Opening Speech: Robert Menasse
Countdown to Europe
Ladies and gentlemen!
It has been impressed upon me that I have just ten minutes speaking time. That’s a very short time given everything that needs to be said. On the other hand, ten minutes is a very long time if you consider that it’s already five minutes to midnight.
Because, viewed objectively, the European Project is on a knife edge. But there is no cause for alarm. The clock seems to have stopped, because I’ve been reading in the newspapers for months now that it’s five minutes to midnight. And we know from the great historian Theodor Mommsen that decades passed after the fall of Rome before the Romans realised that it had in fact fallen. So even if I run dramatically over time, and even if you and all of us keep talking or remain silent for years, it will be business as usual, even at ten past midnight. Because there has always been business, across the watersheds of all epochs, and that is something ‘usual’, today more than ever, because it has been agreed that it’s a ‘game’ and indeed it is, otherwise we wouldn’t call those who siphon off the wealth of the world global players.
But let‘s leave out the flourishes! Only nine minutes left!
Why is the European Project in danger? I need just two minutes to remind you of what the European Community and the European Union should be.
In the first half of the 20th century European nationalism led to two disastrous world wars and to the most massive crime against humanity, to Auschwitz. We had to learn from these experiences. This could never be allowed to happen again. The question was how we could succeed in sustainably reconciling the enemy nations and overcoming nationalism, ensuring a peaceful and free coexistence on this continent, which has been so devastated by history. The founding fathers of the united Europe came up with the idea of integrating the economies of nation states so that a system of mutual dependencies, a partnership based on common interests, would emerge that would make isolated national approaches, which had historically proven to be aberrations dangerous to the population at large, impossible. It began with the European Coal and Steel Community. Why? Because coal and steel are commodities of great strategic military importance, while at the same time they were vital production factors in the economic recovery of the early 1950s. It was hoped that bringing them under the aegis of the community and subjecting them to joint controls would ensure peace and guarantee a shared prosperity within Europe. With the establishing of a High Authority that could make joint regulations for member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, the first supranational organisation was created and post-national development initiated.
It was clear then, and this insight remains clear, even if it threatens to be forgotten today, that nationalism, which has led our continent into its most terrible experiences, must be torn up by the roots, which ultimately means abolishing the nation state.
This is very important, this is what we must remember today: At its heart, the ‘EU Peace Project’ is a project to vanquish the nation states. Saying ‘peace project’ just sounds nice – and also boring for many people. It instantly becomes exciting again – and again we immediately understand the contradictions that we see today as a crisis if we do not forget: From the beginning, this was the utopia: The conclusion should be the end of the nation states.
Seven minutes left.
Abolishing the nation state is an uphill battle. It has been shown that it can only be done in small steps. And further small steps were persistently taken. Economically, through the increasingly consistent integration of national economies, free movement of capital and the common market, and organisationally, through the establishing of supranational European institutions. For a long time, the public regarded this development as rational and fascinating and ultimately as so historically powerful that any reversal seemed unimaginable. But the mood has changed. Nations have largely given up their sovereign rights to supranational European institutions, yet nationalism lives on in member states. The basic historical consensus of the European Union, that it is necessary to overcome nationalism and reasonable to pursue post-national development, has now largely evaporated, even among Europe’s political elite. The project’s very foundations are therefore at risk.
I now need two minutes to describe how the new nationalism is being drummed up, not only by the right-wing populists of yesteryear, who unfortunately have increasing support. The new nationalism is in fact a threat emerging out of the so-called ‘centre’ of societies in member states. As long as this is not recognised, no answer to the European Union’s current problems will be found. On the contrary, its collapse is pre-programmed.
Because the problem is not that many voters somehow find nationalist parties, from the True Finns to Österreicher Zuerst!-Österreichern (Austria for Austrians), more persuasive than the state-supporting centre-right or social-democratic parties that still form the governments of most European states. The problem is rather that the nationalist parties and government parties of the so-called ‘centre’ share a specific conviction –that the national map is a trump card when it comes to domestic political legitimacy. The national right-wingers don’t have to persuade, they just gather in the persuaded, and they have long since been persuaded by their governments. It is well-known that the heads of governments and ministers who fly regularly to Brussels and make decisions in the European Council slip off their European ‘disguise’ on the flight home. They put on their national clown‘s mask and report on how splendidly they have defended national interests, what they have pushed through for their own country in their struggle with ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’, and which costly wishes of other member states they have thwarted. The message is that we are members of the European Union, but that this must have been a historical accident, or at least a foolish practical constraint, and that we, the current government, are fighting to make sure that this will not be to the detriment of ‘us’ in our cosy nation! This goes on in all member states and it’s surprising that there is any community left at all in the face of so many nationally-implemented special regulations and exceptions, and given the fact that it is frequently impossible to jointly solve urgent common problems. The problem of European policy today is that it appears almost entirely as mere nationalist mimicry, against which the national populist parties are not in opposition, but are simply the mouthpieces. I could spend a lot of time listing the examples, but you know them!
