"Europe is our future, we have no other." That utterance from Germany's former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has been oft-quoted of late. Europe is important to all of us, says Jagoda Marinic.
Ten years ago, cafes in Croatia, even in the most remote hinterlands, often bore the name Cafe Europe. In the Dalmatian port city of Split, tourists and locals gathered in the unpretentious Cafe Genscher to philosophize at the seaside. If someone wanted to emphasize that things were going well, they often said: "That's the European standard." These days, few speak about things going well. And Europe is a subject that is more often greeted with skepticism.
Once there was hope that Europe would bring a brighter future. That it would bring progress that many longed for after years of stagnation and war. In the meantime, that hope has given way to one of the largest waves of migration Europe has ever seen: Today's young, well-educated generation, which did not experience civil war, is in exodus. Even older citizens are leaving the country — most of them for Germany. The only thing left of the "European future" is the freedom to leave one's home country and seek work in Germany — often in low-wage jobs. Europe never came. Croatia's Dalmatian coast is simply a booming tourist destination. Yet one man's wealth is another man's three-euro-an-hour wage. Cafes in Split are now more likely to be named Cafe Ego.
Europe requires courage
This week, three key events took place that demonstrated Europe's weakness, its inner conflicts and its lack of orientation. First, Europe's model student, French President Emmanuel Macron, was honored with the Charlemagne Prize, where he made a plea for Europe and delivered a passionate speech in which he criticized Germany's fiscal and export policies. If he thinks German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be swayed by such a public rebuke, he obviously does not know her. Yet, if he assumes the German people will ignore his criticism of Germany's savings policies, then it would seem he understands them quite well.
Then, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban used his re-election as an opportunity to provoke fellow Europeans by declaring the end of 'liberal democracy.'
And lastly, the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, thus demonstrating Europe's weakness as a global player. Many countries in the Middle East have written off the US, yet Europe is too weak to fill the void it is leaving behind. Here, too, Macron invoked Europe's strength, its courage. With that, he garnered rousing applause — yet reactions to his most recent speech in the European Parliament showed that Merkel is not alone in her reluctance.
Yes, Europe needs courage. Those who love Europe never tire of pointing to the freedom that European cooperation has brought, and also to the wealth that it has created. But that wealth is not enjoyed by all. Political attempts to convince skeptics must be translated into the everyday lives of average citizens. People do not trust calls for "More Europe!" — the democracy deficit is simply too great. Those standing up for Europe tend to gloss over its weaknesses. And that is the greatest weakness of those who advocate for a stronger Europe. Mistrust looms over the concept of a United States of Europe. Do such calls simply mean more power for a supranational body like the EU without offering any more democratic legitimation?
Europe needs democracy
Liberal democracy has not come under fire for its democratic values but rather for its focus on liberalizing world markets to the benefit of global corporations, banks and real estate investors. Many see this approach as one tailoring to the Europe of the rich. When most people think of "liberal" they do not equate it with universal human rights but with situations such as that which is playing out in Portugal, in which the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) lifted rent controls to liberalize the housing market. Now, locals can no longer afford to rent apartments in Lisbon. In return, the capital has become a haven for tourism, foreign investment, low-wage jobs and the site of hemorrhaging public institutions. Foreign capital is currently displacing people. The locals' only recourse is to attack "the foreigners" because international finance is an abstraction that cannot be distinguished as a target for their frustration and anger.
Macron was lionized in Germany for delivering a beautiful speech. At home in France, intellectuals are organizing protests against his policies because they fear he will do no more than repeat the mistakes made by Germany in its Agenda 2010 under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Recently, Macron's leadership style was described by philosopher Jean-Claude Monod as "authoritarian liberalism." He cuts a good figure on the international stage but pluralism is suffering at home. Macron's budget cuts have affected, among others, education and the arts that the highly educated president boasts about when abroad. Macron is drifting ever further away from the ethics of compromise. Viktor Orban is already standing at the point where compromise can no longer be found. The pathos of one's own convictions — regardless if on the left or the right of the political spectrum — will not persuade the people to believe in Europe.
European politicians must translate the ideals they espouse into policies that benefit their citizens. When "freedom" is no longer a sufficient argument on its own, discontent begins to simmer. Europe can only become the love of Europeans again when we sense that it is about "our future." Perhaps then cafes will once again bear the name "Europe" and become places where people drink and celebrate rather than talk about their concerns or identity politics — or cater to tourists from wealthy countries. More Europe is only possible if there is more democracy.
Jagoda Marinic is a German-Croatian author, playwright and journalist. Her most recent book Made in Germany — Was ist deutsch in Deutschland? (What is German in Germany?) deals with the issue of identity in Germany, a country of immigration.