Can there be peace in Europe?

Wolfgang Streeck in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 12 January 2016

Łukasz Pawłowski: Has Chancellor Merkel made a mistake when she opened the door for migrants without first consulting it with other European countries? Can this decision cost her the role of the European leader?

Wolfgang Streeck: Like all other European leaders Merkel thinks first and foremost about her own domestic politics. Most of the migrants that had become stuck in the central station of Budapest wanted to go to Germany. The German public had been outraged about the French and the British leaving thousands of migrants stranded in Calais, at the entrance of the Channel tunnel. After Merkel had invited the Budapest migrants to Germany, perhaps also to clear the way for a coalition with the Greens in two years, it turned out there were millions more that wanted to come. At this point the German government began to look for a “European solution”. No European government consults with other European governments when it sees its own vital political interests at stake.

How do you assess the idea of creating a “mini-Schengen area”? Some say it’s impossible on the European treaty basis, but by introducing temporary border controls and extending it to two years it may de facto be introduced.

Schengen is a separate treaty outside the European Union treaties, so technically it should be possible for European Union member countries to leave Schengen. The British have never joined Schengen in the first place. But Merkel is afraid that a return to border controls by other countries would undermine German control over the European Union as a whole. It might also alienate German voters, who confuse “Europe” with their right to cross into neighboring countries without having to stop at the border. But without some redistribution of immigrants among European countries – and I cannot see how this could happen – the Germans themselves will eventually have to return to border controls. There are newspaper reports to the effect that the German Federal Police is already working on a new, much more restrictive border regime.

Do you think that blaming Schengen for the migrant crisis and the terrorist threat is justifiable?

No. The blame is above all on those countries, foremost the United States, but also Britain and France, which have for the most bizarre reasons sent their military to destroy the state structures of the Middle East. Note that none of them are willing to take any of the refugees that are leaving their homes because they see no future there.

What can bring the European countries back together at a time when separatist tendencies seem to be so abundant – Britain, France, Hungary, Slovakia, and recently Poland?

We need an open discussion of what is called the “finality” of European integration. Are we heading towards a super-state? What role is the Euro to play? Can the Euro be reformed so Mediterranean countries get some breathing space? How to protect democracy at the national level from being preempted at the European level? Etc. etc. The underlying theme of all these questions is the relationship between nations and nation-states on the one hand and the European institutions on the other. In this debate the Germans must finally begin to understand that they are the only ones in Europe that are looking forward to sacrificing their national identity on the altar of European unity.

The irony is that in fact this is a program for German hegemony, for a German Europe. The more Germany presses the other countries to fall in line with its anti-national national obsession, the more votes parties like the Front National, the True Fins, UKIP and son on will get. The European integration project urgently needs to be reconstructed from the bottom up, taking into account the crucial importance of nations and nation-states as the principal sites of democratic self-government.

Some pundits claim that Euro-enthusiasts have wrongly tried to marginalize nation states hoping to create United States of Europe and this is the cause of the current crisis. Others maintain that it is precisely the nation states with their particular interests that block the process of integration. What is your opinion?

See above. Nations are communities of understanding, of shared deep-seated convictions as to what is “natural”, “reasonable”, “ethical”, “self-evident” and the like. In Europe this includes people’s views of what “Europe” is and what it is good for and what it should and should not be. Each country sees this differently. If this is not recognized there can be no peace in Europe, and I mean this very seriously. We will have to learn to live with diverse views, not least on Europe as a political project, and to respect each other.

Some western media – CNN, The Economist, Washington Post, Die Zeit – have heavily criticized Poland after the change of government. Do you think that criticism is justifiable?

I am concerned about this tendency to moralize publicly about other countries, their voters and their governments. Most people do not know nearly enough to have a considered view about these things. I can understand a Polish government that worries about German dominance in Europe. On the other hand, when joining the Union countries have committed themselves to certain fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law. I think it should be possible to remind one another of those commitments. But I find the moralizing and hostile language some politicians sometimes use quite distasteful.

It is commonly said that the migrant crisis has yet again revealed stark differences between Eastern and Western Europe. Do you believe this to be true, or are those differences more imagined than real? In Western Europe the attitude towards migrants is also getting more and more hostile.

Indeed, look at France, Britain, the Netherlands, even Sweden. The bashing of Hungary and Poland serves to divert attention from the growing resistance to some government’s policy of unlimited and uncontrolled immigration. It is also politically calculated to make Western European voters tolerate their governments’ open border policies, by offering them a sense of moral superiority as reward.