The 19th International WDR Europaforum was held in the Weltsaal at the Federal Foreign Office this Thursday (12 May). Under the moderation of Tom Buhrow, the Director-General of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, and Tina Hassel, the Head of the ARD Capital Studio, leading European politicians discussed current crises and the future of the European Union.
The EU in crisis mode
“Europe without Europeans?” That was the title of this year’s WDR Europaforum. It is undeniable that looking at Europe today, it seems as if crises and conflicts are taking centre stage and overshadowing all sense of unity and solidarity. What with the prolonged debates on refugee policy, the aftermath of the financial and economic crisis, growing nationalist trends and the UK referendum on whether to leave the EU, the European project is truly being tested. “If the European Union is still around in a year’s time, in the form we know it today, that will be a big achievement!” said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the start of the conference.
The EU: “One of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times”
Nevertheless, we must “not lose sight of the bigger European picture when in the grip of so many crises,” the Minister advised the audience. During his recent visit to Hanover, US President Barack Obama reminded us that the European Union is a huge success story, a construct that unites more than 500 million people, 24 languages and 28 countries in a common project. As Steinmeier noted, Europe looked quite different from the outside than it did from the inside. “A model for peace and prosperity, freedom and solidarity – this is what inspires people around the world, and this is what is now at stake for us Europeans.” He then listed some of the EU’s many achievements, such as the joint marine rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the support for Greece, and the agreement reached with Turkey on the refugee question.
Overcoming crises, strengthening cohesion
Steinmeier is therefore concerned about an apparent resurrection of nationalist attitudes that could jeopardise this joint project. In view of the various crises at hand, diffuse fears have taken hold among sections of the EU population, and these are fuelling populist ideas with clearly defined battle lines: us against them. However, Steinmeier views this return to nationalism as a misstep. In his opinion it is all the more vital, at times like this, to nurture a sense of belonging.
In this context both Steinmeier and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned of a possible Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU, which the Brits are voting on in a referendum in late June. But Steinmeier put on an optimistic face:
If we keep the European Union together through the crisis, then when we emerge on the other side the EU won’t be the same as it was before, it will be stronger!
The WDR Europaforum was launched in 1997. Since that date, this annual event has seen leading politicians visit a variety of European cities to debate the future of the European Union with journalists and media experts. This year, participants included Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.