The upcoming British departure from Europe, an upsurge in right-wing populism, unresolved financial issues – should we be worried about Europe? My personal answer: Yes, but only partially.
The morning of June 24, 2016, the day after the Brexit referendum, also provided me with the surprise of the year, as I never would have thought the citizens of Great Britain would vote to leave the European Union – regardless of how things eventually turn out. Because it will only be clear in 10 years whether the British decision signals the beginning of the end of the E.U. or only a Pyrrhic victory of all the Farages, Le Pens, Wilders, Grillos, Petrys and Meuthens. But as a notorious optimist, I believe that Brexit will ultimately prove to be a victory for the continuation of the European Union.
Wasn’t it always the case that during its 43 years of membership, Great Britain consistently pursued its own interests at the expense of European unity? I can’t avoid reproaching my English friends for this. Margaret Thatcher’s handbag became a more or less amusing symbol of this kind of politics. The prime minister enjoyed banging it on the lectern while informing Brussels: “I want my money back!” As an E.U. member, Great Britain was always a brake pad and a stumbling block in the way of the idea of a United States of Europe.
The upcoming exit negotiations, headed by the crafty French E.U. politician Michel Barnier, will provide free PR for E.U. institutions, which up to now have not been particularly successful at public relations. It will provide many new insights and eye-openers to the remaining 27 E.U. states, especially to their rural populations and those with generally little interest in politics. In the 82nd year of my life, I’ve learned one should never say “never”! And so I cherish the hope that in spite of what has just been said, our English friends could end up surprising themselves over the course of the Brexit negotiations.
How so? The English Supreme Court has just declared the House of Commons to be responsible for Brexit negotiations. The Scottish Premier Nicola Sturgeon could declare an independent Scottish Republic should Scotland not be able to remain a member of the E.U. without Great Britain. Northern Ireland could oppose the introduction of a border with the Irish Republic, causing a governmental crisis. Prime Minister Theresa May would then call for new elections; candidates would explain “If you vote for me, you should know that I will vote for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union” – and behold: the 2016 Brexit referendum could disappear into the whirlwinds of history.
But Great Britain isn’t the E.U.’s only problem. My worries are focused on two issues. On the one hand, there is the political, emotional, patriotic element – a purveyor of an apocalyptic vision of the E.U., today used so successfully as a weapon. It namely refers to a brutal appeal to loyalty towards the homeland, to the stolidity of the status quo in opposition to any change whatsoever in the fashion of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who achieved Brexit in part with egregious falsehoods.
One sees the same behavior with Marine Le Pen and her National Font, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Beppe Grillo in Italy, as well as Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen with the AfD. They all share the same top priority of breaking up the European Union come hell or high water and reviving the old nationalism. The wave of xenophobia and right-wing extremism they exploit already provides enough ground for worry about the future of the European Union.
The other worry with regard to the E.U. is directed towards the financial markets and the stability of the euro. But from the perspective of a businessman and non-politician, proposals can be made about how to get a grip on these difficulties.
In an era of PR-battles and fake news, I believe that much revolves around a simple issue: information. The gigantic endeavor of unifying Europe has seen amazing progress in the 70 years since World War II despite endless accounts of obstructionism – and under the almost complete exclusion of the public. So it is all the more important for today’s young people, who did not directly experience the horrors of German-French enmity, to be provided with huge amounts of objective information explaining why there must never again be the petty nationalism that existed before 1945.
Considering this, E.U. institutions should be provided with 10 times their current PR budget. With no exception, every household within the European Union should be provided every six months with a 20-page brochure about the latest developments in the E.U. The wallflower existence of the television broadcaster Euronews must be enlivened with programs for young people and become much more than a stodgy information channel whose editorial desk is almost literally covered with spider webs and whose news reporting lags far behind that of N-TV, CNN and Bloomberg.
Moreover, the statistics agency Eurostat should address the public with lively, expressive surveys and explanations of every positive development. Even the stiff president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has a need for younger, more vigorous press secretaries of the caliber of Steffen Seibert, who represents the German chancellor.
The real reason is that leading politicians lose importance and power the more competencies they turn over to Brussels.
Europe has a glorious history. But it needs people and institutions who recount this history in a lively, comprehensible manner – not as a warning against supposed populism as in the case of Brexit, but as the sparkling epic that it in fact is. This includes finally naming the hidden naysayers to E.U. development by name. I’m referring to the many top national politicians in individual E.U. countries. At the moment, the leaders of all parties seem to agree that we don’t need a United States of Europe but should instead be contented with a Europe of fatherlands.
The real reason is that leading politicians lose importance and power the more competencies they turn over to Brussels. No political leader would admit this – but they prefer advocating an unfulfillable E.U. Charter for the next 100 years rather than making concrete plans for the near future.
But everything would be simpler if, before the full achievement of a United States of Europe, at least control over the four most important areas were to be turned over to Brussels in the next five years: finance, foreign policy, defense and transportation.
Think how many billions could be saved annually if Washington no longer had 27 independent embassies of E.U. countries plus an E.U. embassy, but instead a simple European embassy. Through France’s veto powers in the Security Council, such an E.U. would be a powerful and equivalent partner for the other power blocs of the United States, Russia and China. Not to speak of the billions to be saved in reducing the size of diplomatic services, unifying weapons systems in a European army and achieving uniform European transportation planning. This would be the driving force for a gigantic program of economic growth.
Such thoughts need not remain a utopia. Admittedly, we are still faced with many problems regarding monetary policy and a resolution of the euro crisis – here as well, a single E.U. finance ministry would be a huge help! But what do European citizens in Lampedusa, Lodz or Rovaniemi want? They want peace with freedom. They don’t want, as is happening in Poland and Hungary, for their national politicians to cut off slices of this peace in freedom in the E.U.
We should confront the exit protagonists who are out for provocation with the argument that the 27 individual E.U. countries will, at least in economic terms, be eliminated on global markets by the large power blocs of the USA, China and Russia, thereby ruining the prosperity that has flourished so wonderfully in Europe.
When each E.U. citizen turns on his computer in the morning, he should see a grand headline shining on his screen: “Never before have there been 70 years of peace with freedom and without war in Europe – thanks to the European Union! Has there ever been a greater success story?”
If this formula were to be internalized by every E.U. citizen, I would envision a radiant sunrise as the future of a strengthened European Union – either without the United Kingdom or with a chastened Great Britain. That would bring us quite close to the vision of Victor Hugo who, already in 1849 at the second International Peace Congress in Paris, gave voice to something that seemed crazy at the time: the notion of a “United States of Europe.”
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