Guy Verhofstadt – Europe’s Last Chance
Part I: The European Disease
- Korsakoff’s Syndrome
- A Dwarf called Europe
- The Chronic Condition of Nationalism
- ‘Plumber Politics’
- The Hungarian Disgrace
- The Mass Grave of the Mediterranean
Part II: Physical Decay
- The Digital Desert
- Industrial Decay
- The Credit Crunch
- The Obese Labour Market
- The Morass of European Institutions
- The Delusion of a European Budget
Part III: The Wrong Medication
- Brexit and other Exits
- The N-euro and the S-euro
Part IV: Rebirth
- The Government for the Euro
- The European Army
- The United States of Europe
Annexe i: The ‘Von Brentano’ Constitution of 1952 287
Annexe ii: The ten forms of the European Union 353
Annexe iii: Eurobarometer 2015 365
“From the eighteenth century onward we have been obsessed with the fall of the Roman Empire: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears.”
Introduction by the author Guy Verhofstadt
This book was born of frustration and deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the European Union functions nowadays. Or rather, doesn’t function. As former leader of the opposition and later Prime Minister of Belgium, I was used to politics being a long-winded, laborious and ‘dirty’ business. Belgium is not the easiest country in which to engage in politics, but change is still possible. It was only when I made the switch to European politics that I saw, for the first time, what true political stagnation looks like. As the American economist Kenneth Rogoff put it, “Europe is a depressing reality”.
But Europe isn’t just going through an economic crisis, we’re also running up against the limitations of our moral discourse. Every day, refugees drown in the Mediterranean because we are unable to take them in and offer them the protection to which they are entitled. In the person of Viktor Orban, the leaders of Europe have an autocrat in their ranks who is muzzling the press and curbing freedom of expression without encountering the least resistance. Moreover, the Hungarian prime minister is one of the helmsmen of the biggest party in Europe. We have set up a European diplomatic corps that doesn’t have the slightest impact, because Europe is hopelessly divided over developments in our back yard: from the crisis in Ukraine to the civil war in Syria. Many of these crises have been given a face in this book, through the stories of individuals. One such individual is my cleaning lady Shpresa, who crossed the Mediterranean when heavily pregnant, hoping for a better life in the West. She tells of her dependence on people smugglers, her fight with corrupt landlords and struggles with the migration services. Another is José Blasco, a Spanish carpenter, who saw his successful business go bust because the European credit crisis remained perpetually unsolved. Other crises are illustrated by personal stories: how I met Putin on a number of occasions and saw him gradually metamorphose from a pro-Western democrat to an anti-European autocrat. How Europe made not the slightest attempt to respond to him, let alone counter his aggressive foreign policies. How Europe’s internal divisions led to Bush being allowed free rein in the Middle East, while Europe now bears the consequences in the form of the refugee crisis and the terrorist acts carried out by jihadists returning from Syria.
Since 2005, the year of the failed referendums in the Netherlands and France, the European political elite has shuddered at the notion of ‘a great leap forward’ in European integration. The idea of a European Constitution isn’t ever raised – politicians recoil at the mere thought. ‘Public opinion is against it, or not yet ready for it,’ is the erroneous analysis. Since then, nearly all Europe’s political leaders, with Angela Merkel the foremost among them, have advocated the policy of small steps. In Merkel’s case it’s even become her trademark. ‘Pragmatic advances,’ is the cry. ‘That’s better than taking a leap into the unknown without knowing whether the people are behind you.’ It sounds reasonable, but it is really right? Looking at the economic stagnation that besets Europe after seven long years of tiny steps since the outbreak of the financial crisis, one can only conclude that this approach doesn’t work.
