The European millennium is a hundred years in the past – and it seems the American millennium that succeeded it is history, too. China has been preparing to supersede the United States for a long time now, and Europe is on a long braking path to permanent standstill.
Hegelian dreams of a World Spirit settled at long last – if not in Germany, then at least in Europe –, have faded, and the end of the Arabellion probably showed even the most persistent optimists a far different reality: Western democracy is anything but a natural phenomenon spreading effortlessly across the globe.
She was once the beautiful sister of capitalism, successful not on account of her higher morals but by virtue of greater efficiency. Democracy is the market of political ideas, while the market is democratic competition among products and services.
Once upon a time, the market outlived its usefulness as a customer seismograph once all the data had been gathered. Speaking at this year’s World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos, Catalan economist Xavier Sala i Martín said that democratic consensus-building is ultimately only an obstacle to implementing the product strategy that has already been acknowledged to be the right one.
China has shown us that you don’t necessarily need civil liberties to thrive. State capitalism is building a magnetic levitation train line, while preliminary building enquiries have stalled in the country of its inventors.
Autocratic Turkey is inaugurating Eurasia’s largest airport while diesel cars bullied off the market stand parked in the construction ruins of our failed Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport (BER). No wonder Europe is not only no longer sexy; it really is “the Old World” – only the term hardly stokes the pride that it once did.
So what remains of the European millennium? While trousers, jacket, shirt and (sometimes even) a tie have displaced local clothing almost everywhere in the world, parliamentarianism, separation of powers and freedom of the individual are no longer export hits.
Everything we hold dear seems to have little appeal beyond European borders, and we’re already beginning to feel it. We are no longer the great model for other states and societies, and even we are starting to doubt ourselves.
Brexit has taught us many things, not least the advantage of representative democracy over public referendum. But it has also demonstrated how easily a population would toss a united Europe in the bin for nebulous promises of a return to former glory. In a way, Brexit was perfectly timed to show us how thin this European plant-nourishing humus layer really is.
Making Europe more effective involves countless tangible projects that should have been implemented long ago: from a common tax policy to a pan-European military strategy to an apparently hopeless shared migration policy.
One could write volumes listing all the concrete steps that need to be taken to ensure that Europe remains a halfway serious global partner in the future, but – and this is a very, very big BUT – even if all these projects had worked out, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
After all, it is ultimately the people who live in this Europe of ours who decide what happens to us. And as absurd as it sounds, Brexit is not proof of Europe’s failure, but of its greatness. Where else would a government, against all reason and its own understanding, implement the will of the majority of the people simply because it is the will of the people?
Just as human beings are the only animals that can end their own lives in a self-determined way, democracy is the only form of government that can run to misery on its own accord with its eyes wide open. The result is often regrettable, yet it is also one of the greatest achievements of human coexistence and ... our shared European heritage, of which we can be proud.
Still, if Europeans cannot manage to rekindle its citizens enthusiasm for it, then even a merger of Siemens’ and Alstom’s train divisions would not help. All will be in vain if voters in Poland – which reaps the EU’s economic benefits like hardly any other country in Eastern Europe – put anti-European parties in power; the same can be said of Hungary, France, and even Germany, albeit not to the same extent.
Every euro spent on saving Italy’s ailing public finances is money wasted if Italian voters put a bunch of lunatics in government. The old adage that people hate nothing as much as the hand that feeds them seems particularly apt in that regard.
In a recent study on disenchantment with Europe, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose of the London School of Economics drew a map of European discontent. What it shows is that this is not happening in the poorest corners of Europe, but in deindustrialised regions whose inhabitants mourn their past stature and importance.
The feeling is not alleviated by social boons, either: Those “left behind” by the global shift in production are taking revenge at the ballot box. Anyone who used to assemble Nokia mobile phones for a living now has to deliver Samsung smartphones as a courier driver – and their psyches can’t cope.
If even entire regions are de-industrialised like southeastern Saxony, then all that’s missing is unconditional basic income – as the ultimate scrapping premium for civic participation. If we do not succeed in winning citizens’ votes there through economic revitalisation, then Macron’s transfer union won’t be of any use, either.
