Article by Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, in the Frankfurter Rundschau (19 February 2016)
Fear is haunting Europe. Ten armed conflicts are currently being waged in our immediate neighbourhood; more than 60 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Some of us are feeling overwhelmed by the massive numbers of refugees seeking shelter here now. Others fear for their own safety given the spread of Islamist terrorism. In many countries mass unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is threatening not just people’s professional perspectives, but also entire democracies. Nationalists and populists are deliberately fuelling these fears. They dominate the headlines, they dictate the tone and direction of the debate.
The Europe of open borders and practised solidarity is on the defensive. What is really needed is unity and team spirit, but the forces of disintegration are growing ever stronger. “Save your skin if you can!” seems to be the new principle of those in the EU. But countries who seek their salvation by going it alone forget that in this tempestuous age of globalisation Europe remains our best life insurance policy. We can only survive in this world of crisis and conflict if we find joint European answers.
Europe’s teamwork is not making a good impression at the moment – and that is in no way due to the EU and its institutions. The European Commission has done its job in the past months and has put forward ambitious proposals to resolve the refugee issue and to boost the economy. The European Parliament, too, has a stable majority of pro‑Europeans at its disposal. It is a number of member states who are slamming on the brakes, who would rather withdraw into their own national shells than work on joint solutions with their partners.
So, what now, Europe? Now is not the time to pick and choose our favourite arias. It would be progress if the European orchestra were to become more than a cacophony of egocentric soloists and play together as it used to do. In the short term, there will be no perfect solutions in this divided EU. But given the multiplicity of pressing problems, we will not always be able to wait to get each last doubter on board before agreeing on a political solution.
What we need most now are creativity, flexibility and pragmatism. Europe needs countries to set the pace and inspire bold action to get the ball rolling again. They are still out there – countries that don’t consider Europe primarily as part of the problem, but as part of the solution. They are there, in the east and west, the north and south. And it is these countries in particular who must now move forward boldly – and with their successes inspire the others to follow suit.
No, I am not proposing a solidification of a “core Europe”. However desirable it remains for all 28 partners to pull in a single direction, we have to admit that a Europe with pacesetters is better than a Europe stuck in the starting blocks. Every coalition of the willing inspired by a common goal gets us further than a Europe of the unwilling which relies solely on nation states acting off their own bat.
Enhanced cooperation can remain open and dynamic. It may have very different faces depending on the problems being tackled. It is however undisputed that the Franco-German tandem invariably acts as a magnet that attracts more EU partners. Once the Franco-German engine is revving at top speed, other countries will feel encouraged to step on the gas again instead of on the brake.
This makes it all the more important for Berlin and Paris to call to mind their historic responsibility and to reunite Europe once again. It was never true that the two countries always had the same strategic vision in mind. But in the glory days of Franco-German cooperation, they always managed to find sensible compromises which were ultimately alluring to all other partners and which brought Europe as a whole another step forward. It would furthermore be desirable for Italy, as another EU founding member state, to assume more responsibility. This would however require us all to move more flexibly and to be better able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.
Europe will only overcome this present paralysis of fear when it actually achieves something. When the decisions it has taken are finally transformed into action. We thus need the trailblazers to take joint initiative fast. The eurozone in particular has to make progress now and demonstrate its political operability. If it is no longer a matter of consensus that we in the EU want to live in an “ever closer Union”, we should confine ourselves to what is feasible – an “ever closer eurozone” in which economic, social and fiscal policy are subject to coordination on a more binding basis. What we need in the eurozone are, for example, margins for tax rates and minimum standards for the quality of healthcare, pensions, education and care. That would be the best protection against future crises – and would also benefit the EU as a whole.
The situation in Europe is difficult. Which is all the more reason why we now need people who inspire courage and not fearmongers. For fear cripples. Fear eats the soul. Things must never get that far! Europe’s soul are its values such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law and solidarity. It is not yet too late! The present crises can be solved. But only with Europe, never against it.