In many ways, the malaise that Europe suffers from is strikingly similar to Korsakoff’s syndrome. This condition, which causes serious memory loss, was first described in 1889 by Sergei Korsakoff, a neuropsychiatrist at a university clinic in Moscow. He discovered that some of his patients were not only incapable of forming new memories, but even lost the ability to retrieve old ones. If left untreated, the disease destroyed their ability to interpret reality correctly. In the final stages, patients were trapped in a dream world in which they systematically overestimated their capacity to face challenges. They couldn’t cope with change, and were no longer able to hold a coherent conversation. Having lost the ability to store contextual information, they would typically resort to fantasies and confabulations. Conversely, they could be fooled into ‘remembering’ things that had never taken place. Just like someone with Korsakoff’s syndrome, Europe is suffering from an acute form of amnesia. It takes the form of increasing blindness to the entire political reconstruction of the European continent since the Second World War. We think that the European Union at the beginning of the twenty-first century embodies the project envisaged by its founders. But Europe as it is now in no way resembles the vision of Schuman, Churchill, De Gaspari, Spaak and the rest of the postwar political generation.
In 1953 they tried to establish a European Constitution inspired by that of America, their aim being to forge a close-knit European federation. The text was drawn up by a 26-man constitutional committee headed by the German Christian Democrat politician Heinrich von Brentano. Its members included Altiero Spinelli. The committee envisaged a European political community and a European defence community. The draft constitution was approved by the Ad Hoc Assembly of seventy representatives of the six member countries, which had by now formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The decision was unanimous, bar five abstentions – there wasn’t a single opposing vote. The text, which has now lapsed into obscurity, reads like the Constitution of the United States of America as signed on 17 September 1787. A directly elected assembly was to be set up – a Parliament that would represent the people of Europe. There would also be a senate, whose members would be appointed by the national parliaments. An executive council would act as supranational government, under the control of the directly elected parliament. The European political community would make laws, and to this end would be given extensive powers in the economic, fiscal, monetary and social domains, but also in the fields of justice and security. Like any other state in the world, it would be financed by taxes and loans. It would also be given political control of the European defence community, which was to be set up simultaneously. It thus had the potential to develop into the most powerful political organisation in the world, at any rate into a counterpart of the United States. However, the failure by the French parliament, on 30 August 1954, to ratify the proposal to create the defence community put an end to this first European Constitution, as well as to European political federation. The rest is history.
So the ambitions of our ‘founding fathers’ contrast sharply with those of today’s political leaders. You could almost say they had revolutionary plans for Europe, plans that were far in advance of the European Union as we now know it. Today’s Union is merely a confederation of nation states, whereas its founders had sought to establish a truly ‘unified Europe’ – a bloc that would no longer have any place for ancient rivalries, enmities and grievances between nation states, notably France and Germany. These days, though, nationalism appears to be stronger than ever. Take Greece, where sympathisers of the Golden Dawn party have been roaming the streets, beating up migrants. And anyone who thinks that excesses like these are marginal phenomena, confined to countries like crisis-torn Greece or ‘crazy’ Hungary, is hopelessly naive. Nationalist and racist parties are gaining ground in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – in all the so-called tolerant northern and Scandinavian countries. Some have names that leave no doubt about their real nature: the True Finns, or Italy’s Northern League. Others unashamedly usurp concepts like ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, while actually standing for the complete opposite, in the hope of winning more votes from unsuspecting citizens, like Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, its eponymous Austrian counterpart, the Swedish Democrats and the Danish People’s Party.
But trends in Germany are even more worrying. Large anti-Islamic rallies are increasingly held in its big cities by PEGIDA: Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident. German politicians from traditional parties are falling over themselves to condemn PEGIDA’s scandalous rhetoric and unscrupulous political goals, but conveniently forget to point out that they themselves have helped set the tone. Leading figures like Horst Seehofer, Christian Democrat politician and Bavarian Minister-President, have declared the death of ‘Multikulti’ – language that until recently had been the preserve of the far right. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel chipped in not so long ago, when she announced that multiculturalism had ‘failed utterly’. With raised finger, like an old-fashioned schoolmistress addressing her class, she added that ‘migrants should make more of an effort to learn German’. Even the German Socialists have occasionally voiced similar sentiments. ‘Germany abolishes itself’ was the panic-stricken title of a book written by central banker, SPD politician and, above all, scared white man, Thilo Sarrazin. The message is always the same: Christian culture and German values are under threat now that the Muslims are taking over. In fact, German culture is being destroyed by Islam. In short, the rhetoric deployed by PEGIDA didn’t come out of the blue; it’s fashionable pretty much throughout the entire central political spectrum in Germany. But this rejection of multiculturalism of course goes much further than just complaining about migrants who don’t speak German very well or don’t appreciate German culture.