And I’ve only got four minutes left.
So I’ll get to the point. It is clear here that the crisis of the European Project is the product of political schizophrenia, which, because it was initially not otherwise conceivable, was unfortunately anchored in institutions. To initiate and pursue post-national development, nations first had to join the Community. In order to be democratically legitimised, this was something only national governments could do. They created a supranational institution within the Community in which the political representatives of the nations meet: the European Council. Joining it meant giving up national sovereignty, but national governments now regard it as their task to defend their national sovereignty within the European Council. The European Council can therefore now only obstruct what, according to the EU’s founding idea, it should promote – the abolition of nationalism. As long as it continues to be national heads of states and governments and national ministers who make European policy decisions, but who derive their legitimacy only from national elections, as long as nationalism in Europe remains a form of ‘life insurance’ for the political elite, the defence of national interests in the supranational institution of the European Council will result in the quashing of the EU’s founding idea and in a permanent blockade of post-national processes.
One quick example, in just one minute, because you know it ad nauseum: the so-called financial and Euro crisis caused by the Greek balance of trade and budget deficit. For those who wish to see it, it is blatantly obvious here that this crisis is in truth a historic crisis of transformation. The Europe of nations can no longer solve this crisis, a post-national Europe cannot yet solve this crisis. Conversely, this crisis emerged precisely and has grown so dramatically out of this contradiction: out of the contradiction between post-national development, which has already led to extensive mutual dependencies between member states, and political decision-makers, who can only retain their legitimacy by constantly taking national interests and sensitivities into account. If you view the problem from a national perspective, it is huge. If you view the problem from a European perspective, it disappears. The Greek deficit is about two percent of European gross domestic product. Can it be that Europe can’t cope with that? California would be thrilled to have such a low debt level. Around ninety percent of Greece’s foreign trade deficit is a trade deficit in respect of Europe’s domestic market. Let’s look at the world’s export champions, Germany; around eighty percent of its exports go into the European domestic market. From a European perspective we have here a relatively even balance. What about the real balance of foreign trade, namely Europe‘s balance of foreign trade? It’s very good, it‘s positive. So where‘s the problem?
“The Greeks” pay no taxes, have no moral standards when it comes to taxes? The heads of state and government of those same nations whose taxpayers are now hurling abuse at Greece have largely contributed to the current state of affairs. Nobody prevented the EU from linking the introduction of a common currency with a common economic, financial and fiscal policy and from developing instruments to implement and control it. Nobody? Well, actually, the European Council managed to prevent it. There were national heads of governments who didn’t want it. They did not accept joint fiscal policy framework conditions in Europe because they hoped to gain national advantages in European domestic competition from pursuing their own agendas. And now, faced with the shambles they have created, they are garnering voters precisely where the cause of the crisis, and not its solution, lies: in their alleged national interests!
You may ask what objection there can be to defending national interests. One short sentence: There can be, and we don’t need our historical experience of the effects of nationalism to show us that, in fundamental questions of humanity, there can be no meaningful ‘national interests’, just as there can be no nationally-specific features or rights with respect to human rights.
The question could be raised as to whether a post-national continent that always clearly presents itself as a ‘mere’ economic community can give its people, with their various aspirations, demands, hopes and ideas, which are all somehow culturally rooted, a home and an identity? Isn’t post-national Europe just a Europe of capital that has slipped its national chains, not a Europe of people and their cultures? By the way, ‘das Kapital’ is a book well worth re-reading. So, one minute to answer this question.
