Europe Is Waiting

Ripped poster from the German election campaign
Moving On: Remains of a campaign poster for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on a Berlin street the day after the country's hotly contested general elections (Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP).

The elections are over, and governing has begun in Berlin. It is now time to talk sensibly, and with new ideas, about the condition of the Old Continent. Perhaps Europe will return to our politicians’ consciousness as a space of shared experiences and ambitious plans for the future; they have neglected relations with our closest neighbors over the last few weeks.

A look back at Gerhard Schröder’s first four years as chancellor reveals substantial damage to European relations. Under Helmut Kohl, Europe learned to trust a German neighbor that, after unification, assumed a powerful political role. But Schröder’s egocentrism and penchant for unilateral initiatives have irritated many. Germany’s neighbors have now begun to doubt the country’s loyalty to the European alliance.

Along with repairing the disturbed relations with America, repairing German-French relations must be a priority. This relationship remains the heart of European integration. That this heart has suffered a lot, and now beats weakly, is not just Schröder’s fault; President Jacques Chirac, who has sought to increase France’s weight by making grand gestures in European politics, also has contributed his share to its worsening. But despite the disagreements, especially those about reforming European Union (E.U.) agricultural policies, Chirac offered his hand to Schröder after the election. The chancellor should grasp it at once, and firm up relations before the [40th anniversary] Jubilee of the Elysée Treaty [formalizing France and Germany’s postwar relationship] in January 2003.

Paris is not alone in waiting for new initiatives from Berlin. The E.U., too, demands from Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer an express recognition of increased partnership. The twin challenges of expanding the Union and reforming it stand before the 15 members like a sheer mountainside: Only hand in hand with France and the other original members can Germany reach the top. The admissions negotiations with 10 of the 12 applicant nations should be finished in December, and before that clarity must be achieved about future financing, especially for agricultural policy. Without compromises between the widely divergent positions of Germany and France, this will not work.

The same is true for the European Convention [which aims to produce a new constitutional framework for the E.U. and will run through June 2003]. In the next few weeks, the first drafts of an eventual constitutional treaty should be discussed.

The convention is also the place for laying the groundwork for joint foreign and security policies; up until now, the union’s largest member nations have preferred to rely upon their own power in these areas. The E.U. foreign-policy attaché, Javier Solana, has been traveling inconspicuously around the world, trying to hold together the fragments of a European foreign policy, despite the fact that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq crisis have showed the Brussels collective’s resistance to creating such a joint policy. Before the role of the attaché becomes that of a ghost, this job needs to be completely rethought.

The heads of state must endow their man in Brussels with more authority. All other institutional changes will be in vain so long as the E.U. member nations are unwilling to sacrifice some sovereignty.

Only when the limits of national sovereignty become obvious to everyone, and people see the necessity of common action, will Europe finally grow together politically. It may be that the United States is the last remaining country that is master of its own house and can, in an emergency, resolve a crisis like that in Iraq on its own. The Europeans are not in such a position; they are only strong collectively.

Other tasks awaiting Schröder and Fischer include the much-complained-about European Commission. The chancellor’s efforts at reconciliation with commission President Romano Prodi and his staff have not gotten far. In important questions about financial, industrial, and competition policy—for example, on Brussels’ plans to make takeovers easier, or on stricter controls on state subsidies—Schröder and Prodi are still far apart. Schröder’s complaint that the commission has taken too little account of the German economy has also not been dealt with.

There cannot be special conditions for Germany. But since Fischer has emerged from the elections stronger, he should use this opportunity to make European policy clearer. In so doing, Berlin will be able to put itself on the right road.