A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Europe and Me


The European Union needs to change to survive, and Germany will have to play a key role. A committed European shares his views on how.

© REUTERS/Eric Vidal

For me, Europe was always more than a political project to bring countries together – it was also one of the few things that made my family’s abnormal life and structure seem normal. In fact, my personal and professional life has been built on a rising tide of European integration and internationalism.

My mother was born in France in 1944 where her German Jewish mother was being hidden in a monastery. She grew up initially in Paris but returned to Germany in 1950 for her schooling. At the age of 16 she met my English father and at age 18, she got married and followed him to the United Kingdom. My father’s life was also influenced by European tragedies: His father was gassed in World War I, and he was sent away from home during World War II for 18 months, one of the most traumatic experiences of his life. He went on to become a Labor MP and voted for Britain to join the European Union in 1973.

It is impossible to bring three members of my family together without bringing three languages into the conversation.  But the European project has given my family’s life sense and structure. It is because of Europe that I am a member of the first generation in a century not to face war, extermination, or exile.

But in 2016 that tide of internationalism disappeared, forcing me to radically re-engage with my identity: who I am, what passport I hold, where I work, how we organize our family life, and more. I am not alone facing these changes; a whole generation is confronted with choices they never had to make before. A generation that grew up optimistically embracing change is worried the next shift will upend their lives.

But we also had to recognize that where we saw opportunity and security, many others experienced insecurity and vulnerability. And because of these experiences, the tide of internationalism is ebbing. The challenge is to take these lessons on board before it is too late – to try to rethink the European project so that it is more robust. Europe runs the risk of dying because it rejects change.

From Interdependence to Protection

The European Union is a political superstructure built on the foundations of national representative democracy. So it is no surprise that as many European states go through a profound process of political realignment, the European Union should see its foundations shaken as well.

It was possible to build the EU because of a permissive consensus among the mainstream parties. But today, the political space is fragmented. Parties of the center are being squeezed by new groups that have reframed the traditional left-right contest into one that pits the people against established elites. There are many reasons for this shift.

Economies and societies are becoming more diverse and fractured. Digital technologies are facilitating the creation of echo chambers rather than a single national culture. And growing inequality has split society into winners and losers, turning politics into a contest for a growing share of a shrinking pie. This is one of the features that has made battles over identity so brutal.

Amid this growing polarization, the European Union has emerged as the ultimate elite. It has exacerbated the trends that have driven the rise of populism. In some countries, the EU has taken decision-making out of the realm of political debate, making it appear as if there is no alternative, and this has fortified nationalists’ cries to “take back control.” Secondly, the EU has changed the horizons of people’s aspirations. Rather than comparing their situations to their own past or that of their parents, they increasingly compare themselves to Europe’s wealthiest and most successful – which explains why so many young people in Poland are unhappy despite a healthy economy.

But most troublingly, the very things that made Europe flourish are now rendering it increasingly unpopular. The EU was based on a mechanical idea that interdependence would reduce conflict. By linking European means of production together – first through the European coal and steel community, and later through the common market and the euro – the EU hoped to bind states together so closely that war between them would no longer be an option. War in Europe indeed became mostly unthinkable as wealth was generated.

Today that interdependence is feeding a pervasive sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. We have become so good at pulling down walls and barriers between people, markets, and capital, that we have become oblivious to the fears that this frictionless world can engender.

To save the EU, European leaders now need to change their focus. Rather than looking for new areas to bind people together, they need to devote all their energy to making interdependence feel safe. That means redistributing some of the economic benefits of free movement to communities bearing the brunt of the burden; strengthening control of external borders and cooperation against terrorism; ensuring greater flexibility for eurozone integration and migration; and returning to the idea that EU institutions’ highest calling is to defend Europe’s nation states, not to develop their own power.

In order to restore a sense of control to Europeans, the EU will need more flexibility. We need to allow particular constellations of member states to work together and establish different models for cooperation, gradually building new political centers around shared issues.

