Can there be peace in Europe?

A conversation with Wolfgang Streeck

22 January 2016
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The European integration project urgently needs reconstructing from the bottom up, argues Wolfgang Streeck. This means taking into account the crucial importance of nations and nation-states as the principal sites of democratic self-government.

Lukasz Pawlowski: Has chancellor Merkel made a mistake in opening the door to migrants without first consulting with other European countries? Could this decision cost Merkel her role as a European leader?

Wolfgang Streeck: Like all other European leaders Merkel thinks first and foremost about her own domestic politics. Most of the migrants that had got stuck in Budapest central station wanted to go to Germany. The German public had been outraged at the French and the British leaving thousands of migrants stranded in Calais, at the entrance to the Channel tunnel. After Merkel had invited the Budapest migrants to Germany, perhaps also to clear the way for a coalition with the Greens in two years, it turned out there were millions more who wanted to come. At this point, the German government began to look for a “European solution”. No European government consults with other European governments when it sees its own vital political interests at stake.

Photo: Konstantnin. Source: Shutterstock

LP: How do you assess the idea of creating a “mini-Schengen area”? Some say it’s impossible on the basis of current European treaties, but by introducing temporary border controls and extending them to two years, a mini Schengen area may de facto be introduced.

WS: Schengen is a separate treaty, outside the Treaties of the European Union, so technically it should be possible for European Union member countries to leave Schengen. The British never joined Schengen in the first place. But Merkel is afraid that a return to border controls by other countries would undermine German control over the European Union as a whole. It might also alienate German voters, who confuse “Europe” with their right to cross into neighboring countries without having to stop at the border. But without some redistribution of immigrants among European countries – and I cannot see how this could happen – Germans themselves will eventually have to return to border controls. There are newspaper reports to the effect that the German federal police are already working on a new, much more restrictive border regime.

LP: Do you think that blaming Schengen for the migrant crisis and the terrorist threat is justifiable?

WS: No. The blame lies above all with those countries, foremost the United States, but also Britain and France, which have for the most bizarre reasons sent their military to destroy the state structures of the Middle East. Note that none of them are willing to take any of the refugees who are leaving their homes because they see no future there.

LP: What can bring the European countries back together at a time when separatist tendencies seem to be so abundant – in Britain, France, Hungary, Slovakia, and recently Poland?

WS: We need an open discussion of what is called the “finality” of European integration. Are we heading towards a super-state? What role is the euro to play? Can the euro be reformed so Mediterranean countries get some breathing space? How to protect democracy at a national level from being pre-empted at the European level? And so on. The underlying theme of all these questions is the relationship between nations and nation-states on the one hand and the European institutions on the other. In this debate the Germans must finally begin to understand that they are the only ones in Europe who are looking forward to sacrificing their national identity on the altar of European unity.

The irony is that in fact this is a programme for German hegemony, for a German Europe. The more Germany presses the other countries to fall in line with its anti-national national obsession, the more votes parties like the Front National, the True Finns, UKIP and so on will get. The European integration project urgently needs to be reconstructed from the bottom up, taking into account the crucial importance of nations and nation-states as the principal sites of democratic self-government.

LP: Some pundits claim that euro-enthusiasts have wrongly tried to marginalize nation-states, hoping to create United States of Europe, and this is the cause of the current crisis. Others maintain that it is precisely the nation-states with their particular interests that block the process of integration. What is your opinion?

WS: See above. Nations are communities of understanding, of shared deep-seated convictions as to what is “natural”, “reasonable”, “ethical”, “self-evident” and the like. In Europe this includes people’s views of what “Europe” is and what it is good for and what it should and should not be. Each country sees this differently. If this is not recognized there can be no peace in Europe, and I mean this very seriously. We will have to learn to live with diverse views, not least on Europe as a political project, and to respect each other.

LP: Some western media – CNN, The Economist, Washington Post, Die Zeit – have heavily criticized Poland after the change of government. Do you think that criticism is justifiable?

WS: I am concerned about this tendency to moralize publicly about other countries, their voters and their governments. Most people do not know nearly enough to have a considered view about these things. I can understand a Polish government that worries about German dominance in Europe. On the other hand, when joining the Union, countries commit themselves to certain fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law. I think it should be possible to remind one another of those commitments. But I find the moralizing and hostile language some politicians sometimes use quite distasteful.

LP: It is commonly said that the migrant crisis has yet again revealed stark differences between eastern and western Europe. Do you believe this to be true, or are those differences more imagined than real? In western Europe, the attitude towards migrants is also getting more and more hostile.

WS: Indeed, look at France, Britain, the Netherlands, even Sweden. The bashing of Hungary and Poland serves to divert attention from the growing resistance to some government’s policy of unlimited and uncontrolled immigration. It is also politically calculated to make western European voters tolerate their governments’ open border policies, by offering them a sense of moral superiority as reward.

Published 22 January 2016

Original in English
First published in Kultura Liberalna / Liberal Culture, 12 January 2016

Contributed by Kultura liberalna
© Wolfgang Streeck, Lukasz Pawlowski / Kultura Liberalna / Eurozine

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