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Europe needs vision - not technocrats

20.10.2017 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, published in French in "Le Monde" on 19 October 2017.

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, published in French in “Le Monde” on 19 October 2017

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President Emmanuel Macron of France set out a courageous and far-sighted vision for the future of Europe in his speech at the Sorbonne. It is time for Germany to not only pay lip service to his suggestions, but also to follow up its words with deeds. In Franco-German relations, France is currently winning hands down as regards policy on the future of the European Union.

The only response to Macron’s speech to emerge so far from Germany have been the proposals made by the outgoing Federal Minister of Finance on economic and monetary union (EMU). Europe’s already problematic penchant for excessive red tape and its lack of democratic legitimacy with regard to political decisions are therefore set to continue or even be exacerbated. The proposals are at risk of being perceived and criticised as typically German and as an endorsement of financial technocrats. Precisely this approach has aggravated Germany’s political isolation in recent years, and has contributed to the unwillingness of many other EU member states to help Germany tackle the refugee crisis. We should therefore seize the French proposals as an opportunity for a fresh start. Germany otherwise risks exposing the EU to further erosion and to the withdrawal of further countries from European cooperation.

Germany should thus not respond to France’s proposals with proposals promoting “business as usual”, or, yet worse, with inaction.

President Macron has proposed that Europe be founded anew. He wants a Europe that protects Europeans; a Europe that is able to safeguard its own security; a Europe that generates economic prosperity and upholds social standards; a Europe that keeps pace with research and digitalisation and which masters the shift to a green economy; and a Europe that involves the public in discussions on the future of the EU. What is more, he has, as in the past, made far-reaching proposals on reforming the economic and monetary union. Germany’s contribution to the discussion on the future of Europe should not be restricted to monetary union, and should not be predominantly determined by the familiar orthodoxies of German European policy with regard to finance. If it does, we risk ending up with a weak Europe.

Instead, Germany should stand shoulder to shoulder with France and support its proposals for a broad European reform agenda. Together, we should encourage a major debate on the future of Europe. Debates on different ideas are needed more than ever before. We should take the following elements as our point of departure:

Strengthening what keeps us together

Economic dynamism and domestic, foreign and social security can only be achieved today by working in a European context. The EU must therefore be put in a position to generate stronger and sustainable growth. For this purpose, the EU needs greater financial resources and instruments to support investments – also from Germany.

To do this, Germany must dispel the myth that we are supposedly a net contributor to the EU, that we are the packhorse of the EU. The reality is that my country is a beneficiary of the EU, not only in political and economic terms, but also financially. We export 60 percent of our goods and services to the EU. Only when our neighbouring countries are doing well will our children have employment in Germany.

Those who, in their own countries, implement the necessary reforms of the labour market, the tax system, the fight against corruption, and public administration must be supported in this endeavour. The most important support is not the approval of additional, limitless public debt. Yet, those who – like France – undertake courageous structural reforms in their own countries must also be given more time to reduce their budget deficits.

Without a doubt, stabilising the eurozone is an important element of any reform. Strengthening the ESM and setting up a European monetary fund is the right approach, but not if this fund is devised as a technocratic regulatory authority with no democratic legitimacy. We should openly discuss proposals on a budget for the eurozone and the creation of a European finance minister, instead of immediately removing them from the agenda. The EU has clearly defined instruments to safeguard financial and monetary stability, but nothing comparable for the investments needed in the continent’s competitiveness, in tackling unemployment and deflecting economic shocks. Creating a Eurogroup budget, as suggested by France, is thus in my opinion an imperative addition to the instruments for safeguarding the stability of the monetary union.

Europe needs greater tax fairness and greater social security in the labour markets. Unlimited competition in the single market is a good thing, but not when it involves paying the worst wages and providing the least social security. The rule of “the same pay for the same work in the same place” is a long-overdue principle that we should add to the single market regulations currently in force.

In the 21st century, Europe also needs to redefine its role in the world at large. It must use its common foreign and security policy in order to gradually become an advocate for Europeans’ interests in the world. Our children’s only choice is between having a joint voice in the world or no voice at all. Europe therefore needs to stop “punching below its weight” in the outside world. Europe needs to pool its resources and learn to play in the same league as the United States, Russia and China. The French President also made far-reaching proposals on European security and defence policy. Germany and France have already worked closely together in the past, for example within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It will also be the task of the new German Government to take these ideas further, since Europe must be able to protect the public if necessary.

Shared values are Europe’s cornerstone and “trademark”. Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law keep Europe together and are part of European identity. Governments should not play the national sovereignty card against the EU when repudiating any such shared values.

Should it become clear that necessary European projects are not currently feasible with all member states, groups of member states should be able to go ahead on their own. It is misleading and harmful to claim that this can only be done by means of intergovernmental cooperation. Naturally, such “group work” must not come at the cost of cohesion. The door must therefore always remain open for all those who are only able to participate at a later stage. Franco-German cooperation has a particular role to play here, helping to lay the groundwork for European solutions that enhance cohesion.

Challenges that affect some member states more than others purely because of their geographical location must be addressed together by the EU and all member states. This applies in particular to the field of migration. Member states and local authorities that demonstrate solidarity and take in refugees should receive more funding from the EU budget in the future. The EU must also see the protection of its external borders for what it actually is – a European task. Decision-makers in Europe must be accountable to the public. The European Parliament should be legitimised by the European electorate as a whole via transnational lists. All commissioners should receive a democratic mandate for their term in office whose legitimacy equals that of a mandate at national level. Conversely, the Commission should be reduced in size and become more political.

Germany needs a courageous and well-coordinated European policy.

The speech by President Macron of France provides a promising road map for Europe. In order for his ideas to become concrete policies, Germany must position itself more intelligently and courageously. We are open to the idea of a “refoundation” which includes member states’ civil societies. We should not rule out treaty reform from the outset, but should engage over the long term in a strategic debate on Europe’s future. A wide-ranging and well-conceived European reform agenda that enjoys broad support is in our interest.

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