The Need for Real Debate How to Get Europeans to Care about Europe

For far too long, the Germans have allowed the Europe debate to be led by a small number of experts, meaning they bear partial responsibility for the current chaos. But there is still a way to achieve a better Europe and get ordinary people to care about the EU -- through direct elections.
It's time for a political throw-down.

It's time for a political throw-down.

Foto: © Yves Herman / Reuters

In 1787 and 1788, a series of articles -- now known as "The Federalist Papers" -- were published in New York newspapers under the pseudonym "Publius." Behind the name were American statesmen spreading a clear message that the loosely connected states should finally unite to create a strong, pluralistic and democratic nation.

More than 200 years later, we Europeans find ourselves discussing the unity of the continent. But our debate is flabby and phoney -- far from the Federalists' passionate and inspired will to unite. When we talk about Europe today, we mean money. The newspapers and the men and women in the street are all asking the same question: "How much will it cost?"

The Germans are playing the role of the know-it-all pedant, pushing the blame for the confusion onto others -- namely the Greeks, Spaniards and Italians. But the bitter truth is we're the ones who botched everything up. Us, the supposed super-Europeans.

For years, Germans thought Europe was just swell, but only euro-nerds in Brussels actually concerned themselves with the fine print of this mammoth project. Regular people weren't at all interested in Europe.

We allowed former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former Finance Minister Hans Eichel, to name just a few, to pass resolutions in Brussels that hardly anyone understood. And it was apparently not clear to them either what the consequences of their decisions would be.

We tolerated only mild punishment for Greece's violations against the Stability and Growth Pact, and we suffered the installation of a European Parliament whose delegates have less say than a member of a city council.

We failed to turn up at European elections, and turned off the TV when Brussels was on the news. In short, we failed as citizens.

Politicians Look Only As Far As the Next Election

Of course, Europe isn't exciting. Most people find disgraced former German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg infinitely more interesting than Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council. Thoughts of Europe call up images of eurocrats in Brussels, endless late-night meetings and the famous "butter mountains" created by the Common Agricultural Policy. There is little enthusiasm for the European project. Its considerable achievements -- such as freedom of travel and the single European market -- are taken for granted.

There is no single European public sphere where Europeans can discuss issues with each other. Each country holds its own internal debates, while national politicians think only of the next election, and tell their voters at home what they want to hear.

At least now that things are affecting our pocketbooks, we're waking up a bit. We're paying attention and making an effort to get informed. But are we also fighting for a better Europe, like the authors of "The Federalist Papers" stood up for a united America?

True, everyone may know that euro bonds have nothing to do with 007, but with our money. We're buying gold and complaining about the Italians and their massive debts. But there is no real debate about the future of Europe.

Europeans Need a Referendum

That can be changed. But it would require a bold move, such as the following: Europeans need a European referendum. It would ask the question: Should we roll back the European Union, or do we dare to choose more Europe? Do we want a directly elected European president? A real parliament? How about European politicians who are -- at long last -- held accountable when things go wrong? Now is the moment to decide. Such a referendum would finally spark a widespread debate.

We have to get away from the economist-dominated debate and into a political discussion. Anyone who agrees with a common currency, or even speaks of a transfer union, should take the next step and bring up clear political unity. Anything else is beating around the bush. Nobody benefits from the endless discussion about "economic governments" that should meet twice a year. This intransparent, technocratic policymaking among leaders generates exactly the kind of dangerous Europe-fatigue that is helping the populist idiots  win support.

If Europeans finally manage to get a real election, they'll get involved too. Other EU countries have shown how referendums can enliven the national European debate. And in the end the Europeans will reach the right decision. But the previous tedious wrangling over Europe must come to an end.

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