The European Union was never just an economic community. From the outset, it was based on a social and societally meaningful idea; that of pacifying the continent after its traumatic experiences of nationalism and war, and of guaranteeing freedom, the rule of law, and prosperity. It was about common framework conditions, within which none of the populations, with their various cultures and mentalities, could assert greater advantages for themselves over the others without damaging themselves. This was designed to compel solidarity and secure it in the long term. That was and still is an idea that is not derived in the first instance from the logic of capital and commercial interests. But the European Union was also never just an airy utopian project. From its inception it was grounded in economic reality. That is its rational argument. Left-wingers have known since Marx that the economy is the basis, and right-wingers, strictly anti-Marxist, say the same – ”It’s the economy, stupid!” If only there were such consensus on all issues! The EU’s problem is not that it is basically an economic project – there is no other basis, and there is no other economy than that which people determine for themselves, and productive forces will ensure that a great many things on which there seems to still be consensus will change. No, the problem is rather that the idea underlying this economic community, which should be the community’s vision of the future, its goal and future self-image, is being forgotten and supplanted by nationalism. This process is even being furthered by the European Union’s own structures, namely by the European Council, this blockade between the European Commission and European Parliament.
I’m running out of time. There is still so much to be said. I only have two minutes to present a proposal for breaking up this aporia, which is designed to institutionally advance the European Union’s post-national development but at the same time, whether you like it or not, produces nationalisms that only further endanger the project.
I’ve got no chance in my remaining time, but I‘ll present you with my proposal, necessarily briefly, without being able to defend it in detail. You’ll reject it as absurd, feeling comfortable as pragmatists and realists, but I’ll at least be able to say that I’ve presented it. So we will both be served, you today, me tomorrow!
The problem is clearly the model of national democracy. One day, hopefully soon, there will have to be a new Jean Monnet who has the audacity and consistency to carry out and implement this utopia: its abolition! Democracy as we know it and have practised it, for better or for worse, and which we, at least here in Germany, and in Austria, have never won, but have had given to us, this democracy is a 19th century model for organising nation states. Even if it seems unimaginable today, we will have to finally overcome the 19th century in the 21st century or we will politically revert to the 19th century, although at the level of 21st century productive forces, and that would constitute a danger to all!
A supranational Europe cannot be permanently based on national democracies. We must reinvent democracy, we must develop a supranational democracy. We don’t think it’s necessary because we have ‘our democracy’ and have not learnt, as the founding fathers of Europe had, to think in terms of transformational epochs or even beyond epochs.
One minute more! I’ve got good news for you! The solution is in fact already codified in the European Constitutional Treaty, in the formulation ”a Europe of regions”. The regions are this continent’s wealth; its nations are historically exhausted fantasies of identity and a threat that must be dealt with.
Europe needs a truly European, not nationally fuelled government and a competent administration, the Commission, and Europe needs a Parliament, the electoral procedures and competencies of which must be discussed anew if it is to become a truly European, democratically legitimised legislative body, which also elects commissioners. But what must be abolished as soon as possible is the European Council, that fortress of nationalism in the internal structure of a post-national Europe. Utopian? I would like to remind you that this project was a concrete utopia from the outset. If this utopia is brought to ruin, reality will also soon lie in ruins and you will then stand before the ruins smoking under your gaze struggling with the historical resolution of the dismayed – ”This should never be allowed to happen again!” By then it will only provoke infernal laughter.
The European Project, a project for peace and prosperity in growing democracy, can only be consistently pursued by politically revaluating the regions and suppressing national representation, and in the longer term by abolishing the European Council, this agent of nationalism in the Union. The nations have already largely yielded their sovereign rights to the Union, the nations will die out. What will be the point of the institution of the European Council in the Union’s structures in this post-national development? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to immediately initiate something that must eventually logically occur?
You must decide. Do you want to stand for a democratic Europe of freely associated regions with common framework conditions that guarantee legal certainty, freedom and social balance, or do you want to just preach ‘EuropeEuropeEurope’ and seek your own personal salvation in national politics? Do you really feel big and strong and comfortable with a sense of self that owes its existence to the unthinking nonsense drummed up in the national media and by national politicians, telling you that you’re so hard-working but that ”the Greeks” are ”lazy and corrupt”? Aren‘t you alarmed at how quickly and easily such dangerous nationalistic stereotypes have returned to Germany, stereotypes which can easily be followed up with acts, acts for which Germany has already been punished once and hopefully enough? What do you want? You’ll soon have to decide!
So ten minutes is up. Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.
Your countdown has started, ladies and gentlemen!