Opinion: What remains of the European Union ideal? | Opinion | DW | 09.02.2016
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Opinion: What remains of the European Union ideal?

Leaders of the European Economic Community's founding member nations met in Rome to discuss a solution to the waning enthusiasm for the EU. DW's Christoph Hasselbach wonders what has become of the concept of Europe.

These days, many supporters of the EU are caught up in feelings of melancholy, despair and nostalgia for the exhausted European spirit. They think back to the days when people didn't have to justify the idea of unity like they do now, the days when few questioned the goal of steady integration, the days when describing oneself as European rather than German, French or Italian was en vogue.

In today's manifold and apparently widening lack of unity, the EU founders' enthusiasm for their idea of Europe seems like the dream of a naive childhood. When politicians advocate continental integration these days, it is often with a threatening undertone. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker once said that people who doubt Europe should visit military cemeteries.

As several eurozone nations found themselves mired in debt, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that if the common currency were to fail, "Europe fails." And former Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the bloc must either swim together "or drown alone."

Continent of strife

It would be counterproductive to say that the sky will fall if the European Union fails to recover the enthusiasm for the ideals upon which it was founded. Many citizens of EU member states feel that they are being condescended to from Brussels. People get the impression that appealing to grand ideals is nothing but a trick to extort sacrifices that they don't want to make.

Many Germans wonder whether their show of solidarity with Greece was betrayed during debt talks. Many in France wonder whether their country's economic policies are being dictated by Brussels - or even by Berlin via Brussels. And many in the Visegrad states fail to understand why, in the name of European solidarity, they should take in refugees who previously might not have been allowed in their countries.

The problem with the European ideal is that for a long time it was overly idealized. In Germany in particular, formulating national interests came close to a taboo. Everything had to be tied to Europe somehow, or risk being branded as nationalist. That's why Germany invokes solidarity when making demands - such as fixed admission quotas for refugees - of fellow EU members. However, the 27 partners in the bloc may disagree as to what constitutes European values.

Pursuing one's own interests is the most normal thing in the world. But reconciling the interests of 28 nations is much more difficult than it was in the 1950s, back when the European Economic Community only had six members.

Now, the European Union must act together out of common interest - and it will: The nations of a relatively small, prosperous but aging continent can only assert themselves if they act as one in a rapidly changing world.

That is why Europe found an answer to its debt standoff - late in the game, but not too late. And, after many errors and mistakes, it is also bound to find a solution to its deadlock over refugees.

No doubt the emotions that marked the European Union's early years were sincere, but they have been exhausted. The realism and healthy common interests of today are not a bad foundation, either.

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