Whether it’s the refugee or financial crisis, Germany always stands in the way of European solidarity, endangering the entire EU, warned Gesine Schwan in an interview with EurActiv Germany.
Gesine Schwan is a political scientist and member of the SPD. In 2004 and 2009, she was a candidate in the German presidential elections. Currently, she is president of the HUMBOLDT-VIADRINA Governance Platform and is a member of the Spinelli Group.
She spoke to EurActiv Germany’s Nicole Sagener.
Brexit, the refugee crisis, Schengen, the threat of a new banking crisis: Europe seems destined to fight against forces that seem determined to rip it apart. Has the current EU strategy failed?
Yes. EU policy, which is so heavily influenced by Berlin, stands on the verge of bankruptcy. During the onset of the financial crisis, the German government made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t interested in solidarity with countries that needed it and, instead, bailed out the banks. One has to ask whether or not this severely compromised the European state system.
So what are you accusing Germany of?
Germany had the possibility to voluntarily help other states that were in financial difficulty. This was not compatible with Berlin’s economic position though, and they forwarded what I believe to be a very pessimistic view of humanity when they said that helping other countries leads to further irresponsibility. I think that you could easily turn that argument around and apply it to the banking bailout. Helping the banks supported their irresponsibility. As a result, nations are further in debt because they bought out the banks.
The viewpoint of neoliberal conservatives, unfortunately, blames the irresponsible fiscal policies of the states, not the banks. Angela Merkel has always presented herself as a politician with no other options. Germany had the most power of all the member states, yet it still couldn’t come to a consensus over helping even the smallest countries. Instead, the government kept ramming austerity down our throats, as the only right way to proceed.
Do Germans lack a European political approach?
Berlin’s actions during the banking crisis were directed against pan-European solidarity. The same applies to the refugee crisis. The old Dublin System was structurally divisive. Countries like Germany were not obligated to admit asylum seekers unless they arrived directly on their territory. Furthermore, Berlin continually refused to help Greece or Italy.
The current government has routinely changed tack, depending on voter opinion. Nothing has changed during Martin Schulz’s presidency of the European Parliament; the EU continues to be orientated toward the short-term economic interests of Germany. The opposition has never really fully committed itself to opposing this.
In the banking crisis, Germany loudly preached about the consequences and never once considered the positive effects of debt-making. But without debt, which is otherwise known as loans or credit, companies would not be able to drive innovation. The same goes for countries. But Berlin never wanted to raise this in the public debate. Just as they never wanted to admit that the banking crisis, not the sovereign debt crisis, was the origin of this particular evil.
But many others, me included, have long said that Germany will reap what it has sown when it falls into difficulty.
Can we do more to connect Europeans?
We can. One example is the proposal that the EU’s external border between Turkey and Greece be put under European jurisdiction and also financed by European bonds. That way, asylum seekers would not just be allocated to Greece. Financing would not only be limited to the distribution of asylum seekers, it would also apply to integration. This approach would combat unemployment in Southern Europe, as well as initiating growth.
What do you have to say about the United Kingdom? Should it remain in the EU?
Obviously, it would be nicer if the UK stayed in the EU, even though it has always maintained a detached attitude to Europe and had a tendency not to engage with European integration. However, what Cameron is currently doing is domestic manoeuvring and has nothing to do with EU politics. I don’t think the EU should compromise on this, nor do I think the UK should get special treatment, because Cameron’s approach ultimately amounts to extortion.
The British press has mocked David Cameron over his agreement with the European Council’s President, Donald Tusk. On social media, Tusk paraphrased the Bard, tweeting “To be, or not to be together, that is the question”. How far should the rest of Europe go to negotiate with the UK?
Tusk has already pandered to the UK too much. Every other country should now ask what the UK is actually asking for. I think it would set a dangerous precedent if the UK, as a case, proved to be successful and that extortion is a viable means of getting what you want.
Cameron is trying to solve a non-existent problem. EU immigrants contribute to the UK’s budget because they are paid. Nevertheless, many people are swayed by the argument. What role do the media play in the current slide towards nationalism that is being seen in many countries?
The media, of course, have a very important responsibility. But the repeatedly used notion of net-contributor is misleading. This is the bread and butter of populist propaganda, which keeps pushing the idea that individual countries should look after their own affairs and not bother with what is happening in the wider EU. Due to the way the Council works, countries are more concerned with pleasing their voters. This is a state of affairs that is supported by the media.
Is the idea of Europe in danger?
Yes it is. And not just because of the refugee crisis. But it is shining a light on the pseudo-solidarity that was prevalent before.
Yet, I am hopeful because of the many civil society initiatives that have sprung up, the trade unions and the new DiEM 25 movement started last week by Yanis Varoufakis. It’s still in its infancy, but its principles of solidarity and democracy are concepts that I am fully behind.
Where I differ from Varoufakis’ position is the issue of the European Institutions, which I do not solely blame for the problem. Their disintegration at the hands of a neoliberal majority is the root of the problem. But the movement as a whole is good for Europe. There should be more initiatives like this, which call for more transparency and solidarity.