Nothing is ordinary this summer of 2014. In the very year when the world commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War – that “epoch-making catastrophe”- new storm clouds are rising in the European sky. War and disintegration are threatening the continent once again. Russia is returning to a neo-imperialist power policy, first occupying a small neighbouring country by force and now fighting a war in eastern Ukraine. The Near East is falling apart: while Iraq and Syria are enduring an interminable civil war, they are invaded by the hordes of the “Islamic State”. As the United States watches dubiously from the sidelines, the economic crisis seems about to threaten the European Union again, and nationalism is growing ever stronger within it.
Those are the opening concepts of Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor in Schroeder’s government and leader of the German Green Party, mentioned in his most recent book “Is Europe Failing?” published last summer.
A few months after it was published and in spite of certain changes of context (in the meantime the USA decided to create a coalition and to intervene militarily against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the new Commission under Claude Junker has taken office), the question about the future of the European Union has become even more pressing. To find an answer to this dramatic question, Fischer analyses the role the European Union plays in the context of the Old Continent’s history, look’s at the present strategic crisis and goes through the decisions adopted to overcome the financial and economic crisis of 2008 which in his opinion were largely mistaken and worsened the democratic deficit.
His conclusion is clear: “…the European integration project is more seriously threatened now, in this summer of 2014, than it has ever been before”.
The Crises of Europe
The reasons for this pessimism must be found firstly in its internal dynamics, although they have much to do with what is happening outside the European Union. According to Fischer, the external constellation which the Union has to confront is closely linked to the cracks in the project and its vacillating progress. The new Russian power policy with its neo-imperialist aspirations is, according to Fischer, also connected to the internal weakness of the European Union and the fact that that the Union lacks the weight and coherence necessary to take action at continental and international level.
What, then, does Joschka Fischer believe are the internal reasons for the increasing fragility of the European integration policy?
Here’s a brief summary:
- The architecture of the European Union as it was established in Maastricht and the adoption of the euro, in spite of the adjustments and improvements introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, turned out to be an inadequate scaffolding arrangement, too fragile to confront the turbulent times which followed the economic and financial crisis of 2008.
- The measures adopted by the European Council – many of them inspired by the policy of Germany and Merkel – which, instead of deepening the construction of Europe and decreeing the political instruments necessary to confront the economic and financial crisis at collective level, reaffirmed a sovereignist tendency which opposed the essential economic and fiscal governance demanded by a common policy.
- Instead of moving towards an Europeanist transformation of Germany, Berlin has pursued and is still pursuing a policy aimed at the Germanisation of Europe. That policy is connected not only to the budgetary austerity and consolidation promoted by Berlin but also to a more fundamental question, that of the growing doubts about the European project emerging in Germany.
- The weakness or disappearance of the Franco-German leadership, which is and always has been the backbone of the stability of the European Union and the motor of the most significant steps made forward.
- And as a consequence of all that, the emergence and growing importance of right-wing nationalist forces and others actors opposed to the European Union which, in this context, are threatening the project’s subsistence.
Does Fischer therefore think this means that the European Union is doomed to decline and move towards inevitable disintegration? The ex-Foreign Minister has not lost hope that the present state of stagnation and potential disintegration can be overcome. Moreover, he offers us a practical and specific path for overcoming the present crisis. He hopes that, in spite of the mentioned difficulties, the European Union will not only survive but still has a good chance to embark on a new integration phase. This opinion is based on his profound conviction that if the project were to experience a true existential crisis, “A solid majority of European citizens in the principal member countries would neither allow nor accept the dissolution of the Union”, above all thanks to the shared historical awareness which the past has bequeathed to us.
According to Fischer, the institutional framework we need if we are to extricate ourselves from the present crisis is the Euro-Club, the conglomerate of countries which adopted the euro. The key to setting that process back in motion is the consolidation of a strong political cooperation between France and Germany, not only to save the internal market and continue with business as usual, but to take the lead and launch the euro countries on a drive to adopt a “community-wide sovereignty policy”.
And that is precisely where the real problem appears: to be able to face such a challenge this two countries will have to give up a part of their sovereignty. Germany will have to overcome its closed opposition to granting economic and fiscal sovereignty and economic governance to the Union, an idea far from popular in that country, and France will have to agree to give away part of its sacrosanct political sovereignty, however illusory that notion may be.
A political entente of that kind will not be achievable without the clearest possible vision of where we are going. In Fischer’s opinion, the era of blank cheques is far behind us. That vision must be based on overcoming the Union’s present democratic deficit – for which purpose Fischer returns to his proposal of integrating the members’ national parliaments into the EU’s decision-making mechanism. In pursuit of that vision, Joschka Fischer calls on us to abandon the idea of a United States of Europe based on the federal model of the USA and, instead, suggests we should draw more inspiration from Europe’s historical multicultural and multilingual experiences, the Swiss federal model in particular.
A Green framework for change
“Is Europe Failing?” certainly does not offer armour-plated solutions. Nevertheless, as well as its sharp analysis of the causes of the problem, it proposes a framework for resolving them. In any case, the book is an essential reading – beginning with the electric shock of seeing such an ardent supporter of the construction of a united Europe sounding such a loud alarm.
No-one will be able to say tomorrow that we have not been warned about what expect us if Europe’s current leaders merely keep pedalling in the void, inspired by an electorally-based policy designed to avoid difficulties, believing that the solution lies in blocking any progress towards integration and emphasising a gentle process of re-nationalisation. According to Joschka Fischer, in the medium term that attitude will only feed extreme sovereignist tendencies and open the way to gradual disintegration.
Review: Joschka Fischer – ‘Scheitert Europa?‘ (‘Is Europe Failing?).