European Elections Special

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Populism, globalization, nationalism: Europe is under attack and must defend itself on various battle lines. Time to counter-attack.

We all know that the EU wasn’t naturally conceived. It originated not from the dialogue of Europe’s peoples but in the back-rooms of Brussels. Yet our culture and our economy need a transnational union to survive in a global market environment. A commitment to, and the continued development of, the European Union is essential despite the union’s current inertia. Its evident birth defects – an excessive bureaucracy, a limited number of beneficiaries, the inability to confront a trans-national fiscal and financial crisis – must not dissuade us from contemplating the United States of Europe. Three tasks seem especially vital to me, and I am convinced that they can be accomplished on the basis of existing continental treaties:

Sustainable Energy

A truly profound Energiewende – that is, the attempt to revolutionize the energy sector, pioneered in Germany – cannot be accomplished within national borders. But a European energy transition agenda could offer solutions to many of our contemporary problems. Only on a European scale can the additional costs and infrastructural investment for renewable energies be shouldered. An integrated European energy market would also help to stabilize energy prices and thus push populist arguments against renewables (which often cater to fears about spiraling energy costs) into the background. Projects like the northern offshore interconnector give me hope: Starting in 2018, a Danish and a German wind-farm will be linked up and will produce a total power output of nearly 900 megawatts. Additional connections to wind-farms in Poland and the Czech Republic are already on the drawing board.

The Fight Against Populism

The rising acceptance and popularity of right-wing populist arguments leads to the dangerous radicalization of the bourgeois center. Every single European country (and the United States as well) is experiencing the trend towards re-nationalization, driven by discontent over globalization, the euro currency, and the European project. But the skeptics aren’t only found on the right of the political spectrum: Left-wing parties like the German Linkspartei are increasingly relying on Euroskeptic arguments as well. Bernd Lucke, Sahra Wagenknecht and Oscar Lafontaine in Germany, Nigel Farage in Great Britain, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Le Pen family in France – they all cater to xenophobic fears, fuel anti-parliamentarian skepticism, and agitate against existing institutional structures. Their parochial proclamations are characterized by an illusionary neo-nationalism and by the ill-fated promise to shrink politics back to the national stage. Only a re-politicized EU can advocate against these forces. It can convincingly demonstrate that “prosperity through growth” is only possible through the development of transnational networks, and it can guard us against narrow-minded and chauvinistic populism. The task ahead is to work diligently towards a European bourgeois culture, which will remain illusionary as long as structural inequalities divide the people of Europe along national borders.

Digital Futures

At the moment, inequalities are perpetuated rather than eradicated. People within the European Union and within individual states experience rising levels of inequality that have led the American economist Tyler Cowen to display a “surprising amount of fatalism”. Cowen argues that future increases in inequality are inevitable. According to his argument, the best we can hope for is the early detection of social tensions and the foresightful institution of welfare policies that provide a cushion against worst excesses. This goes against basic European values. True: The unchecked neoliberalism of the 1990s and 2000s has undermined upward social mobility in Great Britain, France and Germany. Today’s youth can no longer hope to surpass their parents’ generation through good education and personal responsibility. But a sustainable European policy must break with the neoliberal acceptance of inequality and focus on its reduction. Online education is likely to become a crucial issue for the foreseeable future.

We need a new approach to civic engagement, and Europe has a vital role to play. Terms like “multiculturalism” and “globalization” will have to be discarded – their meaning has become tainted by the experiences of the past. The fate of the EU lies in the quest for a new way into the future: It must accept and affirm regional identities without abandoning the ideal of a European public sphere. We cannot escape globalization – but Europe can help to lift our global future onto the next stage.

Translation from German.

Read more in this debate: Anni Podimata, Horst Opaschowski.

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