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'Europe will fail without a common narrative'

Published: 26 Feb 2013 07:00 GMT+01:00

Until now, President Joachim Gauck - a former anti-communist civil rights activist - has been best known as an advocate of freedom. Since last Friday it has been clear that Germany's ceremonial head of state is also a convinced European with the courage to make overhauling the European project a central theme of his presidency.

In his first important address as president from Bellevue Palace in Berlin, a speech he consciously dedicated to Europe, Gauck developed what had been painfully absent in all of Chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts to save the euro and push forward with reform of the European Union: a vision of how the crisis-hit bloc should move forward – as a community of common values, a European civil society.

Gauck made it clear that the rot in the EU is much more than a crisis over the common currency. Europe no longer has the trust of its citizens, the decisive basis of any considerations about the future makeup of the community. Gauck spoke openly of the unease, annoyance and scepticism with which many approach Europe today, not only in Germany. The EU leaves too many citizens, he said, with a feeling of “powerlessness and lack of influence”.

Forging a vision

The president struck a chord with a majority of citizens, and showed why it is not enough simply to talk about “more Europe” - without a single idea about how this can be achieved. In this way Gauck distanced himself from Chancellor Merkel and her technical approach to the crisis - the policy of keeping calm and carrying on, without ever explaining anything.

Gauck committed himself to a further "internal unification" of the EU. His view of this deeper integration involves not only a common financial and economic policy, but also a unified foreign, security and defence policy, as well as common concepts for environmental and social policies, ideas which may prove less popular with many Europeans.

Above all, he named the main thread that politicians must hold on to during the reform and restructuring of the EU: “What does a democratic Europe look like, one which dispels citizens' fears and allows them opportunities, in short: a Europe which they can identify with?”

Gauck is right; Europe will not make it out of the crisis without grassroots legitimacy. A mere reform of the Brussels-based institutions, however urgent, will not be enough. For, said Gauck, it is precisely the decades-long project of continuing to expand the EU from above without establishing the necessary democratic basis on the ground, with the citizens of the soon-to-be 28 member states, that has led the union into its present cul-de-sac.

The German president is therefore right to remind us what connects the peoples of Europe. It is not a revolution or a victorious war which define the European identity, but a set of values. Europe stands for peace and freedom, democracy and the rule of law, for equality, human rights and solidarity. That and nothing else defines the unique essence of this community of states and peoples.

Gauck leaves no doubt that precisely that idea of “European solidarity” had often been missing from the German discussion over bailing out the eurozone's struggling countries, along with any kind of insightful justification for Germany's ceaseless efforts to tackle the crisis. Gauck implied this was where other countries got the idea that Germany wanted to push its concepts and will onto other countries to create a “German Europe.”

Communication breakdown

The president also did not mince his words on the lack of empathy, cold-heartedness and disrespect which German politicians had so far shown to crisis countries, and pointed out that this had contributed to a poor view of Germany in most EU countries. He also rightly complained about a decisive shortcoming of the Europe discussion: insufficient communication within the community and the lack of a common European public.

Gauck made an interesting suggestion which might help address this – something like the German-French TV channel ARTE, designed as a “multi-channel with internet connection for at least 28 states”. A “European Agora” such as this could really help create a sense of European citizenship, so that out of plurality comes something binding, something sustaining.

Europe will fail without a common narrative, without an idea of where the European journey should lead, whether as a loose confederation of states or a federal, tight union. That is Gauck's central message – and his warning to politicians. What is needed, as he rather passionately said, is not doubters, but banner-wavers, not hesitators, but hard workers. There is no doubt about which group Gauck would like to belong to.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of ZEIT ONLINE, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

09:05 February 26, 2013 by HansT
It's about time (or far past the time) that we recognize the truth of Gauck's words encouraging a return to the values that founded the very European concept in the first place. He defined the values but (as here reported) failed to credit the source of these values.

"Europe stands for peace and freedom, democracy and the rule of law, for equality, human rights and solidarity." he declared, continuing "... nothing else defines the unique essence of this community of states and peoples."

But from where do these values arise? Certainly not from the Pagan roots of pre-history in our barbarous past. No, there can be no doubt that Christianity was the foundation that created modern Europe. Historically this is beyond argument, and every one of Gauck's listed values derives directly from the Judeo-Christian ideal.

Admittedly, such ideals have not always been realized, but the fault lies not with the ideal itself, but with the all-too-human failings... selfishness, hatred, envy, lust and corruption, among others. It is this fallen human nature that Christ calls to us to overcome, and Europe will fail again and again to regain the common values of Gauck's hopes so long as Christianity continues in it's downward spiral of influence in the public sphere.
09:16 February 26, 2013 by IchBinKönig
The BIIGGG Commie Fighter from East Germany... yawn. A wolf in Sheeps clothing. 0 Legitimacy. This Euro dilema has yet to really rear its head. And you what? You selffish gits.... rah rah rah, right?
11:09 February 26, 2013 by Firmino
How on earth do you go from this speech to Christianity I'll never know!

