Opinion Saying Auf Wiedersehen to a Strong Europe

Euro-skeptics have plenty of reasons to celebrate. By strengthening national parliaments vis-a-vis the EU, Germany's highest court has ended the dream of a 'United States of Europe.' And that's good news for Eastern European countries, who often feel bullied by Germany, the alliance's heavyweight.

By Hans Hoyng

A few years ago, continental Europe was busy trying to present itself as a convincing alternative to American neoconservatives and their power-hungry worldview. And, in doing so, "Old Europe" actually experienced a completely unexpected resurgance. In the minds of its inhabitants, the European Union was the perfect alternative to an enormous United States that was drunk on power, savouring its "unipolar moment" and not giving a hoot about either its allies or enemies. To them, it was soft power against the hard US way of doing things --wanting to impose Western democracy on the entire world at any price. These were the issues that historians and political scientists were debating at American universities and at think tanks in the US capital.

Germany's highest court has literally barred Angela Merkel and any subsequent chancellor from giving up any additional powers to the European Union.

Germany's highest court has literally barred Angela Merkel and any subsequent chancellor from giving up any additional powers to the European Union.

If we take a look, they said, can't we see that the EU is currently expanding democracy, freedom and prosperity -- and in a peaceful way? Of course, it's not trying to do things like they've been done in Iraq. No, in the EU, sovereign nations have relinquished part of their rights in order to attain something better for all of those concerned. A few years back, you could often hear the phrase "the European model." And Europe could have served as a model -- at least until the next regional or global crisis that proved once again that the EU's 27 member states had still not forfeited enough sovereignty or mustered the nerve to share a joint foreign policy. In other words, it was enough until everyone called on the US again to make everything all right.

After each of these embarrassing episodes, there was always new hope that everything would get better. At first people thought this would happen after Europe had a constitution in place. And, then, after the word "constitution" was ditched following failed referenda in France and the Netherlands, people thought that everything would get better once the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. If the EU could only get to that point, they thought, it would actually have a number it could be reached at, a genuine foreign minister and a president of the European Council who actually stayed in office for two and a half years. And maybe, just maybe, something approximating joint foreign policy would develop, bringing the EU's 500 million inhabitants into a recognizable bloc and earning them some respect.

Now, there's actually going to be a Lisbon Treaty, a telephone number and a foreign minister to boot (provided that Ireland -- which already rejected Lisbon once in a referendum last summer -- the Czech Republic and Poland don't pull the plug at the last minute). But, as both those who support and oppose continued European integration will confirm, there's not going to be much more than that. And the reason for that can be found in Tuesday's decision by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, based in the western city of Karlsruhe. Karlsruhe said "Enough!" and it drew a line in the sand separating Brussels' power from its own. "The primary responsibility for integration is in the hands of the national constitutional bodies which act on behalf of the peoples," the court said in a press release accompanying its decision.

In other words, the court is talking about national parliaments, the true paragons of democracy (even if they do lie about their travel expenses a bit in London). In the court's opinion, unlike the European Parliament, these bodies don't have a "structural democratic deficit." And it's right: The fact that it only takes 70,000 voters in Luxembourg to get a seat in the European Parliament, while it takes 800,000 German voters to do the same thing, is proof in itself that there is no equality when it comes to voting. Given such deficits, the court came to the conclusion that further steps toward integration may "undermine (either) the states' political power of action (or) the principle of conferral."

Or, as the court clearly stated in its press release: "European integration may not result in the system of democratic rule in Germany being undermined." It's a sentiment shared by the people of the Czech Republic, Ireland and Great Britain (and they're serious about it there, where the typical British euro-skeptic already thinks of the European Parliament as the "mother of all parliaments"). People aren't talking about a unified Europe anymore. Nowadays, you're much more likely to hear people talking about a "Europe of the fatherlands."

Now everyone is rushing to declare they could live perfectly fine with this decision. And, sure, they probably could. Eastern Europeans, for example, interpret the court's decision as meaning that Germany's chancellor won't be able to boss new member states around anymore and to tell them where they stand in the pecking order when it comes to EU politics. For years, Germany has been viewed as an overzealous motor for integration, who bullied its partners into forfeiting the sovereignty that some of them had actually just won for themselves. But that's a thing of the past now that the German court has explained to Germans and Europeans alike where true democracy lies -- in the countries themselves.

Long-standing euro-skeptics like the British will say that, in doing so, Germany has finally made up its mind that Europe is an unruly, undemocratic monster. Still others will say that this decision reflects the reality that Europe is not a truly united entity and that, as a result, it has put the (what is, in terms of realpolitik, useful) kibosh on the altogether too ambitious fantasies about a future "United States of Europe."

The decision once again anchors Europe's power a bit more securely in its capital cities. And the only ones who won't support it are euro-boosters like Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer, who are fervent in their belief that the process of European integration has not kept pace with the thoroughly globalized world.

In the past several years, European power has in fact been largely concentrated in the capital cities. For people like Sarkozy and Merkel, it ultimately didn't matter who, within their ranks, happened to be playing the role of president of the European Commission. But now Germany's highest court has literally barred them from giving up even the tiniest portion of that power.

Of course, there are still a few issues to clear up in the parliament in Berlin, which the court has so affectionately annointed the true refuge of democracy. The parliamentarians could use that type of encouragement. It does their souls some good after all the abuse they've gotten from the grand coalition, which really didn't say much of anything to them all year long. Indeed, for both Germany and Europe, politics has been something that happens elsewhere.

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