Archiv für den Monat Juli 2015

Some thoughts of a frustrated European

Some of you might find this post idealistic, and I won’t even try to refute this. Still, I wonder whether idealism is such a bad thing after all, given some of the recent events in the never-ending story of the so-called ‘Greek crisis’.

But first, let me tell you about my very personal conception of Europe: I consider myself as a member of the often-cited “first generation of genuine Europeans”. For me, there was no time before Schengen. Portugal is just a 20€-flight away from my hometown. And studying together with citizens from other EU member states is the most natural thing in the world to me.

Some experiences that shaped me a lot:

When I was a child, my family used to travel to Austria. My mum always told me the stories of her own childhood, how they had to wait for hours before they could cross the border. To be honest, that didn’t impress me much, it just seemed unthinkable to me – especially because Austria didn’t seem that distant, it’s a still German-speaking country (or at least I was told so… 😉 ). What did impress me was when, one day, we went on a small hiking trip in the mountains. And suddenly, my dad turned to me and said “You’ve just crossed the Italian border”. Don’t ask me what I was thinking about when he told me that – I was probably making plans to finally catch all Pokémon – but I remember staring at that small sign informing me that I’d just entered Italy. The only sign of having entered a country with a different language, a different culture, a different history was precisely that: a sign. I loved that thought, almost as much as I loved the ice-cream my parents bought me as a reward for not complaining too much about the hike. Honestly, Italian ice-cream is the best in Europe.

When I went to France for the first time, on a student exchange, I immediately fell in love with the country (back then, I hadn’t experienced the horrors of flat hunting in Paris 😉 ). There was a country, so different but yet so similar to what I had seen before, and regardless of the lack of fluency in its language at the time, I managed to communicate with its people, and they made me feel extremely welcome. From that point on, I loved the thought of the Franco-German couple: just imagine how many borders these two powerful countries, so different but so similar, could tear down, given they had already managed to tear down the age-old opposition (and border) between them.

Some years later, I participated in the EU’s Comenius Project, where I worked in a group with Swedish, Czech, Spanish, Italian and Turkish students. Even at the time, I was aware of the fact that Turkey was not a member of the EU and of some of the controversies surrounding its government. Still, I got on so well with the Turkish students and teachers that I came to a personal conclusion: if you’re a decent person, you should always be welcome in Europe. F**k your government (maybe you even had to flee ‘your’ country because of it?), I don’t care about your origin, I care about you – hence my fierce criticism of European states’ immigration policies, also (and especially) today.

One last example (honestly, I could mention so many more: couchsurfing in Portugal, parties with you lovely MAE people (obviously including those without a European passport!), numerous MUNs, and so on and so forth…): also during my participation in the Comenius project, I went to Milan for a week. After two nights in a hotel, the Italian teachers finally managed to find a host family for me. The father of that family hadn’t spoken English in 40 years, the mother didn’t speak any language other than Italian, and the son’s English was very limited at the time. Most of the time, they would just speak in Italian to me and I’d answer in slooooow English. Still, we got on extremely well, and, believe it or not, there was not one awkward situation. We all just laughed together at misunderstandings. I left that family, with whom I had only stayed for three nights, with a heavy heart, but also with the feeling and the conviction that we, the people (and therefore also the peoples) of Europe, simply ‘belong together’. We had managed to overcome our differences but kept cultural diversity; we still lived in sovereign states but were continuously moving towards the ever-closer union the EU Treaties see as our future; and we, the people, finally saw citizens of other EU member states as our sisters and brothers. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Why do I tell you all these nice stories? Because you need them in order to understand why I had tears in my eyes when I read Wolfgang Schäuble’s proposal on a temporary Grexit.

And no, I don’t exaggerate.

What was it that made me so sad about this? Isn’t Schäuble’s position just an economic idea, one that some economists even see as a good one? No, it’s a lot more than that. It’s the first time an EU member state suggests that another member state opts out of a (major) element of European integration. It’s not comparable to, say, the UK opting out of this or that (also major) project, but a member state being told that it might be better for everyone to go this way without it. And by circulating the strategy paper first among selected member countries (Finland, the Netherlands, the Baltic states), Schäuble also emphasized his belief in a Grexit, he even made it one of the two possible goals of his negotiation strategy, a strategy he wanted to share with some potential allies – knowing what we know today, it is even quite likely that the Grexit would have been Schäuble’s preferred outcome, whatever his motivations for it might be.

But, after the terribly long negotiations last weekend, it finally seemed as if we had avoided a Grexit. Like many people all across Europe, I felt relief. Until I took a closer look at the agreement of the summit.

What in the world do our European leaders think they are doing here?! I’ve always been the first one to stand up against talk of EU member states losing their sovereignty as a result of European integration (and I still believe that in most cases, this kind of criticism is heavily misplaced), but if it is appropriate in one case, this case surely is the Greek one. Again: I’m the biggest proponent of further European integration, but this should mean that all member states – not just one – transfer parts of their sovereignty to the European institutions (which desperately need reform, by the way), and the IMF is certainly not a part of these institutions either. But what happens in the Greek case is incredible; just consider the following passage in the agreement:

“The government needs to consult and agree with the Institutions on all draft legislation in relevant areas with adequate time before submitting it for public consultation or to Parliament.“

Now, dear Eurosceptics, THIS is what a loss of sovereignty looks like. And I can’t help but believe that this is a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake. It effectively proves what the Eurogroup has demonstrated throughout the last six months: elections must not make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, I see why treaties and agreements are not always re-negotiated when a new government takes office, this would be impossible. But I believe that this must not be an excuse for ignoring the message sent by these elections. In the Greek case, this message was a cry for help of a people that has suffered enormously during the last five years. And remember, the ordinary Greek citizen did not cause the crisis, but had to suffer from the consequences of the attempt to deal with it (also in order to bail out German banks, yay). Can you blame Greek citizens for voting for the only credible alternative to the corrupt parties that had led their country into its terrible situation and implemented austerity policies that made them suffer a great deal? I certainly can’t. Yet, most of Europe seemed to be deaf, as no one understood this message. A large majority of Greeks therefore issued a second cry for help in the referendum. And here, Europe’s reaction was even more devastating: the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, not only pretended to be deaf, but reacted in an incredibly arrogant manner (“ I’m told that it is not a ‚No‘ to Europe. I’m told it’s not a ‚No‘ to the Euro. It can’t be a ‚No‘ to the institutions‘ proposals because they were no longer on the table.”). I can’t hide that this also disappointed me personally, as I put great hopes in the Juncker Commission.

The same goes for the statement of the German Vice-Chancellor and party leader of the social democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, who said that the outcome of the referendum had destroyed the last bridges between Greece and Europe. I voted for the social democrats in 2013 because they promised a “Marshall Plan” for Greece, they wanted to focus on growth and stand up to the previous ‘austerity-only’ approach, and this is what I got. Yes, it could have been even worse had the free democrats (FDP) still been in Merkel’s coalition, as this party now seems to be clearly in favor of a Grexit, but still, personally, I’m very disappointed. At least, Sigmar Gabriel’s speech today in the Bundestag clearly ruled out the possibility of a Grexit from now on. I can only hope that he and his party will keep this promise.

Now, while these actors have cooled down their rhetoric at least a little bit following the Eurosummit agreement, it got much worse among other German politicians. Thomas Strobl, vice-president of Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU, stated that “the Greek” had been annoying for long enough.

This rhetoric breaks down a whole people into one person and reminds me a lot of the ugly statements made during the First World War on “the Frenchman”, “the Brit” and “the Russian”. To be fair, Thomas Strobl apologized two days later, stating that he was referring only to Alexis Tsipras. Yet, his statement didn’t sound like that, and the apology came quite late.

Had Strobl been the only one in his party taking such a stand, one might have simply dismissed it. But he is not alone, far from it. Volker Kauder, chief whip of the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag, repeatedly talked of the necessity for the Greeks to “do their homework”. Even worse, Herbert Reul, president of the CDU/CSU group in the EPP in the European Parliament, accused the Greeks of “grumbling” (“maulen”), given that people’s situation in other member states might be even worse.

This kind of rhetoric is horrible. Its only aim is to stir up citizens of other member states against “the lazy Greeks” (or even “the lazy Greek”?), and all of this was reflected in the often-cited speech MEP Manfred Weber (CSU, also a member of the German coalition government and ‘sister-party’ of Merkel’s CDU) gave in the European Parliament, where he simply compared minimum wages in Romania and in Greece.

It goes without saying that this comparison totally ignores all the circumstances and the fundamentally different situation in the countries, but why care about these annoying facts when you pursue a political goal?

One last point: back in 2011, Angela Merkel herself accused some countries of granting employees too much paid leave.  She did not directly mention any Southern European states, but the message was clear and well understood (and, unfortunately, welcomed by many Germans).

My point is the following: some influential German politicians (mostly conservatives, but not only) are using strong rhetoric that aims at dividing the European Union, with the aim of forcing Greece to accept even more reforms (or forcing them out of the Euro – who knows?). And Wolfgang Schäuble acts on this. In today’s session of the Bundestag, he made clear that, despite all previous experiences with reforms in Greece, the Bundestag should give him the mandate for negotiations for the new ESM program, for “one last try”. However, he also repeatedly stated that these negotiations were the decision and the will of Greece, implying that Greece had a choice. This is true – but if you remember Schäuble’s strategy paper, the other option would have been the temporary Grexit, and following all available sources, the German influence in the decisive EU organs is that big that the options pointed to in Schäuble’s paper were indeed the ones on the table, almost leading to a Grexit. It is thanks to Donald Tusk and François Hollande that Greece is still a member of the Eurozone.

Now, this post already is a lot longer than it should be (even if I still haven’t treated the blow ‘that night in Brussels’ dealt to the Franco-German couple – yet, it makes me happy to see that at least France seems to be important enough to have its opinion considered, as could be heard from several statements made by parliamentarians of the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag). I believe that the Eurosummit, aimed at rebuilding trust in Greece, destroyed trust in Germany (which however acted with the approval of other states, e.g. Finland). And now the man that portrayed the Grexit as “perhaps the better solution for Greece” even two days after the terrible Eurosummit’s agreement just obtained the mandate to negotiate for what is, in his eyes, only the second-best option, that is keeping Greece in the common currency. I believe Wolfgang Schäuble when he describes himself as a proponent of European integration; my only fear is that his concept of a European Union differs a lot from the one shared by several other member states, (luckily) including France.

A lot of ugly comparisons have been made, e.g. portraying Schäuble as the reincarnation of Hitler. This is unacceptable, even if the basis for these accusations are the terribly harsh conditions that Greece had to agree to, making it feel as if the country had been transformed into an economic protectorate. Still, a lot of talking has been going on about trust – can we trust Greece to implement the reforms deemed necessary by the Eurosummit? I’d say we can, given the numerous signs of good will – some would say submission – sent by the Tsipras government during the last week. One of these signs of good will was the resignation of a certain minister of finance, with the aim of rebuilding trust among European partners and moving back towards a Europe that promises a better life for all of us. I’ll leave it there.