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.”
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.