I Introduction – The Balance Is Negative
EU-Europe got its rhythm in 2019 with the elections to the European Parliament, the constitution of the new Commission and the appointment of other top posts (EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner, President of the European Council, President of the ECB, first European Prosecutor General – Laura Codruţa Kövesi).
Throughout the year, the Brexit also dominated events.
Several governments broke up before the end of the legislature (Spain, Austria, Italy, Romania; United Kingdom). The Maltese Government is on the verge of collapse. In Austria, Romania and Malta, there were and still are rallies of various kinds, ranging from corruption (Romania), promotion of corruption (Ibiza affair in Austria) to involvement in a contract killing – Malta, of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. In Spain, the formation of a regular government initially failed due to the ego of two politicians (Sanchez, Iglesias), so that after April 2019, the government had to be re-elected as early as November 2019. The Italian government failed because of Salvini’s ego, and at the same time, as in Romania, it was at the end of its tether, but was replaced by a coalition between Cinque Stelle and Partido Democratico without new elections. This coalition could have been agreed upon from the beginning after the elections of March 2018, as it would have had just over 50%, but even in this case the ego of the party leaders (Renzi, Grillo and Di Maio) was against it.
In 2019, the erosion of democracy in Europe thus continued. Everywhere in Europe, not only in the increasingly authoritarian states, citizens are more and more devalued into subjects.
Anti-Semitism reached new heights. Since the report of the European Fundamental Rights Agency on Human Rights Day 2018 (10.12.2018), the situation has further deteriorated.
Right-wing extremists have gained and lost in some elections, and in countries like Spain they have become a political force within a year. Especially in Germany, the potential for violence and the actual exercise of violence by right-wing extremists and their verbal supporters has become alarmingly high. Racism and hate speech are again part of everyday life in Europe. Human dignity is being violated everywhere.
Debates on the future, which are urgently needed, are thwarted by hectic politics and solo efforts such as those of French President Macron. Not a single source of conflict in Europe’s geographical and historical neighbourhood could be brought closer to peace. Not even for the Western Balkans has a realistic and hopeful prospect of accession been developed – on the contrary.
There are numerous indications that the post-war history of European integration is now being followed by a longer phase of European disintegration.
On the credit side, the „Fridays for Future“ and, for example, the Sardine Movement in Italy can be mentioned. Does this make the European Union, the European unity, a matter of the citizens again? The fact that the rule of law still largely functions in most EU countries is often thanks to the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, the European Court of Justice and some state presidents. The European Parliament is the driving force in the legal implementation of the social model contained in Article 2 of the EU Treaty.
II The EU And Its Institutions
Institutionally, the EU year was bumpy. After the rather informal „Spitzenkandidaten system“ had proved its worth in 2014 and the European Council had accepted it, albeit with a slight reluctance, the two actors failed to reach an agreement for the 2019 EU elections. Both the European Council and the European parties in the European Parliament proceeded woodenly and with the least possible intelligence. Since the Spitzenkandidat system is not intended, but not excluded either, it should have been clear that only a smooth approach would have led to success. Moreover, the top candidates were obviously not interesting enough for the EU voters to give them plebiscitary support.
The confrontation between the two EU institutions yielded only one result – the damage to the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The European Council’s action was politically unwise and only confirmed the criticism of the EU’s democratic deficit. The European parties, for their part, were by no means politically wiser; they could have saved the day with suitable top candidates for the elections. Basically, they did not conduct any less backroom politics than the European Council when it was set up.
Perhaps there was one good thing, though; in order to get a majority in the European Parliament, the President-designate of the Commission had to address a wide range of objectives in her programme, which thus became decidedly ‚green‘. Nevertheless, the Greens were unable to decide to give the President explicit support. Experience has shown, however, that Parliament’s ‚opponent‘ is not so much the Commission as the European Council, which now regularly celebrates high masses of national egoism.
Nevertheless, it remains a positive conclusion that the Commission, like the ECB, has a female President for the first time and that the Commission has more female Commissioners than before. Likewise, the Romanian Laura Codruţa Kövesi has been appointed as (female) Prosecutor General for the new European Prosecutor General.
Now it seems to be decided; Boris Johnson has won with his simple election program „Get Brexit done“ in December and has pushed through the Brexit agreement with the EU in the House of Commons. The unilateral amendment concerns the fact that an extension of the transitional period until a valid agreement governing future relations between the UK and the EU is in place is not permitted. A no-deal Brexit therefore remains an option that Johnson may take up because, in the absence of substantial arguments, it is his only political tool with ‚persuasive power‘.
If a win-win situation for the UK and the EU were honestly sought, it would have to be admitted that it cannot differ too much from the situation of EU membership.
Either way, Brexit will still be on our minds in ten and twenty years‘ time. There will not be a „Brexit done!“ because leaving the EU entails a long series of unresolved problems. The risks for the UK are high, as the Northern Ireland conflict could re-emerge and Scotland could pursue independence more seriously than in 2014. After all, the „United Kingdom“ did not come into being voluntarily, but was the consequence of English colonialism in the very closest neighbourhood (this is the very critical reading of the history of the islands, which the Tories certainly do not share) – in view of the high value that all British and Irish regions attach to history, violent unification – in other words, the „legitimacy deficit“ of „unification“ – seems to be coming increasingly to the fore.
This implicit „We are not you“ or „You are not us“ is becoming, or has become, louder in various European countries, as the many neologisms with the word „exit“ indicate. Suddenly the „historical legitimacy“ of states is back on the agenda. It is very instructive to study the disintegration of Yugoslavia – and one should not say that this was the Western Balkans, which are quite different from the Western half of Europe. If we avoid having to weigh up politically whether the common features in a Union or in the same state outweigh the supposed disadvantages, it seems impossible to do so later.
Any suppressed public debate on such issues will take its revenge later. Unfortunately, Europe is losing the art of public debate, where citizens are the main speakers. Some („populists“) steaming the citizens to the „people“, whose voice they then pretend to be, so that the „people“ themselves do not have to speak anymore. The others are only interested in what excites and brings quota, the next ones suffocate everything that does not fit the calculation. There can no longer be talk of a culture of debate.
In all European countries, rifts are widening, either between historical regions where the desire for a state of one’s own is growing, or between basic political or ideological attitudes, or between city and country, or between large social and economic groups. How would things be in many countries without the EU, without its adhesive effect?
IV Weak „Strong Men“ In Government
Back to the egomaniacs already mentioned in the introduction (Salvini, Johnson, Orban, Kaczynski, Macron etc. etc.): European politics suffers from a very traditional evil: too many male heads of government consider themselves strong and misjudge their real weakness, which results from a false self-assessment.
Even outside France, Emmanuel Macron, who was elected in 2017, was seen as a bearer of European hope. At last, once again, a politician who has a vision for Europe. I thought so too.
Let’s leave it open whether visions are really good for politics. The hallmark of Europe’s development after the establishment of common institutions was not to follow visionaries by the radiance and persuasiveness of their ideas, but by sitting down together and looking for jointly viable ways and solutions to problems.
That was and is tedious, and nobody wins the nimbus of heroes or heroines. Now the French president has increasingly become a loner, possibly because of the increasing number of domestic political failures in France. Declaring NATO „brain dead“ does not shake anybody up, it only results in a collective shake of heads. There is probably no country in Europe that wants to replace the US leadership in NATO with a French one in an EU defence system.
Macron thwarts all efforts to achieve a more common European foreign policy. Of course, all EU Member States conduct their own foreign policy because it shows their sovereignty, but Macron wants more, namely to shift the coordinates of foreign policy. If this is to be useful, it can only be done in an agreed manner, and this will require the effort of extensive consultation.
It has become very fashionable to replace the art of diplomacy with strong slogans. No one, neither Trump, nor Bolsonaro, nor Macron, nor anyone else, achieves positive results with this. Domestically, brutal expressions are sometimes „more successful“, see Salvini, Kickl, Orban, Kaczyński, Marine Le Pen, Gauland, Höcke, etc. – but the effect is the same at home and abroad: division, hatred.
V Disoriented EU?
The work programme of the new EU Commission contains both important and good points. But will this be enough to keep faith in Europe, especially in the shape of the EU? Ursula von der Leyen said the following sentence in her speech to the EU Parliament on 27 November 2019: „Because we in Europe think in terms of people“. This meant the supposed and quite objective needs of people in the time of climate change, digitalisation etc.
