If you had to outline the current state of the EU to people from outside Europe in a few sentences, how would you describe it?
The EU has every opportunity of remaining a place of prosperity, stability and peace in the 21st century. To achieve that we will have to do our homework and make EU structures more efficient and more democratic. In that respect, the current economic and currency crisis can become a catalyst for positive development if we make the right decisions now. I must admit, however, that I am concerned: the integration project is threatened.
What actually makes the current crisis so very difficult to control?
. . . the fact that it has several causes. It all began in 2008 with a bank crisis, triggered by the bursting of an enormous real-estate and speculative bubble – primarily in the USA, but also in several European countries. The vulnerability of a far from sustainable finance industry suddenly manifested itself in the Anglo-Saxon countries and in the non-EU member country Iceland. Because European governments then had to find a lot of money to rescue their internationally operating and mutually interdependent credit sector, the bank crisis became a sovereign debt crisis. Furthermore, it became apparent at a single stroke that, even without the real-estate crisis, some countries in the euro area had piled up unacceptably high sovereign debt, had simply ceased to be globally competitive and could no longer conceal the fact. Now some of them must carry out very painful reforms, while they are also overindebted and have high unemployment. And at the moment there is hardly any money available in most countries to stimulate the growth that would make it possible to combat unemployment. This is leading to frustration. That’s why the economic crisis has also led to a crisis of confidence in the political system and in European organizations, which is highly dangerous.
Is the pressure from the markets negating the democratic system?
Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that we need a “market-compliant democracy”. I consider that fundamentally wrong. Markets must instead become democracy-compliant. That’s why we need regulation of the financial markets and taxation of the speculative excesses that are triggering major turbulences in many countries worldwide. These new revenues will provide the financial freedom of movement to carry out investment. It is clear, however, that when people take part in elections they expect their elected representatives and elected governments to be able to implement their programmes. If the population gains the impression that politics is powerless against anonymous markets, then that endangers our democracy.
What solutions are available?
As I said, there cannot be any alternative to the primacy of politics. Democratically elected governments must be able to determine rules that take into account the interests of society as a whole and, if necessary, restrict special interests. Such rules already exist in relation to food safety, regular inspection of vehicle, and so on. Now we also require binding rules of this kind for financial markets and there’s a need for taxation of international financial speculation. We must no longer allow high-risk speculative deals that enable individuals to earn billions, but destabilize entire regions.
What role is the European Parliament playing in overcoming the crisis?
Unlike the heads of state and government, MEPs very quickly agreed on mechanisms for overcoming the crisis – across all party lines. Unfortunately, our proposals were initially cast aside and only accepted by the government leaders after a considerable delay. The European Parliament took the initiative on all questions of bank and financial market regulation and on the suggestion of combining budgetary discipline with an employment and growth pact. And I predict that the heads of government will also follow our lead with regard to a tax on financial transactions.
Will there be “more” or “less” Europe at the end of the crisis? Could the crisis even strengthen Europe?
That’s what I’m working for. The steps towards integration that Europe has taken in recent years have been huge: after the fall of the Wall we have integrated the countries of eastern Europe, removed frontiers all over Europe, created a common currency and, with the Treaty of Lisbon, made the EU more functional overall. However, the crisis has made clear that countries that have a common currency must cooperate even more closely on questions of economic, fiscal, monetary and in the medium term also social policy.
Hasn’t the main problem long been that Europe lacks a big idea for the future?
Unlike my generation, which still remembers when there were border posts in Europe, many young people now take European integration for granted. That is a positive development because there is now a young generation in the whole of Europe that can no longer imagine there were once wars, for example, between Germany and France. That is Europe’s most important success – securing peace after all the military conflicts on our continent. However, this also means that the raison d’être of the EU – “preserving peace in Europe” – sounds rather abstract to many young people. That’s why I’m trying to provide a new reason for “more Europe”, one that raises the question of how we imagine our life in the 21st century. And you then very quickly realize that the defence of our social model, of civil liberties and prosperity is only possible within a European framework, because we are competing with other powerful global regions that perhaps have different ideas from us about social security or freedom. And no European country will be able to solve the challenges of environmental protection, of climate change, of security of resources and of migration alone.
Doesn’t the EU still have some catching up to do when it comes to democratic participation?
Risking more democracy – as Willy Brandt once described it – is always the right thing to do. We have already taken a step towards direct democracy with the possibility of a European Citizens’ Initiative, which has been in place since the Treaty of Lisbon. It is no secret, however, that I could imagine even more: I would like the European Parliament to stand alongside the European Council, which consists of the heads of state and government, as an equal legislative body. It should be a European Parliament that can effectively supervise a European government – now still known as the European Commission.
Where does your personal enthusiasm for and your commitment to Europe come from?
I come from a border region where three different countries meet. I have direct experience of what it means to such a region when borders are swept away. I am firmly convinced that Europe will only maintain its economic and political relevance if we continue to support integration. However, that does not mean the end of the nation state as a source of identity – as a German, of course, I enthusiastically follow the German national football team. That doesn’t make me a bad European.
Interview: Janet Schayan