In an article for the magazine Cicero, Minister of State Michael Georg Link argues for a closer Europe and presents his vision for the future of the community.
Would Zeus still find Europa desirable today and – disguised as a bull – carry her off to Crete? Or, given the current problems within the EU, would he turn away from Europa in shock? I firmly believe that the EU is still lively and attractive. Europe is more than crisis management. But what should a future-oriented European Union based on values look like in a globalised world increasingly shaped by new centres of power? My vision of Europe is based on three equally important guiding principles: deepening (I call this “more Europe”), enlargement (“Europe with a broader base”) and simplification or focus (“a better Europe”).
First, let us look at deepening European integration: to begin with, it has to be said that the EU has made impressive progress in fighting the debt crisis. We have adopted a fiscal compact establishing a culture of sustainable budgeting in the euro area. We have created an effective European Stability Mechanism and adopted an ambitious Compact for Growth and Jobs to revive investment and growth in the EU. These measures have stabilised the markets and provided ways out of the crisis, as we can see in the case of Ireland.
Of course the crisis is not over. The public debt in the eurozone is now over eight trillion euros. Progress on structural reform is still too slow. In too many EU member states youth unemployment has reached worrying levels. Let us be under no illusion: we won’t sort out the problems merely by throwing money at them. No, we need to tackle their very roots. The time has come to deal with the structural problems of the euro and add a real economic union to our currency union, in other words to ensure closer coordination of our financial, fiscal and economic policies. The EU member states must continue resolutely with structural reform in order to improve competitiveness. The yardstick is not EU member states, but the United States, China and India.
I am aware that this will be a long and often bumpy road. It takes a certain amount of time before the positive effects of reform show up. We know this from experience. Distributing new money makes you popular, of course. But combating a debt crisis with more debts is just not a solution. Some people try to recast structural problems in Europe as cyclical problems and advocate the communitarisation of debt – “eurobonds” being the buzzword. That would be to go down the wrong track. It would create false incentives and plunge Europe even deeper into crisis.
We have to view the current crisis as a wake-up call and as an opportunity to improve Europe’s position across the board. Last year Federal Minister Guido Westerwelle initiated the Future of Europe Group. Eleven European Foreign Ministers drew up detailed proposals on how a deeper political union could shape up. One example: the foreign policy powers of the EU have to be reformed, and High Representative Catherine Ashton and the European External Action Service must be strengthened, so that the EU remains an effective international actor. More majority decisions in EU foreign policy might help prevent one single member state from being able to obstruct initiatives.
In all our reform efforts, we have to be sure that the people have a voice when competences are transferred to the European level. This is only possible via the national parliaments and the European Parliament. A Europe without full democratic legitimacy would be a Europe built on sand.
We should have the courage to say this openly: this need for deepening will only be possible as part of an amendment to the European treaties. This raises many questions. How can we implement essential integration in the eurozone without leaving other member states behind? How do we deal with the domestic situation in Britain? The list goes on. This is something we will really only be able to tackle after the European elections next year.
This brings me to my second guiding principle, enlargement. An intensive political debate is currently underway on the EU’s enlargement policy. On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the 28th member of the EU. Yet many citizens are sceptical about enlargement. Should we nevertheless think about further enlargement steps? Absolutely. Not just because we need to keep our promises. But also because it is in the EU’s interest to promote democracy and the rule of law in its neighbouring regions and to export stability. This is true above all for the Balkans, which not all that long ago was in the throes of devastating conflict.
The EU’s power to transform can also be seen in Turkey. Since accession negotiations began in 2005, there have been far-reaching reforms there to meet the criteria laid down by the EU. I am convinced that the reforms to date encouraged the Gezi Park generation to call for more democracy in Turkey. It is clear, though, that Turkey still has a long way to go.
I do not want to deny that we have made mistakes in the enlargement process or that a number of developments in some candidate countries have not been satisfactory so far. Popular acceptance of the EU’s enlargement policy is dependent on all accession criteria being fulfilled without exception. But of course countries must also respect basic values and the rule of law even when they have already joined the EU. Recent domestic developments in some EU member states give cause for concern. This was why Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle, together with some EU partners, launched the so-called rule of law initiative. The aim is to develop a new EU instrument against the breach of common European values. This could also be a contribution to the fight against the population’s increasing euroscepticism.
And that brings me to my third guiding principle. We can make the EU more successful and more effective through simplification and focusing on the essential. Of course, close European cooperation is necessary in many areas. I would like to see “more Europe” on the euro, the single market, the Common Trade Policy, energy policy, domestic and legal policy, as well as foreign policy. But I would like to see “less Europe” outside these key areas. We do not need to harmonise every single aspect of life in Europe. Some areas are simply unsuitable for harmonisation and further undermine popular acceptance of the EU, which is fragile as it is.
Do we need EU-wide regulations on the introduction of a quota for women in the management boards of large companies? Do we need EU-wide rules on the salt content of bread? Do we want EU-wide regulations concerning public services, which endanger the functioning of local water management in many towns and municipalities? I’m not trying to say that these and other issues are not important – quite the opposite! But some things proposed by “Brussels” cannot be reconciled with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and can be better taken care of at the national level or below.
I would like the EU institutions to adopt a culture of considered self-restraint. That goes for the governments of EU member states, which sometimes want to use Community-wide rules as a back door through which they can push through things they failed to get through “at home” for domestic reasons. That goes for the European Parliament, which must use its wide-reaching EU legislative powers responsibly. And that goes for the European Commission, which has become bigger and bigger with each round of enlargement.
Do we really need a Commission with 28 Commissioners – perhaps even more than 30 in the future – all with an individual portfolio? Why do we not slim it down by introducing a system of “senior” and “junior” commissioners, a system we know from EU member states (in Germany we have ministers and parliamentary state secretaries)? Why not give EU member states a stronger “droit de refus”, in the framework of which the Council can reject by (qualified) majority legislation proposed by the Commission? Why not introduce the principle of discontinuity, according to which the European Commission’s legislative proposals expire if they are not passed by the end of a term? All these steps would strengthen the subsidiarity principle and increase popular acceptance of the EU.
The European Union is much more than an economic community. It is a community of shared values and a political project. Thus we must look beyond managing the current crisis to the long-term goal of a political union: a political union with the Commission as a real government and two parliamentary chambers – the European Parliament and a second chamber made up of representatives of the member states. On this basis, Europe could become a true global player that defends its values and interests with a single, strong voice. At the end of this development there could one day be a European federal state. Democratic, competitive, transparent, efficient and open. Zeus – of this I am sure – would again fall head over heels in love with Europa …
Published on Cicero.de on 15 August 2013.Reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.