One of the biggest dangers for established parties is to frame the debate as one that pits the forces of openness against those who want a closed world. This only serves to cement the divisions and drive people to double down on their opposition. The solution is rather to invent a new politics of togetherness that honors the fears of the downtrodden and finds ways of making interdependence feel safe for them. This must go beyond the left’s comfort zone and focus on the economic dislocation of those left behind. There must be recognition of the cultural and security fears and an attempt to mitigate them as well. The new dividing lines for politics should be between managed and unmanaged togetherness, rather than open and closed. The central question is not a new challenge but an old one: Who benefits from connectivity?

People like me have been very good at arguing for the things that drive people together. But unless we can have a new politics of togetherness, the counterrevolution could blow away the whole construct.

From Universalism to Exceptionalism

The EU needs to go through an even larger rethink of its international role. Given its enlightenment roots – and the fact that Europeans have been at the center of global politics through industry and empire for centuries – it is not surprising that the European Union was a universalist project from its outset.

The EU has pioneered a revolution in political organization within its own borders. The key element was a highly-developed system of mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs and security based on the rule of law, openness, and transparency. This new postmodern security system did not rely on a balance of power, nor did it emphasize sovereignty. It rejected the use of force as an instrument for settling conflicts and promoted increased mutual dependence between European states.

The postmodern European order was not interested in changing the borders of Europe, but rather the nature of borders themselves, to open them for capital, people, goods, and ideas. EU expansion has been its biggest success story. Europeans were aware of the distinctive nature of their order, but they were also convinced of its eventual universal nature.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea came as a rude awakening, making clear that the EU’s political model is unlikely to become universal or even spread to the immediate neighborhood. Moscow has outright rejected a unipolar European order centered around the EU and NATO. In fact, it came as a shock to many European policymakers that free countries making rational decisions would opt for a less perfect system than the EU.

Europe’s postmodern order evolved in a protective ecosystem, shielded from the more muscular, modern world where most people live. Today, Europeans need to spend more time thinking about how to defend their fragile system from internal implosion and external aggression rather than imagining how it will take over the rest of the world.

There will also need to be a much starker distinction between how Europeans deal with each other and how they can defend their interests with countries outside the EU club. Rather than looking at all states as potential members in need of reform, other countries will need to be seen as sovereign nations that the EU needs to engage.

For issues such as EU relations with Russia and Turkey (and these two countries’ relations with each other), member states need to agree on a policy that recognizes the interests of all, combining a tough defense of European interests with frameworks for collaborating with them. In addition to preventing an alliance between Moscow and Ankara, the EU should rethink its goals in its neighborhood.

Although the Balkan countries outside the EU will remain there for many years, they are in the European security space, and Europeans should be prepared to intervene militarily if outbreaks of violence recur. Moreover, EU leaders should pursue a broader definition of peace than the absence of war, including political and social stability and preventing radicalization in Bosnia and Kosovo.

For Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, the goal should be to promote stable and predictable governments. For the next few years, the EU should view them as independent buffer states rather than as member states-in-waiting. It will be particularly important not to draw red lines that the EU is not willing to defend.

In the troubled Middle East, the EU cannot hope to be the central actor, and member states cannot protect their populations from instability if they are only spectators. Particularly in Syria and Libya, the EU needs to play a more concerted role with regional powers – as well as with the US and Russia – to advance political processes that could help reduce violence, provide humanitarian aid, and stem the flow of refugees.

Liberal Orders 1.0 and 2.0

The biggest challenge will be rethinking transatlantic relations and the nature of the international system. It can be argued that there was not one but actually two superimposed liberal orders in place over the last seventy years – a very light one that rose from the ashes of the World War II (liberal order 1.0) and a far more ambitious one that emerged after the Cold War (liberal order 2.0).

The original liberal order, born in 1945, was about protecting states from subjugation and invasion by imperial powers. This order only went as far as the borders of sovereign states. After 1989 liberal order 2.0 arose, going beyond those borders to look at the rights of individuals living within them.

In the wake of the Iraq War, Lehman Brothers, and the euro’s woes, the utopian project of the liberal order 2.0 is collapsing. In its place will not be chaos but a return to liberal order 1.0 – with bilateral trade deals and little international cooperation. Under this account, Trump doesn’t even represent a big break with past US administrations. Very few of them actually believed in constraining American sovereignty – they were just better at faking it.

