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Citizens of the EU How to Forge a Common European Identity

Many feel that if the EU is to survive, residents of its 27 member countries need to develop a stronger sense of a common European identity. But is it even possible to forge a European nation? The continent's leading thinkers have plenty of ideas, but national governments are reluctant to give up power.

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 3. Be sure to also read Part 1  and Part 2. 

Europe has a face. It can grin, and it has freckles. Almost everyone in Germany knows it. It's the face of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 66, the Green member of the European Parliament and former revolutionary.

No one else can explain Europe the way "Red Dany" can. No one but this polyglot global citizen can convince people in almost every country on the continent to listen and to pick up at least some of the enthusiasm he exudes for Europe. "There will be a United States of Europe," he says. "I'm sure of that."

Cohn-Bendit does not plan to run in the next European election. He wants to enjoy his retirement. People like him are no longer dependent on the sensitivities of member states, or on political calculations. Instead, Dany can barge straight across the traditional territory of political interests. Seen from his perspective, Europe looks simple.

The Green politician envisions a united Europe organized roughly along the lines of the Federal Republic of Germany: with a government in Brussels, the European Commission, whose members are elected by the European Parliament (EP). The European Council in Brussels would serve as a second governing body next to the parliament, and it would also be involved in writing legislation for Europe. A united Europe's foreign and defense policy, as well as its financial policy and large parts of its economic policy, would be managed in Brussels.

United States of Europe?

That's what a United States of Europe could look like. Politicians of widely differing stripes, in Brussels and in many member states, including Germany, hold similar views. But who other than the brightly optimistic Cohn-Bendit has the confidence to express them? Anyone who toys with such models is quickly suspected of being a traitor to his or her country. What would fellow party members and voters at home think about the idea of concentrating all the power in Brussels?

Political scientists and intellectuals in many European think tanks have already taken the notion of a European federal state a few steps further. Some say that it would make sense to emulate the United States of America and replace the European Council with a senate. As in Washington, the emissaries from the individual states would not simply be members of the government, but would in fact be elected representatives of their respective states -- senators with direct democratic legitimacy.

In the United States, where many currently fear for the future of Europe, some people are also thinking about possible solutions. For example, Joseph Weiler, a New York expert on international and European law, proposes the establishment of a European constitutional court at the head of a united continent. Using Germany's Federal Constitutional Court as a model, it would contain and, if necessary, correct the power held in Brussels, as well as giving citizens the peace of mind that someone is keeping an eye on their government. To minimize objections from national constitutional courts, the higher Brussels court would consist of judges appointed by the member states.

There are plenty of plans for how Europe, as a major power, would adopt a united position vis-à-vis the financial markets and other global powers. Academics in many disciplines are developing models for a functioning European democracy, a body politic whose citizens would feel and act as "Europeans" rather than members of an individual nation-state.

Traditional Identities Losing Influence

One of their leaders is Jürgen Habermas.  "Territorial growth and numerical expansion of the population already changes the complexity of the process of formation of public opinion and the political will," says Habermas, a hugely influential thinker on democracy. Of course, he adds, the "cooperation of the citizens of all the countries involved" requires certain preconditions: a functioning "deliberation" process, a Europe-wide public sphere and "inclusion," the equal and coercion-free opportunity for everyone to take part in a society of Europeans.

Those who are optimistic about Europe believe that the necessary conditions are constantly improving. "The claim that there is no European nation contradicts the systemic convergence of multicultural global society," says Habermas. Many others agree, and point out that the world's societies of the 21st century will be completely mixed up, and while traditional identities will remain in place, they will lose their influence. The nation of the Germans will not perish, and yet its society has already lost national exclusivity, now that one in five Germans comes from an immigrant family.

It is inevitable that a shared European identity will develop in tandem with national identity, says Frankfurt constitutional law expert Erhard Denninger. Even today, he notes, there is a "consensus on basic ethical issues." Respect for human dignity, the individual and democratic law unites Europeans, as does the absolute belief in the invisible hand of the market and the absolute need to control this market through the efforts of the social welfare state.

"The ethical exclusivity that characterizes a nation state is no longer appropriate in an era of no borders," says British political consultant Robert Cooper, who feels that national patriotism is obsolete. Cooper, who worked for the European Council in Brussels for many years and is currently a consultant to the foreign service of the European Union, now feels that eurocrats are "more patriotic" than his fellow Britons.

A New Sense of Patriotism

It is the patriotism of global citizens who are concerned about human rights, not unlike the German idea of "constitutional patriotism," associated with Habermas, where citizens feel a sense of patriotism based on their shared political values rather than a shared ethnic identity or language. Such a pan-national patriotism is also based on an international consensus that has produced new institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which stands guard over the ethical values of a postnational society.

With this much commonality, cultural differences are not an impediment to a shared society. Germany's pluralistic, federally organized society has experienced this first hand. To shape common policies, one doesn't have to like the same music, or even have the same ideas about punctuality, cleanliness or order. Besides, the global communication network of the Internet already shapes the hearts and minds of younger generations of European citizens more decisively than the traditions they experience around the family hearth or at the local pub.

In 2009, researchers conducted an experiment as part of a European Union project dubbed Europolis. They brought together 348 men and women from the continent's various linguistic regions for three days. Accompanied by moderators and interpreters, the participants were to debate two challenging subjects: climate change and immigration.

The polyglot group of Europeans did not come up with any answers after three days of discussion. Nevertheless, interviews conducted at the beginning and after the end of the debate led the scientists to recognize an effect across all language barriers, namely that opinions had changed. "There are no fundamental obstacles to the introduction of deliberative democracy in Europe," they concluded. In the hothouse of the conference room, a miniature version of a European nation had begun to emerge.

This isn't terribly surprising. A look at quadrilingual Switzerland shows that democratic discourse functions across language barriers. Of course, such discourse is only attractive when it is conducted by fascinating leaders. Only then will the national media do the job that Habermas would like them to do, calling it their "responsibility for the success of Europe." According to Habermas, the media "must open the eyes of readers to the points of view of others."

Boring and Complicated

This only works, say journalists, if there is something to talk about. "It's about time that interesting people were sent to Brussels," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the chairman of Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) group in the European Parliament. The "stories we tell," says Lambsdorff, are "too complicated," and the people telling them are usually too boring.

Politics in Brussels is boring and complicated because the participants, unlike politicians in the member states, are not forced to undergo the trials and tribulations of democratic elections. Neither the commissioners nor the president of the European Commission are governing in Brussels because their ideas and speeches have ever convinced a single voter. Commissioners are sent to Brussels by the national governments, not by the national parliaments.

The members of the European Parliament, who at least are now required to approve the Commission as a whole, also have little to say to their voters. They are usually unknown at home. In nationally organized European elections, the faces of the top candidates on the lists appear briefly on uninspiring campaign posters. But the text on the posters usually deals with issues that have little to do with Europe and much to do with the national positions of the respective party.

So where should these exciting new European politicians come from? "Until now, Europe has played no role at all at the national party conventions," says Lambsdorff. And why should it? After all, the leadership that Europe needs is increasingly not being done in Brussels but through agreements among the leaders of the member states. The process of delegitimization keeps going. Elections to the European Parliament have become little more than a tedious but necessary task for the parties. Ordinary people, too, are equally unenthusiastic, as shown by the most recent voter turnout of 43 percent in the 2009 election.

Only an election featuring individual personalities can inspire the European public and yield respectable results. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, long a firm believer in Europe, says: "I would like to see the direct election of a European president. Then we will already have a much stronger European consciousness by the time of the first reelection." Schäuble envisions a president for Europe who would head the European Council and Commission, and would be armed with political power and new competencies. A European public sphere could emerge as a result of the contest for such a position.

Forming the Political Will on the European Level

Ideas like this are spreading in most EU countries. Charles Grant, director of the British think tank Centre for European Reform, envisions that the commissioners could be separately elected in the 27 member states. Then the head of the Commission, selected by the European Parliament, would assemble a team of 10 commissioners from among the 27 election winners, with the remainder becoming their deputies.

To bring democracy from the member states to Europe, the Council (the body that represents the member states) would have to be restructured. Like the bold French politician Cohn-Bendit, German liberal politician Lambsdorff imagines the conference of heads of state and government as the second lawmaking body, in parallel to the parliament. To enable the people to see what the members of the executive body in faraway Brussels are deciding, Lambsdorff wants to divide the European Council into two parts. One would be a legislative body that would debate publicly and, like the upper house of the German parliament, the Bundesrat, reach its decisions by a majority vote. The second body would handle what Lambsdorff calls the "daily operational business of government agreements," which it would do behind closed doors, engaging in the same sort of wheeling and dealing that is now standard within the Council.

Only a competition over a common European policy could keep political parties -- the most important agents of a sense of European identity -- on their toes. According to the German constitution, parties "participate in the formation of the political will of the people." Other European countries define the role of parties in much the same way. Until now, however, the focus has been on the formation of the political will within individual nation-states.

