Europe at the crossroads?

December 2017

Interview with Gerald Häfner, former member of the German Parliament and the European Parliament, co-founder of the “More Democracy” association and today head of the Social Science Section at the Goetheanum.

Photo: © froodmat / photocase.de

Erziehungskunst | The Greek crisis seems to have been averted with great difficulty, we are in the midst of the Brexit negotiations and an undemocratic presidential dictatorship in Turkey is burdening the accession negotiations – developments which are placing a stress both on politics and the popular will. Is European cohesion at risk?

Gerald Häfner | Europe, and even more so politics, indeed, democracy are in crisis. How could that happen? The idea of a common Europe which previously fascinated many people now causes many people to be afraid. Why? Because it represents something that people fear.

We live in mad times. We know and can do more than ever before. We have amassed incredible wealth. Yet obscene salaries for manager and workers’ wages at the existential minimum, depressing poverty, exist side by side. To a frightening degree we experience wars, violence, social inequality, destruction of the environment and the climate, an aggressive dissolution of social structures. In southern Europe a third to a half of all young people are unemployed. The public sector is deep in debt while private fortunes are growing immeasurably.

Increasing numbers of people feel the injustice of that. At the same time they have the feeling that they are impotent and can no longer influence the fundamental decision-making. They have lost their trust in the established institutions. Politics no longer seems to be willing or able to shape society in a fair and meaningful way. Where there is the lack of a deeper understanding of the causes and of real alternatives, the longing for the old familiar backward-looking answers soon returns, nationalism and the call for the strong man who can drive away what is bad and make everything whole again.

Yet we cannot withdraw from the complexity of this world with answers like “Germany for the Germans” of “America first” which conjure up the phantoms of yesteryear and made us sleepwalk into the greatest disaster to affect humanity. Brexit isn’t an answer either but rather a symptom of the great problem of our time that decisions are made without our involvement, without us thinking along and having our voice heard, but whose consequences determine our daily lives to an ever greater extent.

The solution does not lie in a return to thinking in terms of nation states. On the contrary, the solution lies in the just structuring of a globalised economy and the further development of democracy also at a transnational level. Our common Europe is shaped by treaties between states; today such treaties are concluded with other governments under pressure from multinational economic organisations and the citizen is only any longer tolerated as an impotent observer. We don’t need a Europe of governments and corporations but of citizens, the only reliable sovereign. We need a discourse about the future of Europe which includes everyone.

EK | After the recent elections, the danger from the right appears only barely to have been banished in some European countries. How do you assess political developments in the next few years? Will there be a United States of Europe at some point?

GH | Europe will continue to grow together. But that does not mean that the states in Europe will increasingly dissolve like sugar in tea. It is more like the layers of an onion: we are all citizens of our village or city district, our city, region and the state in which we live, just like we are citizens of Europe and the world. We are involved at all these levels and carry responsibility. Politics has developed processes in this regard which work more or less well.

Fortunately we live in a country in which participation in political decisions through elections and referendums is relatively high. The problem has not yet, however, been solved at a European and international level. It is not enough for transnational decisions to be taken by governments, mostly under the influence of powerful lobbies. Today, in the age of democracy, nothing can any longer be considered to be correct in which all those involved have not had the opportunity to participate. That is why we need a workable European democracy just as in the long term we also need a world parliament.

The EU is the laboratory which is furthest advanced in the development of transnational democracy. People look at Europe from all over the world to see whether we can succeed in giving away a little bit of national sovereignty to a supranational community. But sovereignty today is no longer the sovereignty of the ruler or the ruling class. All state power comes from the people. This fundamental article in the (German) constitution is today deemed to be the basic tenet of every polity. The question is how the sovereignty of each individual citizen can be maintained even when decisions have to be taken which reach far beyond the borders of national states. I therefore consider the image of the “United States of Europe” to be a dystopia.

On the contrary, what we need is the “United Citizens of Europe” whose citizens are not just the object but also the subject of European decisions. The development towards a European civil society is an important contribution in this respect.

Business today leads politics by the nose round the circus ring. International corporations play off states, citizens and law makers against one another. What is missing is the just, sustainable and fair shaping of international trade, which secures freedom as much as fraternal collaboration and ecological and social responsibility. While business operates across all borders today, the law and legislation largely apply at a national level. This has exacerbated the immense shift in power towards the economy. This is where we have to start.

EK | The Greek crisis shows the precarious nature of the collaboration between the EU and the member states. There has been a huge flow of money. Greece is dependent on the euro bailout fund. Is that the right way?

GH | The Greek crisis has by no means been resolved; it has only been pushed into the future. Billions and billions were raised to satisfy the claims of banks and investors. There was practically no help for the suffering people in Greece.

The EU decided in favour of a common currency without taking account of the extreme differences in the economic and social conditions between the European member states. The previous possibility to adjust the balance through currency revaluations has gone, a new one is not yet in sight. Then there is the massive public debt. That creates dependency.

EK |  TTIP originally did not stop even at the commercialisation of education. How can we get away from the economically dominated motifs of collaboration behind which there are the interests of the lobby associations of major corporations?

GH | Trade agreements such as TTIP, CETA, JEFTA and TiSA represent a huge encroachment on the legislative power of states. Democracy and popular sovereignty are undermined. Citizens and parliaments may only any longer take decisions which do not oppose the interests of international investors. That is a dramatic aberration, also for the so-called Third World.

It is a welcome development that increasing numbers of people are resisting this. The people in civil society must be involved in the major framework decisions. That requires detailed public discussion and working out an “alternative mandate for negotiations”.

EK | What do you recommend to young people with their ideals when they capitulate or resort to violence in view of the political conditions, their constraints and the hopelessness of exercising political influence?

GH | I believe that there has never been a more interesting time for young people. We are facing great challenges which make all engagement, every thought and effort worthwhile.

The worst thing would be for young people to give way to resignation: there’s nothing I can do against those up there. There is no longer any excuse not to become involved other than apathy, self-pity and weakness. Our ideas of today shape the world of tomorrow. Those who do not become involved will be subject to the conditions created by others.

A person can change the world: ethical banking, microcredit, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace or More Democracy… it always started with a few who had an idea, took action and found supporters. Circumstances can be changed. We are not the product of circumstances but they are our product. This is where global networking can help us. It has never been so simple to develop an idea of our own and convince others of it.

Those, on the other hand, who resort to violence strengthen the power of what they want to overcome or destroy. Terror has never brought greater freedom, democracy and sociality but always counterviolence, surveillance and suppression.

Mathias Maurer asked the questions.

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