It’s the economy, stupid! Yes, but hardly anything is “monocausal”. Even awareness of living in a common Europe is declining. Europeans have become alienated from one other; they no longer meet. Gone are the days when German marksmen’s clubs still travelled to their French twin city, when pupils spent a year in another European country instead of hitchhiking through Australia.
It is these apparent trivialities that show us that Europe no longer comes first. A video on YouTube shows 10,000 Japanese singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – in German! (It may sound strange but that is also why the EU-Japan trade agreement, or EPA, was so easily brought into being.)
Why is it impossible to even imagine 1000 Britons or 100 Greeks singing the European anthem in German or Germans singing in Romanian when the country holds the EU Presidency? There is a Europe Day on 9 May, but it is only a public holiday in Kosovo and, starting 2019, in Luxembourg as well.
2018 saw the Northern German states introduce Reformation Day as a public holiday, and the State of Berlin – which clearly has nothing else to worry about – brought back the old socialist Women’s Day. It’s national narrow-mindedness wherever you look. We’ve been further along.
The introduction of the single currency and the Schengen Agreement showed the eurozone’s 350 million inhabitants just how far we’ve come in the unification process. There has been no joint project since then to instil the European idea in citizens’ everyday lives.
Instead the self-proclaimed model pupil Germany has been going it solo: phasing out nuclear energy, then coal, and soon the combustion engine as well – with all the highhandedness of morally, ecologically superior authorities.
Irrespective of whether these decisions were the right ones to make, they are wrong-to-short-sighted in two respects: They are wrong above all because none of the other partners were involved in these solitary decisions. Much of the European resentment that has arisen in Eastern and Southern Europe is basically resistance to German arrogance.
The good news is that we can change this ourselves. Rather than import evil nuclear power from France when our wind turbines lull and disposing of sorted-out Euro-V diesel in Poland, a European vote on a common energy and climate policy would be prudent. The German solo efforts were and are short-sighted for the simple reason that major economic investments cannot be made as often as one likes.
Better a hundred thousand working torches than ten state-sponsored lighthouses! The immense financial resources required for an energy turnaround, from grid expansion to storage, can no longer be spent elsewhere – that much is certain.
And this not-so-exotic “elsewhere” country is right on our doorstep: broken roads and bridges, dilapidated public buildings, collapsing railways, large-scale projects that take more than a lifetime to complete. And these are just the good old analogue tasks that are waiting to be tackled and paid for.
What person is going to listen to a politician babbling about digitisation for the umpteenth time when he himself has to drive daily through a patchwork of signal dead spots and the loose ends of the fibre optic cables in front of his house have been sadly peering out of the holes in the ground for months.
In other words: Germany has every reason to lower its sights and act smaller on the European stage. Instead of wallowing in complacency as the only advocate of the human West, one might ask how Estonia manages to supply its small population with fast Internet before Huawei shows the Germans how they do things in China.
And here we come again to the beginning of our story: Europe, this vermiform appendix on the western edge of Asia, is a tremendously rich country in terms of culture, prosperity and shared history. The sad thing about wealth is that it is usually harder to secure it than to acquire. And that is precisely the position Europe is in today.
The status quo of social, economic and above all democratic achievements is fragile. Post-war Europe is a wonder of world history for which we should be grateful, a truly awesome and humbling accomplishment!
The best approach is to put our own freedoms on a healthy economic basis, otherwise they threaten to disappear along with it – and we should do this before the 30 millionth pensioner closes his old computer with dead software for the very last time at age 63.
German politicians can also do a lot to make this happen:
- fewer unilateral moves on Germany’s part and more consensus with European neighbours when it comes to far-reaching decisions
- Europe-wide uniform conditions for companies with regard to taxation, subsidies and business location policy
- Targeted immigration policy also with a view to economic interests
- Support for students in STEM subjects
- Use of educational resources available to low-income groups
- Linking the retirement age to life expectancy. Perhaps then we will even manage to fill the “value gap” within Germany (80 percent of West Germans consider democracy to be the best of all forms of government, but only 50 percent of East Germans do.) We have every reason to lower our sights and act smaller in Europe, so let’s get started quickly.