The Right to Vote

There is no European public sphere. None of the national political organizations is willing to organize or even capable of organizing a European equivalent. Although most parties have joined forces at the EU level by forming groups in the European Parliament such as the center-right European People's Party, they still lack a common platform.

As a result, the coalitions of social democrats, conservatives and Greens are as vague as the concept of a "Europe of citizens." Voters cannot become members of these European parties, and so far none of the groups has set up transnational lists of candidates for European elections. Lambsdorff wants to see "real European parties that enter every European election with a top candidate, whom they then propose to the European Parliament for election as Commission president."

To break up the provincialism of the parties, the Reflection Group, an international organization of European thinkers led by former Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González, has come up with an amazingly simple tool: Each citizen of the EU should be permitted to vote in the national elections of any EU country, provided he or she has a fixed residence and pays taxes in that country.

The result could be a beneficial shake-up of national politics. German politicians would suddenly find themselves confronted with the issue of foreigners living in Germany, a group that has largely been ignored in the past. In fact, if they were smart they would even include these people in their election campaigns.

The next step, according to the Reflection Group's plan, would be for the parties to establish "cross-border lists" for the election of members of the European Parliament. This would be a major effort for the candidates, who would have to conduct their election campaigns in multiple countries and possibly in several different languages.

High Level Democracy

Is this asking too much? Once they are voted into office, members of the European Parliament are already expected to think in terms of all 27 countries -- and be able to communicate in the various official languages of the EU.

But is it possible to practice democracy at such a high level, while at the same time staying in touch with voters in the German or even Greek hinterlands? To demonstrate that it can work, many members of the European Parliament are constantly on the road. FDP politician Lambsdorff, for example, says he visits his district in Germany's western Rhineland region "every week." After all, he says, that is his home.

All members live in the regions where they are elected. A room in a shared apartment in the northern German city of Hanover is the home of Green European Parliament member Jan Philipp Albrecht, who specializes in domestic and security policy. His voters are distributed across the northern German states of Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg. "The things that are discussed in Brussels tend to get ignored on the ground here," he says. He is talking about issues like the dispute over airline passenger data or the SWIFT treaty with the United States, which allows US authorities access to EU citizens' bank data. "I'm constantly on the road to explain how tirelessly the European Parliament fights for the civil rights of Europeans," he says.

On his own initiative, Albrecht has set up regional offices in the capitals of the three states he represents, Kiel, Hamburg and Hanover. Members of his staff are constantly showing up in the offices of the state Green Party organizations. Albrecht says that he is trying to "connect the Green parliamentary groups at all levels." Even in Berlin, where he has a small, one-room office in the Bundestag building on the Unter den Linden thoroughfare, he maintains a base with a computer, fax machine and one employee, who is in constant contact with the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag and organizes civil-rights events in the capital.

Neglected Pioneers

But despite all efforts, it is still obvious that the pioneers of the European decision-making process still do not hold an appropriate position within the machinery of power in Brussels. "The European Parliament must be given the rights to elect and supervise a European government that answers to it," says Berlin-based European law professor Christian Calliess. "And what is also long overdue is a power of initiative for (European) lawmakers." The parliament in Strasbourg is still purely a veto parliament, meaning that it can either accept or reject proposals by the Commission, rather than propose legislation itself.

If a parliament wishes to become the representative of the people, it cannot expect to be given rights. Instead, it must seize those rights for itself. Stefan Collignon, a professor of economic policy, gives lectures in Pisa and Hamburg on how this could work. "The members of parliament," says Collignon, "must withdraw their approval of the Council and Commission until their role is strengthened."

A parliament with the power to invent its own laws could indeed greatly accelerate the unification process. Then a plan could be implemented that an entire league of European Parliament members has pursued for years, a plan that horrifies the member states: separate taxes for Brussels.

According to calculations made on behalf of NotreEurope, a French think thank, a 1 percent surcharge on the valued-added tax in member states (similar to sales tax), to be transferred directly to the EU, as well as a tax on pollution, would be enough to finance the EU's entire annual budget, currently about €130 billion ($173 billion).

The unifying effect of a direct EU tax would be overwhelming. The old, jealous quarrel between countries that pay more out of their government coffers than they get back from the EU, and those that receive more than they pay in, would suddenly become irrelevant. Every citizen would be paying directly for Europe. Conversely, as Joseph Weiler, the New York-based professor, knows from experience in his own country, the central government's legitimacy increases with its right to collect its own taxes.

