This week, I will leave Carnegie Europe after five and a half years of tireless agitating for a more strategic Europe. On a personal level, these were very successful years. Institutionally, too, I believe, Carnegie Europe has had a pretty good run since 2011, thanks entirely to its amazing team of scholars and operators. But have these years also been successful for Strategic Europe, our vision for a more united, more forceful, more relevant EU in international affairs?
The answer can only be no. Europe, by all measures, is a less strategic player than it was half a decade ago. Even worse, the malaise far exceeds the field of foreign policy. Catastrophic pessimism has permeated all aspects of the integration project. External and internal pressures, from Russia to refugees, from Brexit to Orbánism, are wearing out the resolve and the resilience of the grandest project in political cooperation ever conceived.
But in reality, the malaise goes even deeper than this. It’s not just a political project that people are starting to feel queasy about. It’s the entire political class, the entire economic system, and the entire worthiness of Western liberal democracy that are being questioned. While Europeans were all busy trying to do the right thing, the EU has entered the pre-reformation phase of its existence.
Reformation in Europe has long-lasting and tumultuous associations. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church in 1517, he did not really invent reformation. He only delivered the spark to an already unbearably explosive situation that had built up for many decades. In the eyes of many, the Catholic Church had turned into a system that served primarily itself instead of the people. Many of the Holy Roman Empire’s smaller entities were just waiting for the moment when they could cash in at the expense of the weak and often tone-deaf emperor and the bigger powers that kept him and the loosely arranged system in place. The Renaissance and antiquity-inspired humanism had created an early modernity that was increasingly at odds with the religious and political dogmas of the day.
When Luther published his j’accuse in a provincial backwater faraway from Rome, the time was ripe for what he wanted to say. It triggered one of humankind’s most impactful movements of change. It gave birth not only to modern individualism but also to the division of Christianity and to bloody religious wars (which, in reality, were only too political in nature).
Europe has a similar storm brewing. Historical parallels have their limitations, of course, but some of the similarities between 1516 (the year before Luther’s Theses) and 2016 are striking.
Trust in elites is at an all-time low. The system, in both its economic and its political emanations, is seen as mostly self-serving and oblivious to real people’s worries and needs. The enemies of the fragile established order can’t wait to rip it apart and gobble it up. Globalization and an unparalleled technological revolution have shattered people’s faith in the existing order and created both unbound progressivism and reactionary conservatism, with much of the more reasonable middle being crushed in between.
Everything still more or less holds, but nobody is enthusiastic about that stability. A pile of tinder waiting for a torch.
If reformation comes to Europe, it will be about the same things that most revolutions are about: accountability, justice, participation, secure livelihoods, a fairer deal.
What would such a reformation mean in concrete terms for today’s EU? What needs to happen for Europe to benefit from a reformation’s sunny side while avoiding its horrible pitfalls?
As always, the EU’s answers will be profoundly unsexy. An orderly EU reformation will likely start in the eurozone. Just like Luther’s Reformation, it will turn a divide into a schism: the great divide between countries inside and outside the euro area will become a full-fledged schism between advocates and rejecters of political integration. Those inside believe the euro is too important to implode and will therefore agree to some sort of fiscal union, which essentially means political union. Those outside still want to benefit from the EU’s general framework but will unite around the idea that political union is one step too far.
Political union will create an earthquake, as integrated fiscal policies will require a new form of democratic mandate from all those citizens affected by them. National parliaments will not suffice to create such a mandate—at least, not for long. Some sort of eurozone democracy will have to be created. Just as Luther’s idea of each believer’s personal relationship to God became the precursor of modern individualism, so the necessity to bring voters in to create eurozone democracy will lead to the empowerment of eurozone citizens.
This will still be a far cry from the European republic that some dream about, but it will be historic nevertheless.
The growing pains of eurozone democracy will be great. In parallel to establishing itself, it will have to define its relationship to the rest of the former EU that also wants peace and prosperity but is only willing to pay a lower price than the others in terms of sovereignty. More importantly, to gain legitimacy, the new system will have to offer answers to questions of justice and fairness. The equivalent of religious upheaval—the splintering of economic and political faiths—is likely to follow.
But this kind of upheaval is unavoidable, no matter whether Europeans embrace or reject change. The only question now is whether it will unfold amid ideas of some sort of layered unity or ideas of dissolution and downfall.
After five and a half years in Brussels, I see no other issue than the common currency that can spark an orderly great new European reformation. Pressure from refugees will not do the trick. Russian threats or U.S. disinterest won’t do it either. Europe’s nations have ignored economic reform pressure for decades. The hope is that a currency-lead reformation will lead to reformation spillover into all the other policy fields that need fresh ideas and energy too. As it stands, this is a hope, not more.
From September on, I will work from Berlin to do my bit for Europe’s coming reformation and its spillover into foreign policy. My great, humble thanks to all of you who have made these Brussels years so very special for me.