But there is a darker reading of our situation: the liberal order 2.0 was halted by the rise of powers like Russia and China after 2008. In this scenario, we are now seeing a rollback even of the basic liberal order 1.0 – driven not by revisionist external powers but by a political counterrevolution within the West itself.  The worry is that we will see a new kind of globalization that combines the technologies of the future with the enmities of the past.

The development of technology could spur a series of connectivity wars as trade, the Internet, and even migration are weaponized. In this bleak world, multilateral institutions and regimes could become battlegrounds. International conflict will be spurred on by domestic politics that increasingly revolve around identity politics, distrust of institutions, and nationalism. National media will come to an end and we will return to a world of unverified gossip and competing versions of the truth.

In this world, what should Europe do? Should we become stakeholders for the liberal order 2.0 or should we try to manage as well as we can in a postliberal world? It is too early to say for sure, but in reality, the EU must preserve the dream of a liberal order 2.0 internally while accepting a return to liberal order 1.0 in the rest of the world.

Europe’s Great Hope

If these changes are to work, Germany has a crucial role to play. Much has been written about Germany and Angela Merkel being the last guardians of the free world. These are exaggerated claims. But Germany can do a lot to guarantee the liberal order 2.0 survives within Europe and secure the liberal order 1.0 globally.

The good news is that Germany only needs to pursue a more interest-based policy. The bad news is that this behavior does not come naturally to Germany.

For decades, Germany has successfully leveraged its two most important relationships, with the US and within the EU. Measured against its economic power, Germany spends an astonishingly small sum on defense and security, and that has only been possible because of the transatlantic relationship and NATO. The EU gave Germany institutions to hide behind – the largest and economically most powerful state on the European continent didn’t need to play the power politics game. Germany does not have national interests, Germans like to say; European interests are German interests.

This system has worked well for several decades, but now Germany must change its actions and mindset. An exceptional Germany was key to European universalism. A more normal Germany will be key to safeguarding European exceptionalism.

Germans have started to understand their crucial role and have begun to change accordingly. The country has vouched to spend eight percent more on defense this year and to reach the two percent NATO spending goal by 2024. It has become much more active in European foreign policy.

But a change in mindset is more crucial. Germany does not so much need to be the paymaster but it needs to be more flexible, to care less about rules and order. It needs to be willing to work inside but also outside the institutions. Over the last few years, Germany behaved as if it had a monopoly on morals. This didn’t serve its interests well (during the debt crisis, it ended up paying a lot more because of it).

This process is already well under way. In its approach to the euro crisis, Germany has pioneered institutional innovations. In the Ukraine crisis, Germany was willing to work within the Normandy format to deescalate the situation around Ukraine. And in its deal with Turkey on the refugee crisis, Berlin broke free from the constrictions of the enlargement process to craft a new framework for European relations with Turkey.

Still, Germany is increasingly isolated today, courtesy of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. A liberal order cannot exist in one country alone; Germany will need allies. At the moment, there is no one relationship that can carry Europe. The Franco-German relationship has been marginalized; Italy is embroiled in its financial problems and faces a possible victory of the populist Five Star Movement. Ad-hoc coalitions of the willing are increasingly crucial.

Embracing Change

The process of rethinking European integration will be difficult. It involves disrupting a world and frameworks that we had grown accustomed to over the years. In a way, Europe as an organization is experiencing what many of us know on a personal level.

When I was 23 years old, I regarded all change as good. I celebrated disruptions that would sweep away old-fashioned hierarchies and open up space for new people and new ideas. Because I was not attached to the status quo, I was able to grasp some opportunities that older people saw as threats.

Today, I find it far more challenging to embrace change. I have been around for the last two decades and many of my generation are in positions of power. In recent months, I have been trying to force myself to think like my 23-year-old self.

This made me realize that far too often we have been trying to defend the indefensible. The system we created for the EU internally has generated more conflict than cooperation. The system that we hoped to bring to the world has become enemy number one for Russia, Turkey, and the US under Trump. We need a new politics designed for this world – and Germany will have to play a crucial role in creating the necessary environment for this change.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2017 issue.