In an interview, Dr. Franziska Brantner MdB comments on the results of the “Actually European!? Citizen expectations of the next German government’s EU policy” study and makes the case for greater German engagement in the fields of climate protection, tax policy and ensuring the rule of law.
Dr. Christine Pütz: For the third year in a row, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has published a survey in cooperation with Das Progressive Zentrum on how Germans see their country’s role in the EU. The results show that EU approval rate remains stable, even though respect and confidence in the actual political and economic value of the EU fell during the coronavirus crisis. Does this result surprise you given the problems in procuring vaccines and the fact that the economic situation is worse overall?
Dr. Franziska Brantner MdB: Not really. For one thing, there were cooperation problems during the first phase of the pandemic. We saw borders being reinstated and supply chains breaking apart. With the Recovery Fund, a hard-won European approach was agreed upon and this fortunately ended up with the required unanimous support, but the resources have not yet filtered through to where they need to be. The decision in favour of the Recovery Fund was held up for a long time by Hungary and Poland. This delay is part of the reason the support is not yet visibly in place.
Secondly, there were problems in getting hold of vaccines. This is where mistakes were made – by Europe, but also on the German side. Early last summer, Germany took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU and was very closely involved in all decisions. One mistake was to rely too much on the free market for the necessary production of vaccines rather than coordinating, financing and, where necessary, regulating production and thus pushing forward with vaccine production, as in the USA.
Every dose of vaccine used in Israel and two thirds of those used in the UK were made in the EU. Countries such as the USA and the UK itself did not start exporting vaccines for a long time and vaccinated their own populations first.
The biggest mistake was that even though we invested in vaccine research, we did not do the same for production. This is something that we Greens always called for: a pandemic economy means market regulation, because in exceptional situations such as these, the power play between supply and demand on the market does not kick in quickly enough.
We were mocked as planned economy supporters and communists. It was actually a case of taking the individual steps to ensure supply and coordinate logistics, to make sure that at the end of the day, the products needed to fight the pandemic were available in sufficient quantities, be it tests, masks, vaccines or drugs. For the EU, there will hopefully be a similar structure in place as there is in the USA. It is to be called HERA (European Health Emergency Response Authority) for the EU, but it is not in place yet.
But at this point I would also like to mention something that many people are not aware of, which is that the European Union stands in solidarity with other countries. Every dose of vaccine used in Israel and two thirds of those used in the UK were made in the EU. Countries such as the USA and the UK itself did not start exporting vaccines for a long time and vaccinated their own populations first.
What the EU did is highly commendable, but I get the impression that very few people even knew about it and instead praised Israel, for being able to vaccinate. Those vaccines came from Europe. I do not consider that export bans would have been a better move, on the contrary. We need to produce more and also, with a view to the global South in particular, show even more solidarity.
The citizens found that the German federal government had a more active and also a more cooperative presence in European politics this year than they felt it had in the last two. This can certainly be partly imputed to the initiative of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to set in place a strong Recovery Fund. Two thirds of all Germans want Germany to continue to have an active and cooperative presence in the EU in the future as well. What do you feel these results will mean for the political agenda of the next federal government?
It will mean that it is worth pushing Europe forward and that this is what citizens want. So there must be answers to issues that have been simmering for years, such as climate protection, migration and asylum or foreign policy. It is critical to bring the European Union one step further forwards, with an eye to these urgent topics.
“We need a strong European budget that invests in European public goods and creates European value”
Our EU partners also expect Germany to play a constructive role and to ease off the brakes. In recent years, the German federal government has been more likely than not to apply the brakes – to an ambitious climate policy, tax policy, tax transparency, agriculture policy reform – the list is a very long one. This gives me grounds to hope that we will finally take our foot off the brakes and commit to an ecological and social transformation, a Europe of solidarity and fairness and finally get unreservedly behind these objectives.
When the Recovery Fund was being debated last summer, it had majority approval in Germany. This latest survey shows that there is disagreement over the question as to whether joint borrowing should be theoretically possible within the EU, with a slight majority against joint borrowing by EU states going forward. Citizens are also divided as to whether the German financial contribution to the EU is up to task. Unlike the last two years, there is no longer a clear majority in favour of this. At the same time, almost 90% are in favour of joint spending by Germany and its EU partners in specific areas, principally innovation/research (52.0%), climate and environmental protection (47.4%) and social security (36.0%). How should German policy approach these dichotomies?
First of all, reality needs to show that the joint bonds are enhancing the European Union on the ground and that the money does not just have a stabilising effect, but also gives Europe a shot in the arm for digitalisation and the climate transformation of the economy. This proof is needed now.
Unfortunately, Germany is not contributing much to this, as it is not really using the funds to create momentum beyond the national economic stimulus package for strong climate protection and digitalisation, but channelling resources into objectives already decided upon. Replacing national borrowing with European borrowing, but without an extra economic boost for the climate. We hope that other countries will do a better job and prove that the money can really be put to good use.
It is very clear that there is a growing understanding that acting together is absolutely vital if we are to determine our own destiny in this world as Europeans.
And this is precisely our philosophy: we argue that this horse-trading every year during negotiations on the EU budget over how much money to pay back to each country needs to end. The fact that last summer, even the trans-European projects in research, the field of health and Erasmus ended up being cut short is no longer understandable. For that reason alone, it makes sense if a bolstered European budget was able to pay for European public goods: European energy network, railway network, research and innovation, to plug investment gaps in Europe.
It is precisely for this reason that we need an investment fund for the future. A fund that explicitly invests in European public goods and creates European added value. Obviously, we also still need resources for weaker regions, for the purposes of solidarity, but funding European public goods needs to be part of the package.
