On the Death of Siegfried Lenz ? ?You have to justify your life?

Siegfried Lenz, one of the great writers of German post-war literature is dead. He died on 7 October 2014, surrounded by his family. He was 88 years old.... more more

GoetheInstitute

18/08/2008

Who are the citizens of Europe?

Europe needs a binding moral foundation not a pan-European referendum, argues Alfred Grosser

The Irish referendum raises many questions. Now I don't mean the ones concerning the circumstances of the 'No' vote. Questions such as: Was the economy slowing down instead of thriving on EU assistance as it had been until recently? Or: Was the advertising for the 'No' campaign funded by conservative anti-European Americans of Irish descent? No, the issues I want to discuss are commentaries which say: This is what happens when you disregard the people and submit a treaty which has been drawn up undemocratically and is incomprehensible to boot! Philosopher Jürgen Habermas also recently expressed his doubts about democratic practice in the EU. He suggested combining next year's European elections with a European referendum.

My first counter-question would be: Who are the citizens of the EU? The current phrasing of the treaty says: "Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship. Citizens of the Union shall enjoy the rights conferred by this Treaty and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby."

A small number of citizens of the union have decided for everybody. This does not mean to say that national referenda are illegitimate. In France, the accession of Ireland, together with Britain and Denmark, was sanctioned on 23 April 1972 by a referendum initiated by President Georges Pompidou. However, it attracted little public interest. Sixty-eight percent said 'Yes', but only 60 percent of citizens actually went to the polling booths.

On 20 September 1992, there was huge commotion when Francois Mitterrand invested enough energy to win 51.04 percent of the votes in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. Then, the French actually answered the question that was being posed. But often 'direct democracy' has the disadvantage of being about other political issues than those listed on the ballot paper. This September, the constitution of the Fifth Republic will turn fifty. Did anyone actually read the tedious text of the constitution (English version) before it was adopted with 79.2 percent approval? But it wasn't about the text. The citizens wanted to express their trust in de Gaulle, with their 'Yes' they wanted to signal their confidence in his ability to solve the Algeria problem.

Has the then President Jacques Chirac said before the May 2005 EU referendum: "Whatever the verdict after the vote, I will step down – if it's 'No' then I will have been disavowed, if it's 'Yes' then I will have fulfilled my European duty", then the 'Yes' would have won hands down. Had he said: "If it's 'Yes' I stay, if it's 'No' I go" then the 'No' would have won by a much greater margin. It was also a referendum which was used to express disapproval of Chirac.

Of course there are good examples of democratic referenda in Switzerland or California. However, important questions remain unanswered - and this should be music to the ears of parliamentary democracies like Germany. Questions like: Who decides which people are entitled to vote in a referendum? Would Catalonia, or Scotland for that matter, be allowed to determine their own independence? What about Kosovo? Why was France allowed to keep hold of Mayotte after the inhabitants of the island rejected independence, against the majority of the population of the Comoros Islands? At which level can a project be voted down if it benefits a community larger than those affected at a local level. A bridge in Dresden and a runway in Frankfurt are only minor examples. The 'people' of a municipality which decides on the construction of a new nursing home for Alzheimer's patients or a new psychiatric hospital will vote according to the 'NIMBY' (not in my backyard) principle which leads to 'BANANA' (build absolutely nothing anywhere nor anytime).

What a relief that not every justifiably complicated law is put up to a referendum. What a shame, that a document which extended the democratic foundations of the European Union and which stood for a unanimously accepted compromise negotiated between 27 states, could be rejected through a referendum by one of the 27 member states!

However, it would be correct to assume that a referendum in Germany, France or maybe even in Britain or Poland would have gone the way it did in Ireland. The main reason being that we lack a feeling of European identity or European citizenship. Why is this? Firstly, the existing institutions are unsatisfactory. Jean Monnet coined this phrase: "Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions." It's pay-back for constant betrayal. We were told there would be "no expansion without institutional consolidation." And then came: "We will expand and consolidate simultaneously." Ultimately, expansion came without any consolidation.

