I tend to be careful not to draw a quick comparison between a nation state and the EU, especially when corresponding state is Germany; the country which is disliked by many for its dominance in Europe. Still, I am, as a German, of all countries most familiar with the German history and I cannot but to see parallels when it comes to German and European democratization.
Despite all critics, frustration and the lack of real social-democratic alternatives to neoliberal, conservative concepts we have a well-functioning and healthy democracy in Germany. I cannot tell the same about the EU and additionally we’ll find a lot of room for improvement in national political systems all over Europe. Still, this is no reason to bury our heads in the sand and to conjure the collapse of the EU with populist arguments.
What we need in Europe is an innovative political system which lives up to the diversity on our continent. The aim doesn’t have to be to put a clear political solution in the end of our arguments. For now it doesn’t really matter if we’re working towards a confederation, the United States of Europe or a European Republic. Europe is too big and the construction sites are too many for this teleological approach to work. Instead it is time to think process-oriented. And this process begins right now, right here.
The European Union is, if you are particular about it, not very old. She’s just about my age: 23. 23 years in a human life describe already the first quarter, 23 years of a political system is an almost ludicrously short time. Another important distinction between me and the EU lies in the fact that our existence goes back to very different times. While I was created back in 1992, the EU finds her origin in the beginning of the 20th century (I consciously disregard the humanists of preceding European generations).
In the beginning of the 20th century, when Europe was characterized by political change, innovation and backlash, between all the chaos a European generation of intellectuals emerged who felt home in many European countries and for whom borders blurred. In his autobiography “The World of Yesterday” Stefan Zweig describes himself as part of a group of people who were “passionate pioneers of a coming Europeanism” and who believed to do enough if they’d only think European and ally internationally; if they’d in their sphere profess to the ideal of peaceful communication and intellectual brotherhood beyond languages and countries. History went against this (young) generation of idealists whose ideas and dreams were shattered by two wars and endless atrocities.
So, after then we come to the next try to unite Europe in peace. And in accordance with the neoliberal discourses of the 20th century there was a predestined way: the economic cooperation between states. Thus the European Community came into existence, the predecessor to the European Union, aiming at mainly one thing: Create peace through economic bonds, following the motto: “I’m not going to fire munitions on my own investments”. Of course the speeches of the old men who wrote history as the founding fathers of the European Community were always also about the big picture, the utopia behind the Community, with some more than with others. Konrad Adenauer articulated the wish for “The United States of Europe” in a “not too far future”, truly convinced demanded Altiero Spinelli the “ultimate removal of the borders which divide Europe in sovereign states.”
But, despite all the utopias, it was all about the money from the very beginning, honestly admitted was this since 1957 in the European Economic Community, joined in the first accession 1973 by Denmark, Ireland and the UK. The first direct elections to the European Parliament happened in 1979, however real political elements were added since the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 when the single market was accomplished and the Community was renamed to European Union. Still, the idea of a European constitution failed in the early years of 2000.
Where am I trying to get though? Basically to two things: we should stop pretending that the European Union was implemented as a political Union; surely as a political project, but not as a political (and even further also cultural) union. And secondly, and this is when I bring Germany in, we have to give the EU some time to develop.
The EU as it is today was and is being shaped by many different people, with good and with less good, mostly egotistic, interests (latter make me look at lobbyists in Brussels for instance). All of this has shaped a melting pot of interests, concepts, ideas and try-outs. At the same time the EU didn’t develop detached from time and space – the opposite is true. Europe lies embedded in an international network where globalization and connectivity define the speed. In this clutter the economies, finances and businesses have reached a lot on the one hand, on the other hand they failed terribly. Why? Because economy cannot happen entirely detached from politics and culture, just like Europeans cannot do whatever they wish, because they are not alone on this world. Both often seem to be difficult to understand. But this doesn’t help: Europe must become political, it must become democratic. And here we have to be careful. And that is exactly the reason why this development has to be handled as a process.
How is this about Germany though? Germany looks back at many decades, even centuries of democratic history. I know that we didn’t have enough time back in school to tackle the German Question in the 19th century, because the French Revolution and Napoleon captured our attention entirely and next thing we knew was that Bismarck had taken over and reform became synonym with “Prussia”, this reactionary, conservative state of bureaucracy and technocrats. So it’s thanks to my parents, both history teachers, that I knew about fights for freedom and German unity. When I was only ten years old my favourite folk song was about incarcerated students fighting in the German revolution, ending on the verse: “He’s not hanging on a tree, he’s not hanging at a rope, but instead on the belief of the free republic.” My mother who taught history to me through battle and peace songs gave me the ZEIT history magazine yesterday which is all about the development of democracy in Germany since the French Revolution. And here the author states a question in the very beginning when he describes the Hambach Festival 1832 as the “first great demonstration in Germany for human rights and a united Europe.” He asks: “A German nation state would have meant the loss of sovereignty of the individual [German] states, who would have been ready for that?”
Germany nowadays is a federal state with cultural and economic differences between North, South, West and East, still a common government is functional. The way towards this included many detours. The outcome was not foreseeable centuries back. What we can observe though is that different regional identities and traditions are no reason to go on distance. So, if we’re asking for the democratization of Europe it is worth it to search in our own histories for inspiration only to see that it is not an absurd idea. If age-old monarchies can be toppled, then it will also work to change the much younger European Union into something more inclusive, more sustainable and more democratic. This will only happen though if we take action for exactly this Europe, future-oriented and innovative.