German ex-ambassador: EU Council ‘stands in the way of efficient and integrated Union’

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The European Council represents national sovereignty “as if Europe were still in the days of the Vienna Congress,” says Dr Dietrich von Kyaw. The former German ambassador to the EU says this is “problematic” at a time when the EU needs a strong European Commission.

Dr. Dietrich von Kyaw is a German diplomat. He was Ambassador and former Permanent Representative of Germany to the EU from 1993 to 1999. He answered written questions from EURACTIV’s founder Christophe Leclercq.

Mr von Kyaw, let us start with your view on European integration. Michel Rocard, speaking at Les journées de Bruxelles said “Europe is over” (“l’Europe, c’est fini”). Michel Barnier, speaking recently at CIFE, fears a dislocation of the EU if it does not react better to the many crises it is facing, notably on refugees and the eurozone governance. Where do you stand? What do you recommend?

The EU is faced with a large number of transnational challenges at a time in which its member-states have no longer the capacity to cope with them individually. Their citizens however, react with “angst” and allow populists and radicals to mislead them into nationalistic, inward looking and counterproductive policies.

To win elections today one needs simple answers and has to be anti-establishment and anti-European! Against this trend the EU needs a determined common approach, proving that in our times sharing sovereignty is the only realistic because effective answer.

In order to bring this about we cannot do without strong European institutions. As long as member-states prevent them from acting decisively, the challenges will overwhelm us!

In your book ‘Auf der Suche nach Deutschland’ (In Search of Germany), you advocated a continued European commitment of Germany. Could you summarise your view?

Germany has become a stable democracy with a strong economic base. Its geographic position in the centre of the continent with many neighbours, its dependence on open markets as well as its historic burden have contributed to make it an ardent promoter of European integration. This is in keeping with its national interests, with the magnitude of the challenges of our times and with the lessons of history.

Is Germany today filling a vacuum? One often talks about its responsibility, given history and size. But it seems Germany is not being helped by the shortcomings of other large countries, for instance the UK and Poland, which are sceptical about further European integration, and France, Italy and Spain, which are lagging behind on economic reforms.

Germany’s position today is one obtained by sustained efforts. Due to internal as well as economic weaknesses, incapacity to reform or lack of political will larger partners including the US have compelled Germany to fill the vacuum left by them, be it on keeping the Eurozone together, on facing Putin or on accepting military engagement in the Near East and elsewhere.

Because of its high economic and social standards it has now against its intentions become the “promised land” for refugees from the destabilised periphery of the EU. Not only on the latter issue Germany finds itself left without enough partners to share the burden and criticised when accepting responsibility.

For European integration to progress, not only Member States and the Council but also the Commission should play its role. Is it up to the task? As itself and the parliament reach mid-term soon, do you suggest any shifts in priorities?

A successful EU requires strong institutions and support given to them by member states. Germany has a special interest in that European institutions fulfil their roles in order to prevent it from appearing as “dominant” when trying to promote European interests!

However, I do consider as problematic the preponderant role of the European Council. It represents national sovereignty as if we were still in the days of the Vienna Congress. Its consensus mechanism stands in the way of an efficient and integrated Union. It weakens the Commission and prevents decisions to be taken by qualified majority in the Council of Ministers.

Schengen is an achievement you helped shape. It is composed of several planks, notably police cooperation, data exchange, lifting systematic border controls. The refugee crisis and terrorist attacks create popular and political demand for change, and reconsidering fully open internal borders. Is joint securing of external borders enough? How about re-introducing internal controls until Schengen really works?

The Schengen system needs to be strengthened and adapted to the continuing massive influx of refugees. However, in view of populist pressures this could become a risky undertaking, ending up in permanently weakening Schengen.

For the time being it appears as a lesser evil to apply with as much flexibility as legally feasible the existing mechanism in order to allow for an exceptional and provisional reintroduction of border controls by member-states faced with very grave threats.

The refugee crisis is only the most recent one showing public opinions diverging widely, notably for lack of common debates. Why is political journalism still so national? Should we all read the same Anglo-Saxon media? Or is there room for multilingual media and cooperation?

The lack of a common language in the EU is certainly a problem. In addition media feel compelled not only to inform but also to sell news. In this regard Anglo-Saxon media make no difference. My experience has taught me that only the successful tackling of a serious problem is positive news. In order to make citizens realise such successes, multilingual media could be of help but no substitute for enabling the EU to take the required decisions.

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