What's more, citizens don't even know what already exists. Try explaining the EU's common laws, rules and organisations to an American from Ohio or a Swiss from Uri or the canton of Basel and you will provoke the following outraged reaction: "If we had that in the USA or Switzerland, it would be the end of our beautiful federalism!" The Union is sui generis. For instance, there is no confederacy at all in common foreign policy and common defence policy, whereas in some areas it is already more than federal. But who knows anything about the constructive role of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg which, among other things, has been creating a common social law for four decades? But Britain complies much more readily and rapidly with the court's decisions than Germany or France. The British are also far more dependable in implementing regulations from Brussels into their national law.

The anti-EU tune is hammered out rigorously by governments, political parties and the media in Germany, and stronger still in France. Angela Merkel's six months presidency made a pleasant exception, because the chancellor did everything in her power to also drum up support for Europe from within civil society. But the tune we generally hear in Berlin, and which is sung with even greater frequency in Paris goes like this: "In the federal council, where the power lies, I vote in favour of a draft, but as soon as it becomes a commission-issue guideline which we have to follow, I protest loudly against those evil commissioners!" Everything that comes from the national capital is good, everything from Brussels is bad.

The European parliament is certainly not the powerless institution it once was. It undoubtedly plays an instrumental role. But which party gives MEPs key roles within the party ranks at national level. A few (mostly German) names might ring a bell. The media shed very little light on Europe. We hear constant niggling. Even intellectuals like Habermas have a mantra of bureaucratic and technocratic accusations which they repeat ad nauseaum. And yet there are fewer bureaucrats in Brussels than in Hamburg – if you don't include the translators. And we forget that the commission is able to entertain thoughts about the future because it doesn't have to worry about elections. The sons of the fishermen who are still too young to vote, should still have a right to fish in the future. This means imposing the sort of constraints which governments in Paris, Madrid and Athens are doing their utmost to prevent.

Euro gloom has two further reasons. First of all in Germany, as in France and Britain, more and more people find themselves peering into the widening gap between those "at the top" and everyone else. Whom can we look to for some degree of protection against global finance capitalism? The state perhaps. No one would even consider Europe.

Secondly, "the new states" are a constant source of resentment. Back in 2004 the words Robert Schuman spoke shortly before his death in 1963 still had a ring of truth to them. "We want the unity of a free Europe not just for ourselves, but for all those who, today, find themselves under the yoke of Communism, and, as soon as they have thrown off that yoke, they will seek accession and our moral support." But anyone who speaks about Yugoslavia's many splinter states today, has to justify their inclusion in the community. This is even more pertinent when it comes to Turkish accession. The question "What will it do for them?" has been replaced by the refusal to allow new arrivals to impede the path of the established members towards European unification.

What remains is the importance of providing a unified Europe with a shared moral foundation. And I don't mean the "with or without God" question. There are enough texts that already exist: from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to the charter referred to by judges at the European Court of Human Rights, right down to the first articles of the German constitution.

What is missing is the conviction that we should be setting an example both internally and externally, that we should be showing how to put our common values into words and deeds. Whether this is voicing criticism of those who "share our values" (Guantanamo, Gaza) or of the behaviour of our own governments and authorities (asylum seekers, detention conditions, police brutality, corruption of high-ranking figures ...) - are we so far away from the Irish 'No' here? Only seemingly. Instead of continuing to break apart the solidarity within the union, we should focus on creating a binding moral foundation.

*

Alfred Grosser was a professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris and is the leading political commentator on Franco-German questions.

This article originally appeared in German in the Rheinischer Merkur on 10.07.2008.

Translation Nick Treuherz and lp

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

This kiss for the whole world

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who actually owns "intellectual property"?  The German media that defend the concept of intellectual property as "real" property are the first to appropriate such rights, and they are using this idea as a defensive weapon. With lawmakers extending copyright laws and new structures emerging on the internet, intellectual property poses a serious challenge to the public domain. A survey of the German media landscape by Thierry Chervel
read more

Suddenly we know we are many

Wednesday 4th January, 2012

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant. The poet Natalia Klyuchareva explains the background to the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10th. Image: Leonid Faerberg
read more

The Republic of Europe

Tuesday 20 December, 2011

Thanks to Radoslaw Sikorski's speech in Berlin, Poland has at last joined the big European debate about restructuring the EU in connection with the euro crisis. The "European Reformation" advocated by Germany does not mean that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation will be established in Europe, but instead – let us hope – the Republic of Europe. By Adam Krzeminski
read more

