EU celebrates Treaty of Rome amid gloom over European project

On Merkel’s watch, German view of itself has become one of vainglorious victimhood

 Angela Merkel: As a veteran of European crises, the German chancellor knows by now how much the bloc resembles a cyclist: if it stops moving, it falls over. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Angela Merkel: As a veteran of European crises, the German chancellor knows by now how much the bloc resembles a cyclist: if it stops moving, it falls over. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

 

With the EU gripped by crisis, European leaders gathering to mark the anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome wondered if there was anything to celebrate.

It took a party trick by an inventive host to banish the funereal mood from the EU’s birthday celebration.

“We citizens of Europe, ” a joint declaration read, “have united for the better.”

The year was 2007; the place, Berlin. The host was German chancellor Angela Merkel. The gloom then was caused by Dutch and French voters’ rejection of the European constitution, calling the whole integration project into question.

A decade after that crisis and her “Berlin Declaration”, Merkel – still chancellor – travels to Rome with grim, ironclad optimism.

As a European crisis veteran, Merkel knows by now how much the bloc resembles a cyclist: if it stops moving, it falls over. Thus her insistence that Europe needs to work through its existential crisis, if need be with a multispeed Europe, to complete outstanding projects offering concrete benefits to citizens, from security to the single market.

“The good of member states and the good of the EU are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “But we must hold to what we undertake to do.”

And yet a hat trick of crises in the past decade – financial, euro zone and refugee – have undermined confidence in the EU’s ambitions as a project of peace, reconciliation and prosperity. And Britain’s looming departure dangles like a loose thread from the integration sweater, just one sharp tug away from undoing everything.

Guarantees stability

For Germany, the EU is everything: a passport back to postwar respectability, a guarantee of economic stability and, crucially, a political counterweight to its outsized scale vis-a-vis its neighbours.

But as Bundestag president Norbert Lammert told this newspaper last month, the past decade of crisis has disrupted all that.

Berlin has become Europe’s No 1 place of political pilgrimage, and Germany again finds itself dominating Europe, a position that no one foresaw, engineered or even wanted – Germany included.

On Merkel’s watch, Germany’s European narrative has shifted as well, from one of virtuous self-interest to vainglorious victimhood. A new nationalist chauvinist twist is in the ascendent, claiming that ordinary, decent Germans, after being exploited by euro crisis spendthrifts, are now being taken for a ride by the European Central Bank.

Grave German economists regularly claim in the media – unchallenged – that the ECB, which Bonn insisted be modelled on the Bundesbank, has gone rogue with a monetary policy of inflation higher than interest rates, which is “misappropriating” German savings.

Euro-critical voices

Six months before Germany’s federal election, Europe is gearing up to be one of the major political battlefields. With rising Euro-critical voices on the political fringes, Germany’s major political parties agree they must challenge the country’s self-pitying EU narrative before it is too late.

On Wednesday, German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, until recently leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), declared war on how Germany’s financial and political contributions to the EU have been redefined in the debate here as a burden for its largest member state.

“The extreme-right takeover of this narrative says that Germany’s ‘guilt complex’ lead us to spend too much of hard-working Germans’ money for ‘lazy Europeans’,” Gabriel wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) daily. The opposite is true, he argued: Berlin’s contribution is returned many times over, in economic and political stability.

And he had news for readers of the FAZ, a house journal of Germany’s new conservative Eurosceptics: to hold the European project together, Berlin will have to invest even more.

For Berlin political analysts, such declarations are a sign of hope.

“Gabriel’s is a most unpopular message, but it is necessary to prepare the public for greater investment in European defence or to fight migration at its roots,” said Jan Techau, director of the Richard Holbrooke Forum at Berlin’s American Academy. “All of the challenges facing Europe are, in effect, one and same debate: how much are we willing to invest to keep a continent stable that is not naturally stable?”

Rallying around the EU

After years of crisis, spring has brought the fresh shoots to Germany’s European debate. Every Sunday for the past month, thousands have gathered for pro-EU demonstrations in Berlin and other German cities.

On Sunday, a “March for Europe” will take place in the capital. It is one of many such marches across Europe for “the dream of a united Europe” and against rising fears that doing nothing will see a return to the nightmare of European nationalism and division.

Like the weekend gathering in Rome, ordinary, pro-EU Germans are organising to take back the narrative, convinced that the EU still gives more than it takes.

“Narratives make politics and politics make narratives,” argued Gabriel in the FAZ. “I want to fight for the right narrative on Europe and not ‘fake news’.”

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