In the immediate aftermath of the bombshell in summer 2016, it seemed that Europe was prepared to take the bull by the horns. In politics, civil society, science and literature there was an outpouring of optimism about European renewal. In September 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in Paris unleashed a kind of pro-European emotion.
He called for a new start for Europe, waxed lyrical about European sovereignty and presented a long list of specific reform proposals. For many months, citizens took to the streets as part of the Pulse of Europe initiative, painting their faces blue and wrapping themselves in EU flags. For a short time, Europe was actually quite cool.
Experts sketched out scenarios for enhancing democracy in Europe, spearheaded by political thinker Ulrike Guérot with her idea of Europe as a Republic. A new pro-European zeitgeist also swept through the publishing world. Prominent German journalists Heribert Prantl and Evelyn Roll published pro-European works that replaced the ubiquitous literature about Europe’s swansong. And, despite the fact that everything always takes a little longer in Europe, the timing was good: the elections had just been held in France and Germany, there were two years to go before the next European elections, and finally it was possible to get on with the work.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. The German government simply failed to respond to Macron’s proposals until, after more than a year, it ‘scotched them one hundred percent’, as noted by Jürgen Habermas. Germany’s only response to France’s outstretched hand was to offer small-scale reforms to economic and monetary policy. There was no major breakthrough. In today’s Europe, one side’s lack of courage has to be understood in tandem with the excessive courage of the other side.
Citizens painted their faces blue and wrapped themselves in EU flags. For a short time, Europe was actually quite cool.
Populism and nationalism are on the rise in every corner of the European Union, from Scandinavia to Germany, France, Austria, Italy and the Visegrad states. In Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland, their proponents have now moved from opposition to government, and any hope that they would show moderation when in power has generally been proven naïve. It’s true that parties such as the FPÖ and the Lega have moved away from ‘exit’ demands, whether from the euro or the Union as a whole. Instead of getting out, they now tend to support the EU – but a Union that is totally opposed to the spirit of European integration.
Their fight with politicians like Macron is essentially about the role of sovereignty. It is a conflict between those who support European sovereignty and those who seek national sovereignty. One side believes that EU Member States will only retain their capacity for action and self-determination if they pool their sovereignty within the European institutions. The other side, which includes representatives of both right and left, insists that sovereignty has to be firmly tied to the nation because this is the only source of political legitimacy.
Disputes over the distribution of refugees, which was imposed by a majority against individual governments, are an expression of this fundamental conflict. But it is less about the issue at stake than about who has the last word, whether such decisions should actually be taken according to the majority principle as currently envisaged, and to what extent the European Court of Justice can impose European legal principles on the constitutional law of Member States.