Brown is not red

Tuesday 13 December, 2011

TeaserPicFilmmaker and theatre director Andres Veiel disagrees with the parallels currently being drawn between left-wing and right-wing violence in Germany. The RAF is the wrong model for the Zwickau neo-Nazi group, the so-called "Brown Army Faction" responsible for a series of murders of Turkish small business owners. Unlike the RAF, this group never publicly claimed responsibility for their crimes. Veiel is emphatic - you have to look at the biographies of the perpetrators. An interview with Heike Karen Runge.
read more

Legacy of denial

Tuesday 29 November, 2011

TeaserPicGermany has been rocked by the disclosures surrounding the series of neo-Nazi murders of Turkish citizens. In the wake of these events, Former GDR dissident Freya Klier calls for an honest look at the xenophobia cultivated by the policies of the former East Germany, where the core of the so-called "Brown Army Faction" was based. And demands that East Germans finally confront a long-denied past. (Photo: © Nadja Klier)
read more

Nausea in Paris

Monday 14 November, 2011

TeaserPicIn response to the arson attack on the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on November 2, Danish critic and semiotician Frederik Stjernfelt is nauseated by the opinions voiced against the publication, especially in the British and American media. Why don't they see that Islamism is right-wing extremism?
read more

Just one pyramid

Monday 10 October, 2011

Activist and author, Andri Snaer Magnason is among the Icelandic guests of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. His book and film "Dreamland" is both an ecological call to action and a polemic. "The politicians took one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland and offered it to unscrupulous companies," says the author in a critique of his native country. By Daniela Zinser
read more

Dark side of the light

Monday 3 October 2011

In their book "Lügendes Licht" (lying light) Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt explore the darker side of the EU ban on incandescent bulbs. From disposal issues to energy efficiency, the low-energy bulb is not necessarily a beacon of a greener future. By Brigitte Werneburg
read more

Lubricious puritanism

Tuesday 30 August, 2011

The malice of the American media in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a symptom of sexual uptightness that borders on the sinister, and the feminists have joined forces with the religious Right to see it through. We can learn much from America, but not when it comes to the art of love. By Pascal Bruckner
read more

Much ado about Sarrazin

Monday 22 August 2011

Published a year ago, the controversial book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany is doing away with itself) by former banker and Berlin Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin sparked intense discussion. Hamed Abdel-Samad asks: what has the Sarrazin debate achieved beyond polarisation and insult? And how can Germany avoid cultivating its own classes of "future foreigners"?
read more

Economic giant, political dwarf

Wednesday 3 August, 2011

Germany's growing imbalance between economic and political competence is worsening the European crisis and indeed the crisis of Nato. The country has ceased to make any political signals at all and demonstrates a conspicuous lack of responsibility for what takes place beyond its own borders. This smug isolationism is linked to strains of old anti-Western and anti-political, anti-parliamentarian sentiment that is pure provincialism. By Karl Heinz Bohrer
read more

Sound and fury

Monday 11 April 2011

Budapest is shimmering with culture but Hungary's nationalist government is throwing its weight about in cultural life, effecting censorship through budget cuts and putting its own people in the top-level cultural positions. Government tolerance of hate campaigns against Jews and gays has provoked the likes of Andras Schiff, Agnes Heller, Bela Tarr and Andre Fischer to raise their voices in defence of basic human rights. But a lot of people are simply scared. By Volker Hagedorn
read more

The self-determination delusion

Monday 28 March, 2011

TeaserPicA Dutch action group for free will wants to give all people the right to assisted suicide. But can this be achieved without us ending up somewhere we never wanted to go? Gerbert van Loenen has grave doubts.
read more

Revolution without guarantee

Monday 21 February, 2011

Saying revolution and freedom is not the same as saying democracy, respect for minorities, equal rights and good relations with neighbouring nations. All this has yet to be achieved. We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. By Andre Glucksmann
read more

Pascal Bruckner and the reality disconnect

Friday 14 January, 2011

The French writer Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid a word. Which sounds more like a typically German obsession. But for Bruckner, "Islamophobia" is one of "those expressions which we dearly need to banish from our vocabulary". One asks oneself with some trepidation which other words we "dearly need" to get rid of: Right-wing populism? Racism? Relativism? By Alan Posener
read more