizen will understand "that we, if we are to get by in the globalized world, stopped being the Germans, the Austrians, French or Dutch long ago, but in fact are the citizens of Europe."

"We the people." These important words at the beginning of the roughly two hundred year-old Constitution of the United States have retained their power to this day. Based on this formula, according to the will of united citizens, a world power was founded in 1787, one that had liberated itself from the confines of traditional national ties. It was a new world without borders, a world power based on values, human rights and the "pursuit of happiness," or at least that is how it was conceived.

"We the citizens" -- could this be the idea for a "United States of Europe?"

The dream of a united Europe will remain vague as long as European governments try to promote integration by way of intergovernmental agreements. As long as Europe is shaped by national leaders, they will always focus exclusively, or at least primarily, on the people whose interests they are sworn to represent: their voters.

This is the real drawback of all models that are based on increasingly close cooperation among European governments. Even former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's plan to bring together parliamentarians within a European group does not change the fact that they are ultimately answerable to voters at home. As long as Europe's democracies are organized and oriented on a national basis, citizens will never be able to look beyond the confines of their own countries.

Explaining Europe

The advocates of intergovernmental cooperation, including Fischer, are certainly aware of this. Politicians have always made hackneyed promises to explain European issues, first to their national parliament and ultimately to voters at home, so well that citizens take them to heart -- more or less. Getting it right is the task of Gunther Krichbaum. Krichbaum is a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the chairman of the Bundestag's Committee on the Affairs of the European Union. His is probably the most thankless job an elected German official can have. A politician can't exactly make a name for himself in the Bundestag by issuing statements on draft guidelines or by taking tiny steps in association negotiations with Ukraine. And when citizens are confronted with the consequences of European policy years later, such as when the ban on the good old light bulb took effect, it is much too late for debates.

The 47-year-old politician's toughest job lies in his constituency in Pforzheim in southwestern Germany: "How do I get Europe across to voters?" The local paper, the Pforzheimer Zeitung, is on Krichbaum's desk every morning, and he peruses the local news stories carefully. "You constantly have to explain to people what overall political and economic advantages we get from the EU," he says. For example, EU membership benefits local small- and medium-sized businesses. A nearby high-tech company is also required to abide by EU regulations. But what does Krichbaum tell his constituents when a decision made in Brussels is detrimental to their interests?

"Until we had the Lisbon Treaty, the EU was often crippled by the constraint of unanimity," he explains. "For that reason, more majority decisions were needed to enhance its ability to take action. And when that happens, Germany can sometimes be outvoted. On the whole, however, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, because the EU can now act more quickly."

In the big picture, sacrifices are sometimes necessary, as in the case of the bailout fund. But is that why people voted for Gunther Krichbaum? "In many areas," he says, "you can't separate national policy from European policy."

The affable Pforzheim native bears the burden that the German Constitutional Court has imposed on the German parliament in a number of rulings, most recently in its September decision on the bailout fund. According to that decision, in all important cases the Bundestag must have a say in the agreements Chancellor Merkel has reached with leaders of other countries, especially when it comes to decisions that affect the government budget.

This is an onerous condition for those hoping to achieve quick action to rescue the euro, as well as being a humiliating requirement for someone sitting at the negotiating table with autocrats like Nicolas Sarkozy. But it provides the Bundestag with a generous boost to its self-confidence.

Politicians Are Out of Their Depth

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 Durăo 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:

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?

Democracy or Dictatorship?

On the periphery, Europe feels within reach, in the form of peace, freedom and the good life. For the Spaniards, all of these things are a byproduct of the blessing from Brussels that came to the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Franco dictatorship. And after the introduction of the euro, the Spanish economy grew at a faster pace than average in the currency zone.

Since the international financial crisis sent Spain's burgeoning real estate sector into a tailspin and led to the collapse of the economy, the Spaniards feel that Europe expects them to live up to their obligations.

When the Socialist government, supported for the first time by the conservative People's Party, rushed through an amendment to the constitution in order to introduce a balanced-budget provision based on the German "debt brake" model, protestors took to the streets in front of the parliament building in downtown Madrid, which had been sealed off by the police. "They call it democracy, but it's a dictatorship," the young leaders of the protest shouted through megaphones from a truck at the head of the march, and the protestors chanted along.

Demonstrators young and old marched down the magnificent boulevard past the Prado museum, carrying homemade banners with slogans like: "No to the poverty legalized by the constitution."

More Europe

And yet many Spanish politicians want Europe to survive. Shortly before the vote on the constitutional amendment on the morning of Sept. 2, the cafeteria in the parliament building was filled with people. Over the sound of rattling coffee cups, Socialist Alex Sáez confessed: "So far Europe has only brought us pleasant things. Now we politicians must explain to the citizens, in no uncertain terms, the obligations that we have."

Sáez, a Catalan from the picturesque town of Girona, is the deputy chairman of the Spanish parliament's European Committee and a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee. Sáez praises the complete political consensus among the parties represented in the committee. Only "more Europe" can help Spain emerge from the crisis, he says.

If the Europeans don't manage to join forces in a federation by the middle of the century, says Guillermo de la Dehesa, president of the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research and one of Spain's top financial specialists, Europe will "fail." If that happens, he says, China, the United States and India will dominate the global economy. According to his research, not a single European country will be a member of the G-8 anymore.

Ironically, the Catalans and Basques, who have their own culture and language, which they cultivate, and who are increasingly pushing for extensive autonomy from Spain, strongly support political consolidation in the direction of a federation.

'A Pleasant Journey'

A party that professes euroskepticism cannot win an election in Spain. Even the conservative Popular Party (PP), which won Sunday's election, supports more European integration and advocates a course of austerity. Although the conservatives champion a strong central Spanish state, they would not be opposed to transferring more powers to the EU.

But Álvaro Nadal, a financial and European expert with the PP, wonders what the euro zone should do in the meantime while the United States of Europe is being developed. He proposes pushing forward on certain issues with those who are willing to participate -- a coalition of the willing for Europe, if you will.

For many Spanish politicians, the road to Brussels does seem promising. As their fellow Spaniard Javier Solana puts it, it will be a "pleasant journey" to a united Europe.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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