Culture & Ideas Ideas

Debate: Give us a break with your nation states

25 October 2012
Der Spiegel Hamburg

Those who are arguing today for more Europe have provoked the wrath of the professional democracy purists who hold up the nation state as an ideal model. But do we seriously want to live in a super-Austria?

As we were all anointed winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and the first flush of self-adulation was over, the realists among the experts began to wrinkle their noses: nice, indeed, but real politics are different. “Peace costs money,” warned German constitutional law expert Paul Kirchhof. He meant “our peace”.

When (German sociologist) Ulrich Beck wrote in Der Spiegel that Germany is on the threshold of the “decision whether Europe will be or will not be” – an assertion that apparently about 70 percent of all EU leaders would currently sign up to – he was told that he was exaggerating, and shockingly.

And as Robert Menasse, the angry Austrian, called in his most recent pamphlet (Der Europäische Landbote, or “The European Messenger”) for the European Council to be abolished, this stronghold of petty national schemers – a request by the way, that EU Commission president Barroso probably includes in his prayers every evening – Die Zeit printed a whole page of outrage: “ideologues” of Menasse’s kind were worse than all the populist enemies of the EU in Rome and The Hague.

Why is it this way? Why should the Super European Daniel Cohn-Bendit [a Franco-German EU parliamentarian] be more dangerous than the super-blonde Europe-despiser Geert Wilders? Why is every voice that warns us not to lose sight of the European project dismissed as dewy-eyed at best? Why must Brussels always and forever be just a “bureaucratic Moloch”? Why – this is even more puzzling than anything else – should the European nation-state be held up, in contrast, as the all-rounded democratic ideal?

Why are we ashamed of Europe?

It cannot really be true that we would all much rather live in a kind of super Austria, where the term consensus politics is commonly interpreted to mean that everything runs smoothest if one hand amicably washes the other. Or in Italy, which was rescued from the plunge into the abyss only by the demise of the entire political class in favour of a temporary dictator, called a “technocrat” to keep the whole manoeuvre from looking too embarrassing.

Even the German model, which the politicians and media would love to export to the farthest corners of Europe, is far from ideal – and not just because of all the political blockages due to the ‘party state’ (parliament, parties, government) or a federalism that keeps vested interests safe. It’s also because we Germans have not yet got a grip on our national debt, but shout the loudest when it comes to demanding the same from others. It was Helmut Kohl, the unifier of Germany, who warned of a German Europe.

In referring to the many mistakes and shortcomings of the European Union we tend to measure them against the alleged benefits of nation-states, which, however, get themselves in great difficulties when it comes to adapting to the supranational conditions of a globalised world.

Why are we ashamed of Europe? For a time, the German Embassy in London ran the European flag up the pole every morning with pride, because the officials knew that it would make Margaret Thatcher in the office opposite light up with a white heat. The European model was admired at the time because it let in poor countries like Ireland and Portugal.

Suddenly they’re all just shiftless? At times Europe has worked well together, even when the EU did not yet exist: at the London Debt Conference in 1953, for example, the participants freed the Federal Republic of Germany from burdensome payment obligations. Greece was one of those countries that voted to forgive those debts.

Granted, Europe is in crisis. But it surely will not be a return to the nation state that gets us out of it.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer