Less can be more

Franziska Brantner, MEP
Source: Security & Defence Agenda, Copyright: CC BY-2.0  

August 14, 2012
Franziska Brantner

More Europe. Conservatives, social democrats, liberals and Green Party members seem to agree that this is the answer to Europe’s financial and debt crisis. We really do need more Europe if we want to make the euro crisis-proof. The exciting question is how. In other words: how much do we want of which Europe?

Home-grown crisis of confidence

The serious crisis of confidence in Europe is home-grown. The large majority of people on our continent are open to the idea of Europe – it is the practical implementation of ideals that they increasingly object to. For example, almost 90% of Europeans are in favour of closer cooperation among the EU countries to overcome the financial and economic crisis. At the same time, not even 30% of EU citizens have a positive image of the European Union. How can these two things be compatible?

A better Europe

This could be due to the fact that almost 2/3 of people feel that their voice is not heard in the EU. The problem of trust can thus not be solved by simply promising people more Europe. People no longer simply crave more or less Europe, they want a better Europe. And they want to have a hand in deciding what ʺbetterʺ means to them.

The advocates of the European unification process have not yet successfully responded to this feeling. The constant call for more Europe has become a knee-jerk reaction and criticism about real problems is brushed aside as fundamental anti-European criticism.

Before they demand more Europe, pro-Europeans have to say how citizens can stay in control of the process. The grand project of finally making the EU into a true economic union, finally risking the step to create a true political union after more than five decades – this project will only be successful if citizens see themselves as part of the process.

Strengthening the European Parliament and the parties

How can this be achieved? The regular calls for strengthening the directly elected European Parliament and its equal status in all areas with the council of national governments – particularly when it comes to currency issues – are just as correct and important as the idea that the top candidate of the strongest party in the European Parliament is appointed president of the EU Commission which has more and more rights to oversee and intervene in national budgets.

But these steps alone will not solve the problem described above.

Central role of the national governments

The crisis has once again demonstrated the power of the EU Council and thus the central role that the individual national governments could play for all Europeans. This is not a problem in and of itself: the council has democratic legitimacy, its members are chosen in free elections in the individual EU countries. As a resident of Baden-Württemberg, I cannot elect the Bavarian state government in the German Bundesrat nor can I vote for the French president in the EU Council. Even though Seehofer[1] politics drive me up the wall, they would never lead me to dismiss the decisions of the Bundesrat as undemocratic or even to fear them. This is due, on the one hand, to the power of the Bundestag but, above all, to our Federal Constitutional Court. If a state government fundamentally curtails human rights, it would not be able to last long, at least this is my theoretical assumption. This is questionable in the EU, just look at Hungary.

Upholding shared values and rules

But in a union such as the EU where destinies are increasingly intertwined, people have to be able to trust that these national governments which affect the fate of the entire continent uphold shared values and rules. To achieve this, the EU institutions and actors have to effectively enforce the fundamental EU constitutional principles and the basic EU rights charters in all countries of the union and strengthen the confidence in the European project and between the countries through these legal guidelines.

The EU as a solid foundation

The pro-Europeans should also think about whether the answer to every new problem can be ʺmore Europeʺ. I believe the answer is no. We need an unshakable foundation for our European Community. This includes a shared legal system that ensures a standard legal framework for people and companies and guarantees that basic EU rights are enforced. However, the union must be able to develop and change on the basis of this solid foundation.

In some areas, this may mean more Europe and in others, less – and where we need more Europe today may need less in the future. External circumstances and people’s beliefs change with time; the division of labour between the union and the national government (as well as the regions and municipalities) should adjust to this change.

Brussels certainly needs more powers to get the debt and bank crisis under control. But to what extent does it have to influence what a farmer in Swabia is planting on his field?

Transfer of responsibilities over time

Anyone who believes that Brussels would, for example, voluntarily give its power in the common agricultural policy back to the national level is fooling themselves. Mechanisms that ensure that divisions of labour do not remain etched in stone forever are thus needed. One solution would be to transfer responsibilities with a cut-off date. A new public discussion would have to take place every five or 10 years to determine whether we can best solve a specific problem in Brussels, Berlin or Stuttgart.

If this were the case, it could be that many people would find it easier to support ʺmore Europeʺ. Because they would no longer feel that they had to ʺgive upʺ powers forever. Europe could gain a lot in the grand scheme of things if it were willing to also relinquish power on a small scale.

More active pan-European civil society

A more active pan-European civil society is also certainly necessary – actors, pop stars, athletes and other role models could play an important role here but also transnational networks that conduct lobby and campaign work.

The question that Europe faces today is thus not ʺmore or less Europe?ʺ. And the answer can certainly not be simply ʺmoreʺ. The continent needs a better Europe which can mean more Brussels in some cases and less in others but always has to mean more participation for its citizens.

Franziska Brantner is a member of the European parliament and the foreign policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA.

[1] Horst Seehofer is a German politician and chairman of the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU). He has been Minister-President of Bavaria since 2008.


Europe’s common future. Ways out of the crisis

The EU not only finds itself in a debt crisis, it is also faces both a crisis of confidence and of democracy. Now is the time for a broadly based public debate on alternative proposals for the future of Europe. We would like to contribute to the debate with this dossier.