Where is Europe headed? Refugee crisis, Greek crisis, soaring youth unemployment and political disconcertion: there is certainly no lack in challenges. But how to react? Re-nationalize? No way! The democratic parties in Germany agree on that. Still, apart from the extreme left and right, they lack vision. Europe, they say, is hard to “sell”; the citizens must not be overburdened by it. This lack of courage weakens democracy. It is high time for citizens and politicians to overcome their fundamental differences and develop visions for Europe together.
Democracy lies at the foundation of the European Union. It demands dialogue about the big questions of our time. Do we want to close our borders again – and therefore question fundamental freedoms of the Union – as some politicians are currently demanding? Do we want to dismantle the eurozone or, on the contrary, develop into a true republic? Dare we enter into an open debate about the European future?
For too long, the proponents of European integration have shied away from publicly debating the future of Europe. We have never really seen a public contest around the best ideas for Europe’s future. Today, many people fail to see alternatives within the system and have therefore reverted to fundamental opposition. For them, the EU is not theirs, but instead (pick one) that of the elites, lobbyists, banksters or bureaucrats…
European democracy, however, could work. Of that I am convinced. The Union is no end in itself, but the guarantor of common values. When these are in danger, as they seem to be at the moment, we should defend them as citizens – or be aware of the consequences if we fail to do so. For this, we need to revive democracy fundamentally – in Europe just as in our nation states. That includes a thorough examination of why so many citizens are turning their backs on politics in general.
What would real, european debates about the vital questions look like, then? Perhaps this can be learned from the Greek and refugee crisis. The European Parliamentary debate in which the liberal Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt and the leftist Greek Minister President Alexis Tsipras exchanged heated arguments in light of the Greek debt crisis was seen by millions. This was certainly a prime moment, and not one that happens often. But the dispute does show that a European public sphere will form around political issues if these are given room in democratic forums; the parliamentary debate had been preceded by a heated exchange of arguments in traditional and non-traditional media, both across and within national borders. We shall see how the debate around the refugee crisis continues to evolve; the topic certainly demands a European-wide discussion around political alternatives.
The idea of a democratic and solidary Europe is and remains brilliant. But the Union does not live up to its own values if it shies away from critical debate.
If we don’t yet have a mature European public sphere, then we will and must create it. The European idea is certainly not as weak as not to hold up to a public debate.
It’s time for #EUremix.