Politics

European Leaders and Their Dangerous Game

The rising tide of nationalism and Eeuroscepticism threatens Germany’s positive role in Europe, a trend which must be resisted.

This article was originally published by Heinrich Boell Stiftung.

Many Poles see Germany as somewhat similar to a nuclear power plant: When operating normally, it provides the whole of Europe with huge amounts of economic, social, and political energy; however, should the security systems fail, this source of energy can easily turn into a very destructive force. If we want to prevent such a meltdown, we should not try to rely solely on external factors. The political orders created by the Holy Alliance or the Treaty of Versailles were attempts to contain national energies (not just Germany’s) from the outside. Both failed, as both were unable to uphold peace and bring about a balanced development of Europe.

The ability to redefine traditional priorities of German politics in order to make them more European – an ability that both the German centre-right and the left possess – is seen by many Poles as an effort to contain Germany’s huge political and economic energies and to tap them for the greater European good. Thanks to this ability Germany has become, over the last two decades, the leading force of European integration. Today however, the renationalisation of European politics and public attitudes caused by the financial crisis has reawakened many old national fears and stereotypes – and this constitutes a major challenge for the Germans.

The Financial Crisis Exposed the Deficit of Democracy in the EU

When the financial crisis that began in the US spread to Europe it became obvious that the EU was suffering from a serious democratic deficit. The EU had failed to strengthen its parliament in time – and it had failed to “Europeanise” it by introducing supranational MEP candidates. Today, as a consequence, the EU still has a mixed constitution (in the Aristotelian meaning of the term), composed of, on the one hand, a European bureaucracy, and national democracies on the other. In the eyes of many European nations such a construction was legitimate as they viewed the EU as a well-oiled machine with the sole purpose of producing ever-greater wealth. However, this construct was almost immediately swept away by the current financial and economic crises, thus undermining the EU’s fundamental legitimisation. The result was that the existing gap between European bureaucracy and national democracies, previously disguised thanks to Europe’s growing wealth, was exposed – and is now endangering the future of the European project.

Today, the whole continent is gripped by renationalised interests and fears. Many European leaders have reacted to this situation in two ways: On the one hand, they are acting as “Eurosceptics” on a national level, while, on the other, they are still using their national political legitimacy to support the further development of the European Union. For his French audience Sarkozy behaved as if he were Napoleon III, trying to project the old aura of France as world power; he also attacked the Schengen Treaty as the cause for France’s economic woes. Yet, at the same time and within European politics, he still tried to show some responsibility. Overall European politicians adopted the strategy to claim that all successes are “ours,” that is, that they are national in character, while all failures, be they economic, political, or social, are heaped upon the EU. In this way, the blame for all the troubles that afflict us during the crisis is being put at the doorstep of a remote and seemingly foreign European bureaucracy.

Euroscepticism and Populism

Even if leading European politicians partake in this game, convinced that by behaving in such a two-faced manner they are merely protecting their involvement in European politics, it is still a very dangerous game to play. The Euroscepticism and populism they are using for their national political campaigns will spawn a real Euroscepticism and populism that may eventually thwart the process of European integration – and it is only through greater, more thoroughgoing European integration that the European project can be saved.

Today Germany is viewed in Poland with both hope and anxiety. Some German politicians are exhibiting just the populist oscillation between national and European goals described above – and there is a tendency to renationalise interests and fears. Some German politicians and part of the media will talk incessantly about the high costs Germany has to bear to maintain the Eurozone, yet they will never even mention how much the German economy, the German state and society have gained from the Common Market. Fortunately, this strategy of acting the Eurosceptic for a national audience and the Europhile in Brussels is less widely used in Germany than it is in France or the UK. Nevertheless, if such attitudes spread in Germany, this would be a lethal blow for the whole of Europe.

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