“Further developing the idea of the EU”

Clara Föller is JEF Germany president of the Young European Federalists. Why she takes an active stand and what she believes is lacking in the election campaign.

Clara Föller, president of JEF Germany
Clara Föller, president of JEF Germany privat

Ms Föller, what do the Young European Federalists stand for and what motivates young people to get involved?

We see ourselves as an advocate of the European idea and want more people in society, especially young people, to embrace a European way of thinking. We are committed to European democracy and a European federation, we are non-party and non-denominational; our organisation has been in existence for 70 years. Currently, JEF Europe has 30,000 members all over Europe. Many new members have joined in recent years, driven either by Brexit or the election of Donald Trump. They are no longer content to watch from the sidelines, but want instead to take an active stand on international issues.

Is the European idea still sexy?

Definitely – sexier than ever. Perhaps people’s perception of what it means has changed a bit. The first JEF generation 70 years ago was still tearing down border fences. That is behind us now: the freedom to move freely within Europe – assuming a pandemic doesn’t happen to be raging – is part of our generation’s identity. We like diversity and engaging in exchange with other Europeans. At the same time, there is a growing awareness that this EU also has many weaknesses that we need to address.

What is the current state of Europe in your opinion?

There are certainly some successes. The “Next Generation EU” response to coronavirus is very welcome, as is the Green New Deal. At the same time, we see that the situation regarding European integration has remained stagnant for nearly 20 years. We had a constitutional convention in the early 2000s that failed, and not much has happened in the meantime. There were attempts to rescue some of this in the Treaty of Lisbon, but this was not the major transformation that had originally been planned. I view this as a regrettable – and incidentally also dangerous – development.

What exactly do you believe is lacking?

The fact that one member state can use its veto to essentially overrule the interests of 26 others, thereby rendering the EU as a whole incapable of action, is fatal. The EU’s shortcomings in the area of foreign policy are also alarming, as we have recently observed in the Afghanistan crisis. We urgently need a European foreign ministry, not to mention a reform of common EU asylum law. What is playing out on the EU’s external borders is a scandal, contrasts completely with the Union’s values, and is undermining our credibility in the world. And those are just three examples.

Why is this stagnation dangerous?

For two reasons: firstly, because it means we are no longer in a position internationally to respond to current challenges. And yet it is obvious that Europe’s small nation states will not get very far in a globalised world. The idea that we can resolve problems on a nation-state basis is ludicrous, in my opinion. Secondly, the EU is in my view not yet so strong and cohesive that it could not break apart again. The only way to improve the former and avoid the latter would be to break the reform gridlock.

Despite the need for action, the EU is playing hardly any role in the Bundestag elections. Is that your impression, too?

Yes, unfortunately. The party manifestos – at least of the major, influential parties – do contain a clear commitment to the EU and to the European idea. The AfD (the Alternative for Germany party) is the only one that wants Dexit. Apart from that, there is a great deal of theoretical embracing of the EU that also includes more democratic elements. But this is not something we notice in the election campaign. If the topic arises at all, candidates are highly pragmatic and uninspired in the way they position themselves on Europe.

So what would you like to see?

I would like the parties to show clearly and also to articulate persuasively how and where we – the most populous country in the EU – intend to play our part. We should stand up for the democratic values that are under pressure all over the world, including incidentally within the EU. You just mentioned Poland and Hungary. Furthermore, I would like us to further develop the idea of the EU. Germany should nail its colours to the mast and come up with new ideas. Our European neighbours are watching the elections very closely. I find it very inappropriate and embarrassing that Europe is playing virtually no role in them.

Which issues should be more of a focus?

I would like us to consider the EU when we talk about national approaches, and always to think about how we can work together with and in the EU. What is our role here? Where and how could we get other states on board? And indeed where can we learn from others? This applies not only to subjects like climate change but also to questions in the areas of social affairs, mobility, education and so forth.

You say that the EU could also break apart again. How probable a scenario do you believe this is?

I certainly do not regard the EU as completely secure, nor something one can take for granted. This is why we must work hard for and commit ourselves to this joint European project. This is the message I would have liked to see during the election campaign.

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