Whenever the economic benefits of the EU are discussed, the left-right dichotomy rears its head. People who support parties right of centre are particularly sceptical, whilst people who support parties left of centre are much more likely to see the benefits. As the vast majority of all respondents explicitly call for more joint investments and therefore European engagement in specific political areas, this begs the question as to which strategies we can use to ensure that we do not lose these high theoretical approval rates for a closer union. How can misgivings about the EU be allayed?
It is very clear that there is a growing understanding that acting together is absolutely vital if we are to determine our own destiny in this world as Europeans. It all hinges on being genuinely able to deliver, within the well-understood system of coordinates that is solidarity, which ultimately makes us all stronger together.
Everybody is concerned about EU funds disappearing into corrupt channels, but the conclusion the Conservatives draw from this is that it should all be rejected en masse, instead of setting out to implement credible and consistent strategies against corruption.
We must continue to strengthen this argument and it must also be borne out by reality. Everybody is concerned about EU funds disappearing into corrupt channels, but the conclusion the Conservatives draw from this is that it should all be rejected en masse, instead of setting out to implement credible and consistent strategies against corruption. Boyko Borisov, who governs a corrupt country as the long-serving prime minister of Bulgaria, is still a highly respected member of the Conservative’s EPP. The EPP has consistently used corruption as an argument to refuse any further joint spending, whilst keeping both eyes firmly closed to corruption at home and not holding the parties responsible to account.
As the surveys of the last two years have shown quite clearly, people who are more likely to be sceptical about the EU are those who are concerned that they will not be ones to benefit from the transformations, e.g. people with lower levels of education and from rural areas. At the same time, social security is seen as an important EU responsibility. What conclusions should we draw from this?
That is not just a question for the EU, but one that also applies to Germany itself. The transformation must be shaped in such a way that it truly leaves nobody behind. If we fail to achieve this, the citizens will not be in favour of transformation. That is a fundamental rule and sometimes it works better than others.
It is not enough to mount attractive campaigns, we must target policies towards strengthening public goods and services and this takes all levels, from the municipal to the European.
This is the case everywhere, including for the EU. The question of how programmes that are beneficial for people throughout the EU can be bolstered is critical here. The keywords are apprentice exchanges, EU-wide minimum wages, cracking down on tax dumping and avoidance, measures to tackle wage dumping and unfairness in mobility within Europe, so that people who are mobile pay as much tax as those who are not.
All of this needs to become lived reality. It is not enough to mount attractive campaigns, we must target policies towards strengthening public goods and services and this takes all levels, from the municipal to the European.
We were surprised at the clear support in favour of expanding majority decision-making in the European Council: more than 80% of Germans are in favour and just 14.7% are against. The citizens clearly want an EU that is capable of action. However, the majority rule also means giving away more national sovereignty. How do we discuss this with EU partners who are against it?
This clear majority has certainly partly to do with the fact that in foreign policy, Germany is seen not as the country doing the blocking, but as the country that gets blocked. But there are also plenty of other situations in which the German government does engage in blocking itself. I would be interested to see what the results would look like if the question had been worded differently, whether they would also be in favour of majority decision-making if Germany was in the minority position.
In theory, of course, it is a good thing that there is increasing support for qualified majority decision-making. This is urgently needed for the EU to be able to make decisions. There are also studies that show that the transition to qualified majority would lead to more compromises, not fewer. Blockages would be removed, but compromises would still have to be made and individual countries would be outvoted only very infrequently. It is precisely this culture of compromise that makes the European Union what it is.
In theory, of course, it is a good thing that there is increasing support for qualified majority decision-making. This is urgently needed for the EU to be able to make decisions.
We should therefore use some of this momentum for the Conference on the Future of Europe and finally make change happen. After all, this is possible without treaty change. But we must bear in mind what impact this will have on countries that are often the ones doing the blocking, to find out which procedures and mechanisms we need to achieve a transition from unanimity to qualified majority that in itself requires a unanimous favourable decision.
The best approach would be to start in individual areas and expand gradually. If we fail, at some point we will have to take the more arduous route to a federal European republic along with all other countries that want the same, and where qualified majority would apply in all areas from the start!
Respondents clearly see joint EU asylum policy, the implementation of the rule of law in the EU, introducing EU-wide minimum social standards and climate policy with the European Green Deal as the principal European political priorities of the next federal government. What specifically do you think should be the first step taken by the next government?
In the field of climate policy, the “Fit for 55” package should be the first priority. This includes central legislative proposals for the European Green Deal, to be negotiated at the European Parliament and in the Council of Ministers in the coming months and which automatically has the power to influence our economy and lives, if bold steps are taken. The new government will need to take action in this area immediately. France, which will hold the Presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2022, is keen to start seeing results. This also means that it is very important for the German government to adopt ambitious positions very quickly that will genuinely bolster the European Green Deal.
Secondly, there’s the question of implementing the rule of law: here, it will require Germany to take a more vehement stance than previously in favour of the existing rule of law procedures being applied consequently and promptly and for us to make greater use of the existing procedures outside of Germany. Even in the bilateral relationship, even looking at our own companies, there is still much to be desired here.
It is very important for the German government to adopt ambitious positions very quickly that will genuinely bolster the European Green Deal.
Thirdly, migration: the negotiations are not going well. It is going to be extremely difficult to reach agreement. It may not be possible to get a joint agreement with all 27 EU countries, but we may ultimately have to move forward in a subgroup, so that we can at least ensure that we continue to act in compliance with international law and human rights on the external borders of the EU and that civilians can continue to save lives at sea unhindered.
This interview was first published in German on boell.de.