Why are debates about the European Union usually so dull? I for one can’t help feeling mildly bored as soon as the cosy idea of unifying different peoples and states comes up. Now, Brits are of course no strangers to such sentiments, but I as a German was raised on the idea that Europe is progressive and that nation states (or at least the one I was born in) were either dangerous or a thing of the past. What changed? Has my enlightened conscience been corrupted by a British sceptic? Why did I suddenly feel an anarchic longing to get away from “unity” — not only the overused phrase, but also the idea itself?
After the elections for the European Parliament earlier this summer, Europe found itself faced with the question of who, in the end, was responsible for choosing the next head of the Commission — the voters or the governments of the member states? After weeks of sluggish wrangling which did little to nurture trust, two deeper issues emerged that strain the very philosophy the EU is built upon: how seriously Europe is about its promise to become more democratic, and whether Britain can remain a member of the Union.
Even the most level-headed German commentators have over the past weeks grown increasingly irritated, if not hostile, towards the current British stance. Many blame the Brits for the wider lack of trust in the EU, which was all too evident in the May elections. Brussels resents a London that is thwarting European unity, while London in turn resents Brussels. It has been noted in Berlin that UKIP is now the strongest British party in the newly-elected parliament. One German editorial put it rather sternly: “The EU cannot allow itself to be blackmailed by the British for another three years and refuse to give the people of Europe [sic] what was assured to them before the election, that they could use their vote to determine the next president of the European Commission.”
Maybe, however, the British stance is not born out of an insular stubbornness — it may, on the contrary, re-invigorate the European idea itself. This thought came to me while listening to an Anglo-German debate on the future of the EU which for once was not dull. It was held in June at the Berlin Academy of Arts and Sciences, rather appropriately situated on the Gendarmenmarkt, one of the capital’s most elegant squares, flanked by two domed churches, with a statue of Schiller in the middle.
Germans do love their academic societies, and this gathering was particularly illustrious, with many elderly academicians in attendance. But those who had expected a reassuring debate between two public intellectuals defending the grand idea of Europe were in for a surprise. What they got instead was a reversal of roles: Professor Karl Heinz Bohrer, a German (albeit with strong French and English connections) gave his best impression of the disgruntled English eccentric criticising the very idea of European unity; while Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, speaking in flawless German, played the Central European intellectual, warning about a possible break-up of the EU.
Bohrer distinguished between two contrasting mindsets: the “man of difference” and the “man of identity”, roughly corresponding to the British and the Continental attitudes. He added that the romantic love for Europe that had once been a grand tradition in intellectual life had now become hackneyed.
Garton Ash countered that whenever someone calls himself a European he more often than not is German. As a sign of the success of the idea of common ground, he later held up a flyer in which Polish voters living in Scotland were asked — in Polish — to vote for Scottish independence from Britain. To end the evening, Garton Ash recited in Polish a poem by Adam Michnik, the message of which was that we only know and value what we have had when it’s too late. Bohrer responded that a poem can never be just an idea — implying that Europe, a once-great idea, now lacks poetry.
The German audience loved every bit of this role reversal. Germany is in a good position to observe: we have a strong economy, and our chancellor more or less openly (and usually efficiently) calls the shots in the EU. But what will happen when this moment passes and Germans can no longer be “men of identity”?
Consider our two capitals. Berlin represents roughly 4 per cent of German GDP, London is 24 per cent of the UK’s. Both cities are rapidly expanding, though London is doing so much faster than Berlin. I for one can’t imagine a Union without London — it may never be the official capital of the EU, but it is a model for the kind of transformation the Union will have to undertake over the next decades. In that sense, it would be suicidal to think of the European idea without British eccentricities.