The Secret of Crème de Cassis

Perhaps the European nation that the activists from the European Parliament are trying to create will never materialize. Perhaps Europe is too big and too diverse to achieve the same cohesiveness as the United States. But some political scientists say that this doesn't matter, and that Europe can also be a success without a single European nation. They cite a French blackcurrant liqueur as an example.

What would Europe be without crème de cassis? When Greek political science professor Kalypso Nikolaïdis wants to explain her model of a united Europe to her students in Oxford, she places a bottle of the sticky red liqueur, the key ingredient of the popular Kir Royal cocktail, on the lectern at the beginning of her lecture.

For years, Germans were barred from serving crème de cassis. The alcohol content of the beverage -- too low for schnapps, too high for an aperitif -- didn't conform to German standards. The country prohibited the importation of the liqueur.

In 1979, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) handed down a decision in the crème de cassis dispute between Germany and France that European academics like Nikolaïdis consider historic. What is good for France, the judges in Luxembourg ruled, cannot be bad for Germany. They argued that if something is already recognized in one EU country, it must be accepted by the others.

Kir Royal for everyone. The central principle of "mutual recognition" that has been in place in Europe since then has led to controversial institutions like the European Arrest Warrant. At the same time, the principle of mutual recognition has developed into a highly differentiated instrument of mutual understanding. This is what Nikolaïdis, who is also a member of the Reflection Group, tells her students.

In a later decision in 1986, the ECJ ruled that French authorities had to allow the importation of woodworking machines approved for use in Germany, but with more rigid safety inspections -- on the grounds that French industrial workers were simply clumsier than their German counterparts.

The method that was used for decades to build Europe, which was random but successful, is named after one of the founding fathers of the European Union, the former French political economist Jean Monnet. The Monnet method, which is based on a chain reaction of practical constraints, holds that the spillover effect of a step toward integration arises precisely because of the problems that are created in the process -- problems that can only be solved with another integration step. The principle might be described as: Let's see what happens.

What Exactly Does Europe Want?

The most dramatic application of the Monnet method was the creation of the euro. From the start, it was clear to everyone in the know that this would not be the final step, and that the common currency would trigger a practical constraint, namely that the next step would be to build a political union.

It could also work this time, albeit in unexpectedly dramatic fashion. But a policy that justifies every decision as a consequence of a previous decision is deprived of the answer to the most important question: What's the point of it all? What is the objective?

What was the goal of the 1991 Maastricht Conference that resulted in the euro? In Germany, the question of what benefits the monetary union actually provides is answered by pointing out that it benefits export-oriented firms from Germany's famous Mittelstand sector of small and medium-sized companies. But this is not a goal of European policy.

Europe cannot be united if it has no common goal. Those who want to finally conduct serious politics in Brussels have known this for a long time. FDP politician Lambsdorff characterizes it as the "fundamental question" for the EU: "What exactly do we want?"

Lambsdorff identifies two, relatively incompatible, approaches among the proponents of European unification. Some, mainly Germans, want a problem-solving EU, one that guarantees the continent security, a good life, unpolluted air and a functioning market. The others -- for example in countries like Great Britain -- want "the union as a geopolitical stabilizer with as many members as possible," says Lambsdorff. The goal is to create a global power united by common values, which can export peace and freedom around the world.

Two Europes

In fact, two Europes are needed: one for the world and one for Europe. The geostrategic Europe is oriented toward expansion, while its continental version is oriented toward further integration.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the proponents of the two visions must go their separate ways. Lambsdorff, not unlike former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, speaks of a "differentiated integration" with a fixed core, which can be achieved if the willing are truly prepared to largely abandon their sovereignty in favor of a strong, expanded European government.

This type of government could make European policy. Backed by the will of a majority of European citizens, it could pursue climate protection programs and a common energy policy on a massive scale, and it could organize the economy and finance, and even the national budgets within the EU. Such a government would not only have the power, but also the legitimacy to mandate financial transfers between rich and poor member states.

On issues of war and peace, such as the question of a common security and defense policy, Lambsdorff envisions a special democratic support mechanism: A parliamentary congress, half of which would consist of members of the European Parliament and the other half of parliamentarians from the member states, could reach decisions through a majority vote. This super-committee, and not the individual national parliaments, could also rule on important amendments to the EU treaty.

Would this be a United States of Core Europe?

Losing Sovereignty

Many in Berlin find this sort of thing hard to imagine. Strong Brussels agencies signify a weakening of national governments. The Germans have two problems with this, in the shape of the Federal Constitutional Court and the German population.

In their decision on the Treaty of Lisbon, the judges on the Constitutional Court, which is based in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, ruled that the German state must retain a core area of national sovereignty. This sovereignty core, according to the decision, would be affected if the Germans were deprived of "their ability to influence their living conditions in a responsible political and social manner." Only recently, the president of the Constitutional Court announced that the latitude the German constitution offers for further European integration is "probably largely exhausted."

But in the midst of the crisis, some constitutional law experts are resisting the hard line taken by the German Constitutional Court. Christian Calliess, the Berlin-based professor, for example, believes that it is unavoidable that competencies will be transferred from the member states to Brussels to achieve "more strongly Europeanized fiscal, economic and budget policies."

The principle of nation-state sovereignty, which goes back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, has limited significance in times of global crisis. "You have to ask yourself whether national sovereignty actually exists anymore," says Wolfgang Wessels, an expert on European political science at the University of Cologne. "The individual countries haven't been in control of events for a long time." Wessels suspects that citizens will eventually notice that the "constitutional sphere is no longer the optimal problem-solving level."

Constitutional Challenges

And didn't the founding fathers of the postwar order factor a qualification of sovereignty into their plans? Countries like Italy or Germany, which arose from the ashes of World War II, were not even intended as classic nation-states, says democracy scholar Hauke Brunkhorst, but instead as "transnational" entities from the very beginning. To illustrate his point, Brunkhorst cites the founding spirit that was expressed in the preamble to the constitution of the new German nation: "Inspired by the determination to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe."

Many experts believe that the German Constitutional Court will soon have no choice but to relax all of its strict limits. The words published by the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler in an anthology to mark the recent 60th anniversary of the court read like a warning. According to Wehler, Germans are awaiting "with bated breath" the Karlsruhe judges' "interpretive feat" of reversing the strict provisions of the Lisbon verdict in their next decision.

It is unlikely to be quite as monumental a feat as Wehler predicts. The origin of the judges' concerns was lost in the cry of protest against a ruling perceived as an impediment to European integration. German sovereignty was not being protected for its own sake, but merely so that the rights of citizens to participate in politics were not eroded. To the extent that decisions in Brussels are better legitimized by the people, Karlsruhe can be more accommodating in the transfer of competencies.

To be on the safe side, German lawmakers are considering an amendment to the constitution that could deprive the Constitutional Court of its basis for argumentation, at least when it comes to the transfer of competency to Brussels on fiscal issues. Article 79, the so-called "eternity clause," prohibits any change that affects the more clearly defined foundations of German constitutional law -- which includes, at least for the Karlsruhe court, the power of the people to decide on a core element of sovereignty.

But how eternal does the eternity clause need to be? Article 146 provides that an entirely new constitution may be "freely adopted by the German people," and even the eternity clause cannot prevent the people from doing so. The conclusion, which even Constitutional Court judges are now suggesting, is that the German people can decide to come up with a new constitution that resembles the old constitution in many respects, except that it is more pro-Europe. Article 146, the wild card of the German constitution, allows for a voluntary waiver of sovereignty by referendum.

Ask the People

But what would be the outcome of such a referendum? Is there majority support for the European project in Germany? Habermas notes that the population, neither in Germany nor in neighboring countries, has never been asked their opinion about Europe under fair conditions. Who knows what the people think? In fact, for lack of what Habermas calls a functioning European "deliberation" process, the people themselves don't even know what they think. The failed referendums on the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands are a poor indicator of popular views, because in both cases misinformation and domestic political rancor distorted the picture.

The new "elite project," says Habermas, consists in the political class and academia explaining Europe and their goals to the citizens. What Europe needs are people who can give it a face, a face that has freckles and a grin -- a face of someone like Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

Who says that people won't play along, the Green Party politician points out with -- of course -- a grin, if they're just asked in the right way, in a referendum of all Europeans? "If at least 60 percent of the population and 60 percent of the member states agree, the new order will have been accepted."

And if the French, who he represents in the European Parliament, vote against the idea? "That won't happen," says Cohn-Bendit.

But what if it does? "Then there will be a second referendum. This time it'll be on the question of whether we still want to be part of the EU. Not even the French would dare to reject that."

Europe is certainly a lot of fun for someone like Cohn-Bendit. He would even run for office again, says Cohn-Bendit, for the sake of a United States of Europe. "Maybe it'll take another 40 years. But perhaps I will still see it, after all."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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