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

Roman Holiday

Things look grim for the European Union, but all is not lost yet.

When European leaders met last weekend to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, it may have felt more like a wake than a party. But in the age of Brexit and Trump, the EU may have regained some of its appeal.  

© Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea/via REUTERS

They say nostalgia is not what it used to be, but when Chancellor Angela Merkel headed to Rome last weekend she could be forgiven for looking back fondly on the past. The European Union is gripped by crisis, and many European leaders gathered to mark the anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome may have been wondering if there is really anything to celebrate.

France may elect its first populist president next month, Greece is still grappling with the euro and refugee crises, a sulking Poland is threatening to disrupt the birthday party, and Britain skipped the celebration entirely – divorcee-to-be Teresa May said it would not be appropriate to attend, preferring to stay home instead and check over her papers before she files this week to leave the bloc.

The crises of a decade ago now look like a children’s birthday party. The host of those Treaty of Rome celebrations, held in Berlin, was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the time, Dutch and French voters had recently rejected the European constitution, calling the whole integration project into question. What, the pessimists asked in 2007, was there to celebrate?

It took one of Merkel’s smartest party tricks to turn things around, getting her guests to sign up to a non-binding but feel-good “Berlin Declaration” that revived the will for integration and laid out a path to get there. The 2007 declaration could be summed up in one sentence: “We citizens of Europe have united for the better.”

And now? A hat trick of crises in the past decade – financial, eurozone, and refugee – have undermined confidence like never before in the EU’s lofty ambitions as a project of peace, reconciliation, and prosperity.

As one of the last veterans of all three crises, Merkel knows the EU must keep moving, no matter how big its problems. Like a tough-love therapist, she insists the bloc works through this latest existential crisis or risk collapsing in on itself. Europe needs to complete the many open files on its desk, she says – with a multi-speed Europe if need be – so citizens are reminded that the EU offers concrete benefits for their daily lives.

“The good of member states and the good of the EU are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “But we must hold to what we undertake to do.”

The Glue That is the EU

For post-war Germany, the EU is the glue that holds everything together. European unification, starting with the Coal and Steel Union in 1957, offered West Germany a passport back to respectability among countries devastated a dozen years earlier by the Nazis.

What’s more, the European project guaranteed political and economic stability, particularly in the united Germany, with the union a counterweight to Germany’s historical dilemma: too big for Europe, too small for the world.

But even in Germany, Europe’s truest believer, the EU project is showing worrying cracks. The last decade of crisis has seen a new, competing European narrative that paints Germany not as a winner of European integration, but as a victim. In this neo-nationalist, often shockingly chauvinist rendering, ordinary Germans have been exploited twice over in recent years: first by eurocrisis spendthrifts, and now the European Central Bank.

Many of Germany’s mainstream politicians are unsure whether to fight back against such claims or hop on the bandwagon of German economists who claim that the ECB’s low interest and rising inflation policies amount to “misappropriating” German savers of their nest eggs.

This weekend was crucial for Merkel if she hopes to inject some new energy into the discussion of what the EU actually wants – and how it plans to achieve it.

The good news is that while the EU is gearing up to be one of the major political battlegrounds in Germany’s September federal election, the debate is between different pro-European visions – and all of Germany’s major political parties agree they must challenge the new fringe parties’ self-pitying anti-EU narrative.

The Social Democrats (SPD), energized under new leader Martin Schulz but experiencing in downer in Sunday’s Saarland regional elections, say the Merkel era of austerity and cutbacks has run its course. SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Schulz’s predecessor as party chief, castigated Merkel this week on Europe, accusing her of forcing austerity medicine on her neighbors that her own voters would never have swallowed. Germany didn’t save its way back to health, he argued, but made smart cuts while investing in crucial areas such as infrastructure and education. Refusing to allow others do the same has proven poisonous for European cohesion.

However, Gabriel has also targeted those who claim that EU membership is an unfair burden on its largest member state. “The extreme-right takeover of this narrative says that Germany’s ‘guilt complex’ lead us to spend too much of hard-working Germans’ money for ‘lazy Europeans’,” Gabriel wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The opposite is true, he argued: Berlin is a net contributor to EU budgets, but that financial down payment is returned many times over in the economic and political stability of its neighbors and customers.

And he had news for readers of the FAZ, a house journal of Germany’s new conservative euroskeptics: To hold the European project together, Berlin will have to invest even more to keep the European show on the road.

Unpopular, But Necessary

Berlin-based analysts have welcomed this unpopular but necessary message as a sign that Germany’s political mainstream is ready to start fighting back. From greater social spending to joint defense, all of Europe’s problems require greater willingness to invest in a common future to ensure stability on a continent that is not naturally stable.

An even greater cause for hope: growing recognition among the wider public in Germany that Europe is not something to be taken for granted, nor something to be had for free.

After a long winter, the first green shoots can be seen in Germany’s long-dormant European debate. Every Sunday for the past month, thousands have gathered for pro-EU demonstrations in Berlin and other German cities. This past Sunday, a “March for Europe” took place in the German capital, one of many taking place across Europe. These are marches for “the dream of a united Europe” and against a creeping dread that, in a world of Brexit and Trump, doing nothing could see the return of protectionism, xenophobia, and the nightmare of European nationalism and division.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be, nor is the struggling EU a picture of health. But its first six decades have been a history of dysfunctional functionality, snatching victories from the jaws of defeat. And as EU leaders renew their wedding vows in Rome, German citizens are anxious to show that grassroots Europe still has a pulse.