A version of this article was originally published on Deutsche Welle
By Guy Verhofstadt
Germany has always had a special place in Europe, economically and historically. But in the age of Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Brexit, EU politician Guy Verhofstadt says this heavyweight has just gotten a bit heavier.
Regardless of what the team in the German Chancellery does after the country’s September 24 election, hopefully things will get into gear on the European level. Far too many issues have been pushed aside during the 2017 “super election year” — mainly out of fear that by standing up for Europe, one would simply feed the anti-European sentiments of populists and nationalists. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Nationalists and populists may be good at railing against the EU during elections and putting its problems on the political agenda, but calling for more national powers will not provide solutions. All nationalists do is point fingers at Brussels and say: That is where the root of the problem lies, that is where the bureaucratic regulation of every detail of our lives is dictated but none of our problems are solved — financial crises, refugee crises, terrorism. If that is the way you look at it then I, too, am a Euroskeptic. I am the last person that would claim that the EU is perfect. But I would also be the last person to claim that we should abandon it.
There is certainly much room for improvement. For too long the EU, and especially the European Commission, has continued to construct a massive bureaucracy that has dealt with far too many unpopular detailed questions rather than leave them to member states and instead turn to aggressively addressing the really serious questions facing the bloc. But we can change that by streamlining, with fewer commissioners who deal with fewer but more important issues. The most serious issues, such as how we deal with immigration, how we combat terrorism, how we can confront Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and how we can better position ourselves economically.
Yet, we need a strong Europe and we need European answers for all of these urgent questions. We need a coherent foreign policy and with it a true European defense community, one that is a pillar within the NATO alliance. Further, we need a European FBI rather than simply the increased exchange of information that is called for after every violent attack. We need European rules on immigration and truly collective protection of our borders and coasts. We need a strong European economy and a stable euro. We should not be fearful of globalization but rather actively design it and push for more free trade.
When people see that we are making progress, their faith in the EU will grow. And that is exactly what I hope will happen in the period following Germany’s September 24 election. I hope that Germany, together with French President Emmanuel Macron, will take on a leadership role and act with conviction, not only by undertaking selected small reforms but by taking up the task of renewing the EU. But that will take courage. It will demand will. And it will require action.
Renewed leadership in Europe
Germany was in the position to show such courage, will and action once before. After World War II it was a driving force for European unity, it tirelessly fought for and invested in that unity. It made the reunification of East and West possible. It quite literally became the venue and symbol of that reunification. But Germany has become lazy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The EU has guaranteed our freedom and prosperity for 70 years but it would be naive to think that we can rest on our laurels.
“Yes we can” was Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. One year after that first campaign and six years before Angela Merkel’s oft-quoted “We can do this” refugee mantra, German statesman Hans-Dietrich Genscher said, “Yes we do, yes we can” during a speech delivered at Leipzig University. Yet, Genscher did not utter those words in a national but rather in a European context, and spoke of Europe’s global responsibility. And that is exactly what we have — a responsibility to counter nationalism and protectionism with an open society that has liberal values and believes in free trade.
All of us living here in Europe share that responsibility. Nevertheless, Germany has a strategically important role to play economically, historically and geographically. I hope that it will seize this chance and show leadership and courage, not only to keep the EU but to push forward toward greater European integration and thus guarantee the European Union’s future.