The Great Leap Forward In Search of a United Europe

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.

By Thomas Darnstaedt, and


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.


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