The European heads of state and governments are sitting in a burning house haggling over the total sum they will have to rustle up for the water damages from putting out the fire. The reproach that they have lost contact with the citizens doesn’t ring true: the fact is, they never had any to start with. The system we live in neither provides for nor admits any legitimate representation for the citizens of Europe.
Whoever makes “democratically legitimate” policy at the European level – that is, who has been elected to do so – has come into that position only through national elections and must, to survive politically, defend the fiction of “national interests”. Whoever today at the summits of the European Council always obstructs Community interests to win the approval of the national electorates harms all the others – and, considering how interlocked the nations are within the European single market and the eurozone, harms his own.
And the voters who celebrate that politician will become, not wiser, but stupider from their own mistakes. No European nation state today can solve a problem on its own; and yet the institutional structure of the EU community hinders solutions. What we call the crisis today is this very contradiction, and what we are discussing is only its symptoms.
This is tearing apart the European Union. An abyss yawns between political representatives – those who reckon themselves as pragmatists – the citizenry and a few dreamers. We can thank the pragmatists for the crisis. Because they have only ever tried for the “possible”: for example, a transnational currency that cannot possibly work and that can only undermine their idea, because national concerns have obstructed the tools needed to manage that currency.
Dreamers are the true realists
The problems that arise from this contradiction are being renationalised, debt declared national debts, and nations forced to struggle to deal with them at the national level. How do these pragmatists want to solve the crisis? We can thank the citizens for legitimising those who created the crisis. They compel their representatives to mimic the voices coming out in defence of the nation and to turn away from Europe.
And the dreamers? They were and they are the true realists. To them we owe them the realistic and practical enforcement of the reasonable, the outcome that seemed utopian at the time, those consequences that had to be drawn from the experiences with nationalism and European political interests that had left the continent in rubble and ashes. The first President of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, a German, said: “The abolition of the nation is the European ideal!” – a phrase that neither today's president of the Commission nor the current German Chancellor would dare utter. But that declaration is the truth.
Today, we could have been thanking the dreamers for the solution to the crisis. The dream, the solution: the European Republic, the idea of a European Republic, in which the regions, without giving up their character, continue on in a free association within a joint legal framework, instead of remaining organised in nations. The competition from the nation state is not turning around the crisis – it is creating it.
The Europe we live in is unsustainable in its current political and economic framework, and it will implode because national democracy and the transnational economy are falling apart. We live in a currency zone yet act as if the economies were still national and must by necessity compete with each other.
The new European project
That is why Euroland needs a transnational democracy: a European Republic, with equal political, economic and social rights and rules for all.
The Republic is the new European project: to organise its territory through voluntary membership, agreed through treaties based on the assurance of sustained peace, to overcome the idea of the nation and to build the first supra-national continent in history. The model of the United States is retro. EU – we’re the avant-garde.
The European Council, and through it the member states, claim authority over European integration – which will not come about if at the same time the mendacious melodrama of the defence of national sovereignty is being played to the gallery, to the national electorates. The sovereignty of the nation state is the illusion afflicting Europe.
If Europe can evolve into a union of shared liabilities through the banking union and the debt repayment fund, then the joint decision on spending will have to be organised differently. Euroland as the nucleus of a European Republic needs a eurozone parliament with the right to take initiatives and a voting right independent of national lists; a budget cycle coupled to the legislative period and at least partial European fiscal sovereignty; in the future, Eurobonds must resolve the shortcomings of the euro.
By the logic of a European res publica, the gains of the Pan-European value chain would also be distributed transnationally and thus an economic balance established between the centre and the periphery. By this logic, a Europe-wide unemployment insurance in this recession would bring within reach the shift to a European welfare system.
The economy, the currency and policy are all interlinked, and only a pan-European body politic, legitimised by a supranational democracy, can begin to win back control over the economy. National export balances are no strategy! When 80 per cent of exports are to the domestic market, they constitute a European accounting fraud.
Res publica at Europe's core
The concept of res publica is by far the most valuable political idea to be born in Europe since Plato. It is the European unique selling point that can justify a “we Europeans” sentiment, because res publica includes a commitment to the political organisation of the community, from which social justice and the general welfare can be derived as normative goals. This does not exist in the United States, nor in the autocratic oligarchy of Russia, let alone in a pre-democratic China. Res publica is the core of Europe
No one knows today how this avant-garde project, namely supranational European democracy, will take form institutionally in the end. To discuss this with all the creativity that this continent is capable of is the task that faces us. Otherwise, the European peace project will wander Europe as a mere ghost of itself.
A longer version of this article first appeared in German in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Translation by presseurop. The article is also available in Czech, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese and Romanian.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.