As far as I'm concerned we would be much better off with our "barbarous" Pagan roots than with some mumbo jumbo dreamed up by some crazy desert folk that has cause more war, ignorance and hatred than pretty much any other idea in history.
12:42 February 26, 2013 by Steve1949
Could someone please change the CD. I'm tired of hearing the same old song and dance over and over again. This crisis is no way near over no matter how you spin things to make it sound like it is.
16:50 February 26, 2013 by mitanni
Gauck's vision of Europe is a fiction. Most European art, literature, business, and science was created while brutal wars were raging on the continent, while Europeans enslaved and mass murdered native peoples around the globe, oppressed and expelled minorities at home, and were intolerant of free speech and individual liberties. European culture, such as it is, was the result of desperate men in desperate circumstances. And, HansT, you're right that much of this was the result of Christianity, in particular the human rights violations, wars, mass murders, political oppresion, and widespread governmental corruption. Gauck's new vision of Europe, that of an imperial Chinese style bureaucratic empire, unfortunately is no better.
21:04 February 26, 2013 by Tonne
Gauck's vision for Europe is a fine one and one that defines the spirit of the European Union. It is one that transcends the Common Market view of Europe and one that offers hope for a continuing peace, in stark contrast to the centuries of wars that were the previous European experience.

Christianity (or at least the Christianity of the rich and powerful) was the cause of much of this conflict, especially that between Rome and Protestantism.

It could be said that much of art, literature, music and science was created because of and in response to the brutal wars that raged over the continent.

We do need to work together to establish an EU that is seen by all levels of society as something that has a positive effect on their lives and is not simply a means of enriching the few. This will require greater transparency and scrutiny of policy making and procedures and expenditure, and a greater willingness to keep everyone informed of what is happening and why.
22:24 February 26, 2013 by IchBinKönig
@ Tonne

'We do need to work together to establish an EU that is seen by all levels of society as something that has a positive effect on their lives and is not simply a means of enriching the few'

How are you so confident that things will improve. Do you know what the definition of insanity is? You do realize we are moving away from your stated goals. By that I mean, instead of becoming a universally more affluent society, we are becoming a Poorer society???? Can you wrap your Belgian kool-aid addled mind around this fact : Its BECAUSE of the EURO that so much of Europe is facing Poverty? You are 'those' that you hate. It is few, and even more increasingly few, that are being enriched by the Euro. THE STATE IS NOT YOUR MAMA. You remind of a baby chick who when first popped its shell, saw the cat and said 'Mama'! That ain't your Mama, dude.

Wake up, soak those purple stained lips, that kool aid stain can be a tough one.
00:01 February 27, 2013 by Tonne
@IchBinKonig

Do you understand what you read or do you only read what you understand?

Gauck's view and my point was that the EU has to be more than just an economic bloc.

I did not mention the Euro but, as you raise it, Germany has done very well out of it. Had it stayed with the Dmark, German exports would be much more expensive than they now are and German industry would be faced with even greater competition from foreign imports. For some countries, notably Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, the reverse has been true. But what has happened in these countries would probably have happened wihout the Euro. Their problem is that they cannot now devalue their currencies, as they would have been able to do previously.

The so-called Euro crisis is, in my view, not simply a crisis of the Euro but is also another facet of the banking crisis. Banks lent to Greece et al without due diligence, and were caught out. Corruption and, or incompetence in the countries concerned were also factors but the Euro was not at fault there either.

If Europe is facing poverty now it is because of the imposition of austerity measures, the leading light of which is Merkel. The lessons learned from Keynes have been rejected and the ideas of Hajek are in the ascendancy. If you want a change you have to change the policies of the government.
20:29 February 27, 2013 by Steve1949
@ Tonne.........You have me somewhat confused. Why do you think that Germany's exports would be higher had Germany stuck with the DM? When the DM was phased out and the Euro introduced the exchange rate was roughly 2 DM per Euro. That being said would make the Euro more expensive than the DM. At todays rate the DM value would be approx 2.54DM. How does this make Germany's exports cheaper?
03:19 February 28, 2013 by schneebeck
I am unable to put all of this thinking together!

The austerity was "imposed" because:

They-were-under-crushing-debt- and-would-be crushed-even-more-if-they-kept-on-borrowing.

I want to ask;

If austerity wasn't "imposed", what would their debt situation be now? If they were being crushed back then, without austerity measures how much more would they be being crushed now?

Then what solutions would you be suggesting?

If borrowing, then spending for stimulus, didn't improve government revenues to keep their debt down before, why would it do that now?

Money-does-not-grow-on-trees. That massively crushing debt would have to be forgiven, that would be the next topic to clamor about.

Keynes showed the usefulness of borrowing to stimulate in lean times. Keynes also argued govt. should curtail spending to cool down overheating economies.

The second part up there, about curtailing spending, is never done in prosperous times, that is when government is supposed to be "austere".

Politicians love to quote Keynes ideas about Govt. spending, but it is really just pork barrel politics. They never follows Keynes theories when it comes to cooling down an economy, they keep on spending more because they have more revenues, and so they doubly overheat an overheating economy and it crashes even harder.

But then, although there are much less revenues, everyone is used to Fat Cow living, and so they insist Govt. borrow the money to keep on supporting the Fat Cow spending. They bring up Keynes a lot at this point.

Maybe enough lessons weren't learned from Keynes. Maybe Keynes' theories can't work because governments and their peoples have shown us they can't stop borrowing and spending. ("Austerity is terrible! Austerity is terrible! Keep on borrowing money!! Keep on borrowing money!! Keynes says it will all work out!!!)

Keynes' theories on stimulus economics have been so overly abused we are into another economic plane and reality where those rules don't apply too well anymore. That is what I think.

But someone please explain to me,

How could austerity AND crushing debt BOTH have been avoided?
11:07 March 2, 2013 by Roberto Gold
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
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