An identical trend can be seen in France, the other nation at the heart of the EU. For a long time, it was viewed as a textbook example of a ‘good’, that is to say ‘open’ society. A country guided not by scary, narrow, ethnic nationalism, but by broad-minded, open patriotism based on the shared values of the Republic: liberty, equality and fraternity – the legacy of the French Revolution which, as the Dreyfus affair showed, could never be taken for granted, but needed to be defended time and again. On 9 February 2010, the then president Nicolas Sarkozy announced a national debate on the nature of French national identity. Once and for all it would be determined what it meant to be French in the twenty-first century. It was a short-sighted attempt to recapture votes from the French National Front. But instead of gaining votes, the outcome actually strengthened the National Front by placing its main campaign issue at the centre of the public debate. The official website of the national debate soon degenerated into a repository of filthy, racist utterances that would have caused even the Vichy regime to blush. This political stunt to boost French pride and take the wind out of the sails of the far right degenerated into a slanging match that brought out the worst in France and French nationalism. Entire population groups were dismissed as trash. Young people who couldn’t find jobs should start by renouncing Islam, was the call.
While nationalists dominate the European arena, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the immense problems we face transcend national borders. From the refugee crisis to the economic crisis and the failure of Greece: these are European issues that require a European solution. But that’s something European heads of state and government don’t want to hear, because it means less power for them. The Union’s resources and powers are only being increased very gradually. The consequence of this type of ‘plumber’ politics is that the EU has sunk into an institutional morass. No fewer than three commissioners are responsible for the stability of the euro zone, we have two presidents – of the Council and of the Commission – who both claim to lead Europe, and then there’s the long list of exceptions to the rules: reduced national contributions, all kinds of opt outs and exemptions for those who want to benefit from the advantages of the Union without contributing towards it. As a result, the European Union has become completely unmanageable. Once again, the egotistical complaints of member states have triumphed over the common interests of the Union. Instead of a properly functioning whole, the Union is no more than the sum of its parts: irreconcilable countries and camps, creditors and debtors, hardliners and laissez-faire politicians, who can stick their heels in the sand thanks to the veto they all possess. This deficient structure means that we lurch from clash to clash: North against South, big against small, France against Germany and Germany against Greece. As a result, over the last decade, the European dream has turned into a nightmare. Because no one feels truly responsible. Because we’re all acting as if the European project were a prosperity machine that will carry on running automatically, without any maintenance or effort. Well it won’t.
Epilogue from Europe’s Disease and the Rediscovery of an Ideal (page 279- 282)
‘Is Europe dead?’ screamed the CNN headline. The provocatively titled article by the American news channel had been written in response to the Greek crisis and the latent conflict with Putin. CNN expressed great concern about events on the other side of the Atlantic. It concluded: ‘Europe is not over, yet. But it is in deep trouble.’
From an American perspective, that’s a harsh but fair take on reality. The long list of problems and unresolved issues dealt with in this book show that Europe is dangerously ill. Both the diagnosis and the medication have one thing in common: the disease that’s afflicting Europe knows no borders. So it can no longer be treated independently by each of the nation states. It is only by working together and making a new leap forward in European integration that we can cure the malady. Our forefathers already knew this. They had to find out the hard way that economic and political differences should be overcome not on the battlefield but in conference rooms – in other words, you need to cooperate rather than be at daggers drawn. But the further away we get from the two world wars of the previous century, the more we lose sight of this fact. Even though as a group of twenty-eight nations we have a great deal in common in terms of our history and culture, we are failing as a collective. We are no longer able to perceive the European project as a force for the good. We fail to realise that a world order has arisen that compels us to adopt a new, positive and joint approach. The new world order is no longer dominated by nation states but by
wealthy ‘empires’ like China or Russia, multicultural federations, like India or the United States, or sub-regional blocs like Mercosur of ASEAN. In contrast to what Francis Fukuyama believes, no social model has had the overhand in this process. Liberal democracy and the free market economy have not emerged from the ideological arena as the all-out victors. Today’s world more closely resembles the ‘clash of civilisations’ described by Samuel Huntington than the ‘end of history’ predicted by Fukuyama. In that world of power struggles and shifting alliances we can only hold our own by forming a European federation, so as to stand alongside other superpowers. No single European nation state can do that alone. Not even Germany or the United Kingdom. Certainly not France. We need to form a close-knit economic bloc to vie with China or the United States, especially if we want our ecological norms and social standards to be fully safeguarded. We can only hold our ground against an authoritarian Russia, whose leaders no longer believe in liberal freedoms or human rights, by also becoming a political and military superpower.