But what does it mean exactly? What is missing is a broad social debate that takes a closer look at the increasing protests in various aspects of life. At the moment, both at the EU level and in national policies, it is a patchwork. As much as the planned measures for climate protection, the preservation of biodiversity, digitalisation etc. are right, as much is decided about people and their living conditions, as little is debated with those affected.
The „gilets jaunes“ may be a phenomenon largely confined to France and may have to do with the fact that the French government is riding roughshod over the people, but the basic problem, that climate protection is too expensive to be paid for by citizens with low incomes, is the same everywhere. The question of social justice arises anew – no longer only in the form of the generational contract for pensions or annuities, in the form of the minimum wage, in the form of adequate unemployment benefits. Rather, it is a question of the fact that the majority of professions, including science, schools and general education, will undergo lasting change.
It is about how we as a whole and how certain large groups of society will be able to live tomorrow. Everywhere, for example, it is becoming apparent that farmers and fishermen feel increasingly culpable and that their indispensable work is no longer valued. Public opinion thinks that they stand for – let us take the slogans of recent times – glyphosate, bee mortality, factory farming, mass killing of male chicks, brutal castration of piglets, overfishing, etc. But who is to blame for the system?
Contemporary society is becoming more and more dependent on human services such as care, first aid, disaster relief and much more. At the same time, these people are increasingly becoming victims of aggression, abuse and disability in the performance of their work. That which holds societies unspokenly together is tearing apart in more and more places. These are symptoms, the causes of which are not sufficiently publicly discussed. Which society do we want?
This is a European issue, just as democracy is a European issue.
So what is missing from the EU programme are measures for a major EU-wide social debate on realistic future lifestyles and how we can find our economic livelihood. How European democracy can be protected and further developed.
Digitization, which often means robotization, is inevitable. Do we need a basic income or something else to absorb the economic consequences? Could our life become more human again, because we have more time for ourselves again, can take stress and permanent acceleration out of everyday life?
The chances of digitalisation are discussed too short-sightedly. For example, many people could benefit from autonomous driving: old people who today have to give up their driving licence; people with physical disabilities could become a little more independent; rural areas would benefit enormously from autonomous mobility, including local supply. However, battery production is being promoted with great publicity – because this is where a large part of the value added in car production will occur in the future. The advantages of digitisation for the way of life are falling behind.
The hours spent by hospital nursing staff in front of their PCs with administrative tasks today could be saved by using suitable software and voice input of the facts and information required for documentation, because this activity can be performed while walking from one room to the next. In general, the potential of converting speech into digital documentation, which makes sitting in front of the PC and typing unnecessary, is not being promoted enough, although there is a lot of time to be saved, which can benefit patients or clients in general.
Not that this is not being discussed, but it is not a public European debate. It needs to be pushed. The EU Parliament is trying to do this with some consistency, but so far it has not succeeded in stimulating this broad European public debate. The recently often and gladly quoted word „European Way of Life“ only conceals what is at the heart of the matter. What the future European Way of Life should or can be, has yet to be found out. And it has to be found out now.
The EU’s disorientation also relates to the question to what extent „European unity“ is still a serious goal at all? At present, despite large numbers of official declarations and Western Balkans summits, there is no enlargement strategy worthy of the name Strategy. The Western Balkans countries [see my Blog on Western Balkans and EU, part I, part II, part III], some of which are candidates for accession, some of which are aspirants to this status, are told that they should first solve their problems – for example, those between Serbia and Kosovo – and then we could move forward.
For some, this may sound quite reasonable, so why should the EU voluntarily ‚import‘ unresolved fundamental problems? Is the unresolved Cyprus conflict not enough, for example? Now, the countries that first joined together to form the ECSC, then the EEC and the EC had by no means solved their problems before they joined together. The integration of Germany served precisely the purpose of integration and conflict prevention. The six countries (BeNeLux, Germany, France, Italy) came together to solve problems together within the same framework and to avoid problems of the kind that recent history had brought about from the outset. Today, the EU no longer dares to do so.
There used to be more self-confidence.
To quote as: Wolfgang Schmale: Europe 2019 – A Review of the Situation. In: Wolfgang Schmale: Blog „Mein Europa“, wolfgangschmale.eu/europe-2019-review, 28 December 2019.