Though the European Union remains an exceptional model for how countries can form an economic union and cooperate together peacefully, the EU is facing internal challenges to its democratic institutions. Europe stands at a crossroads this year, as voters prepare to elect new governments in both France and Germany. On this occasion the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s Transatlantic Dialogue Program hosted a discussion with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, Vice President of the European Parliament in Washington, DC on the implications of the upcoming elections in France and Germany and the political situation in the European Union.
The return of three “ghosts”
The European Union stands out in the world as a region that has successfully maintained a market economy, social cohesion, and the rule of law over decades. On the periphery, however, the region is changing dramatically. Russia has attempted to change the international order with the illegal annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in this war. Along with this conflict, an alternative social vision has begun to gain credibility in Europe that stands in opposition to the original goal of building an open, tolerant society. The problem of anti-democratic views and policies can be understood as the return of three “ghosts” of past problems that haunt Europe today: nationalism, authoritarianism, and protectionism. These views cannot simply be attributed to the right or the left wing, but occupy both ends of the political spectrum. All three “ghosts” of past problems comprise the populist agenda that is spreading across Europe.
Nationalism has returned in unilateral actions, such as closing borders and portraying a country as being a victim of others. Authoritarianism has returned in the need for a strong individual executive to do away with inefficiencies and eliminate checks and balances on executive power, including the freedom of the press – as has been seen in Hungary with the suppression of news sources that oppose the ruling party’s agenda. Finally, protectionism has returned, the claim that free trade and open borders are inherently harmful to broader public interests.
MEP Lambsdorff confident that voters will confront ghosts
Although this agenda has persuaded some in Europe, Lambsdorff remains confident that voters will confront these ghosts of past problems in this year’s upcoming elections in France and Germany and choose to focus on cooperating together in the future.
This opposition between visions of governance and how Europe should look in the future is evident in the current campaigns in France. The traditional fault line between the Republican and Socialist parties no longer applies. Now, a political viewpoint of open borders, societies, and markets stands in opposition to a populist vision that chooses to be closed off to these opportunities and retreat into a national framework. Emmanuel Macron, the candidate for the liberal movement En Marche, wants to pursue reforms to make France more economically competitive. With his views on integrating migrant populations, he is closer to German liberals and there is the potential for further cooperation with them.
The perspective on the political situation is different inside Germany versus outside. Outside of Germany, Chancellor Merkel is seen as a force for stability for the European Union. Inside Germany, she is seen as having been chancellor for too long. There is an interest in new candidates now, such as Martin Schultz, who is contributing to the SPD’s overall success in polls. One of the most discussed issues in the federal election campaigns in Germany is the question of how Germany can adapt its education system to fundamental transformations, such as digitalization and globalization.
A more stable and innovative EU
With Europe at a crossroads, France and Germany must work together and take the initiative to reform the European Union. With new governments in Paris and Berlin in the autumn and no elections for the next few years, policymakers are now free to be daring and imaginative. They can integrate markets further and pursue initiatives at different paces, taking the particular situation in the different member states into account. For example, the viewpoints on rules and how strictly they are to be followed differs in different regions. Lambsdorff emphasized that the newly elected governments must not allow the countries that want to block reforms determine the overall pace of innovation.
The political philosophy of liberalism provides a framework for policymakers to develop reforms together and not allow the “ghosts” of nationalism, authoritarianism, and protectionism to impede the development of a more stable, innovative, and peaceful European Union. When asked by the audience exactly how the newly elected policymakers in France and Germany can pursue more imaginative and innovative projects together, Lambsdorff replied that it will take sheer political will. This will not be an easy undertaking, but the ideals of liberalism and open societies can guide them.
Anne-Marie Simon, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Dialogue Program, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom