The German government is starting an initiative aimed at reinforcing its citizens' support for the European Union. But is increasing dialogue the right way to combat skepticism about the bloc?
May 7 is "Europe day" in Germany, and, like every year, Angela Merkel marked the occasion by visiting a school. But there was more at stake than usual when the chancellor made her way on Monday morning to talk to a select group of students in Berlin. The EU, she told them, is very much as at a crossroads.
"This year is different because we're staging a dialogue on Europe, and this is the first of many events," Merkel said. "This was a suggestion of the French president, and I was happy to take it."
Shortly after his election last year, in response to Brexit and the rise of EU-skeptical populist parties throughout the bloc, French President Emanuel Macron called for "democratic conventions" with citizens to rebuild their trust in the European Union.
The German government will be organizing what it calls "EU citizens' dialogues" from now until the fall, and Merkel encouraged students at the Jane Addams High School to bring up any deficits they identified in the bloc.
Critics dismissed such events as empty PR exercises. But with elections for the European parliament fast approaching in just over a year, proponents of the EU need to reverse the trend of hostility and apathy toward the bloc.
Preaching to the converted
According to a poll published by the EU Commission earlier this year, 45 percent of Germans view the EU positively or very positively. At the same time 51 percent of Germans said they thought the EU wasn't headed in the right direction. That's worrying for leaders like Merkel who want to keep the bloc from being undermined — not just by Brexit, but by challenges from illiberal leaders in Eastern European member states like Hungary or Poland.
Not surprisingly, Merkel didn't encounter any anti-EU sentiment at the Jane Addams High School, which specializes in teaching careers and where some students have enjoyed the benefits of EU exchange programs with other European countries. For them the EU is simply a given.
"When the euro was introduced in 2002, I was three years old," Hannes Zartmann told Deutsche Welle. "I've grown up with the EU and the euro. I profit from it in the sense that I can travel without a passport, but it's not like I always feel obvious advantages."
In a nutshell, that is one challenge faced by Merkel, Macron and the other pro-European leaders. Young people in EU countries are overwhelmingly in favor of the bloc, but they don't always turn out to vote, especially in European elections, where voter participation has historically been poor.
Perhaps not coincidentally, while Merkel was talking about the EU, halfway across Berlin German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was doing precisely the same thing with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The Macron government wants to expand the powers of the EU and favors the appointment of a European Finance Minister as well as the creation of a European fund for bailing out member states who encounter monetary difficulties. That hasn't sat well with the German government in Berlin, which has a tradition of fiscal conservatism and prides itself on balanced budgets.
Le Drian said that Germany and France had agreed to come up with a "joint roadmap" ahead of a June 19 working meeting with Merkel and Macron. But when asked about how the countries intended to resolve their differences, Maas used Macron's idea of "democratic conventions" to sidestep the question.
"The German government has decided to stage dialogue events throughout the country, where we'll be discussing with citizens what sort of Europe they want," Maas said. "That's a very important point. So it doesn't make sense to try to preempt those discussions."
Yet Maas added that Germany agreed with France on the EU needing to be reformed to make the bloc "better equipped for the future, stronger and more resistant to crises."