For too long, now, we have tinkered on the margins. It is time for the great leap forward. And in making that leap we must be fully aware that we will sometimes have to set aside our national interests in favour of a greater European good. We must realise that each time we make a sacrifice, twenty-seven occasions will follow when others will sacrifice something to our advantage. The benefits of a European federation many times outweigh the burdens or efforts it would entail. The paradox currently trapping European politics is this: we look to Europe to solve many social problems. But no one is prepared to equip Europe with the resources it needs to solve those problems. Behind closed doors, many politicians acknowledge the need for a United States of Europe, but claim to be unable to pursue this goal because they would not be supported by their voters. That is a misrepresentation of the facts, to put it mildly. Yes, the anti-European lobby is vociferous. But it by no means speaks for the majority. However loud their voices, Eurosceptics from left and right nowhere represent over a quarter of the population. What’s more, European leaders underestimate pro-European feelings among their citizens. The most recent Eurobarometer,
which polled public opinion when Europe was being rocked by the euro crisis, shows that the majority of Europeans want more, not less European integration. Most voters – on both sides of the political spectrum – have had enough of today’s malfunctioning Union, but they certainly don’t want to ditch the European project. The average European wants a thoroughly reformed Union: a Union that is more efficient, more democratic, more multifaceted and more transparent. Institutions that functioned well in the days of Schuman and Monnet or Kohl and Mitterand have ceased to meet the needs of today’s globalised, digitised world. So for a long time now, pro-European politicians have been in an awkward predicament. They have to defend a project that urgently needs to be reformed. At the same time, however, they know that a reform of this scale will not happen automatically, because heads of state and government have to unanimously approve it. This inevitably results in tiny steps forward: that’s to say a few meaningless compromises that do little or nothing to solve the enormous challenges we face. What we need is vision, and politicians who take the lead, who are inspired by an ambitious project that spans the entire continent. Politicians who are guided by what people really want. Two-thirds want a common economic policy to be drawn up, so that the euro can remain a strong, stable currency. Sixty percent of those polled state that they feel both
European and a national of their own member state. That percentage goes up to almost seventy in countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. Contrary to what is often thought, a feeling of Europeanness is least pronounced in Eastern and Southern European countries. And it’s no coincidence that those are the member states with most reason to doubt the existence of European solidarity. Italy, once the bastion of Eurofederalism, is turning its back on Europe. Not because Europe is taking on too much but because it is insufficiently European.
Take the way Italy was left to tackle the refugee crisis virtually on its own.
The postwar years were marked by optimism. They were followed by a period of unemployment, economic problems and slow enlargement – dubbed Eurosclerosis – but these difficulties were overcome, thanks to the pioneering vision and unbridled enthusiasm of a new generation of politicians. They launched the Common Market, enabling Europe to grow once again and look confidently to the future. These days we are confronted with a much graver crisis, a real polycrisis with moral, political and economic dimensions. To resolve that polycrisis, we will need to find a new path, one that breaks with populism and the exploitation of superficial national differences. We must concentrate once again on that which binds us, on the challenges we jointly face. We must be led by the following question: how can we strengthen our position in a constantly changing world? We must be guided not by our prejudices or fears, but by our ambition to play a meaningful role in the world of the future. A federal Europe is the only option. It is both logical and inevitable. But that federal Europe will not create itself. We will have to fight for it. We will have to forge it with all the strength we possess.
Translated by Jane Hedley-Prole