A Different Approach

Times Have Changed, Will Europeans?

euro map
Six years after the financial crisis broke out, Europe has become a continent of complainers.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe is at a turning point over how it envisions its future and Europeans should be asked about whether they want to stick together and make the necessary sacrifices or drift apart.

  • Facts


    • Southern European countries have been reluctant to cut costs and institute reforms, while those in the north feel they are doing too much for the south.
    • European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has done what he can for southern Europe by offering them cheap money, but the region, instead of reforming, blames Germany for its economic troubles.
    • A united Europe is infinitely stronger than individual countries, but this requires nations to be willing to sacrifice for the community as a whole.
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Europe needs an act of liberation. Year after year, the countries haggle over who should bear the burdens of the euro crisis – who should cut costs and institute reforms, and who should provide the assistance and funding. Only its citizens can liberate Europe from this spiral of divisiveness and mistrust, and the way to achieve this is to put an agenda of reform and solidarity to a referendum.

Six years after the demise of Lehman Brothers and four years after the eruption of the sovereign debt crisis, the European economy remains weak. Based on trade figures alone, the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East should hardly be capable of inflicting damage on Europeans. And yet all it takes is a little bad news to stop growth and revive fears of recession and deflation.

Europe is a pathetic sight, compared with the economies of the United States and China. The north believes it has done everything for the south, and yet France, Italy and other southern countries still refuse to institute tough reforms. Those in the south, on the other hand, feel they are living in a Europe controlled by the Germans, one that demands nothing but sacrifices.

The German chancellor and the head of the European Central Bank have long tried to take a joint approach to saving Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that the crisis-ridden countries cut costs and reform. ECB President Mario Draghi is buying them time by offering cheap money. But now both leaders are reaching their limits.

Interest rates are almost at zero, and now Mr. Draghi wants to spend hundreds of billions of euros to buy debt securities from the banks. He is taking a great risk, because taxpayers will end up being liable if he is unable to sell the securities at full price in the future – or, worse yet, if the money bubble bursts and a new euro crisis erupts.

At the same time, Ms. Merkel’s appeals are producing more anger than effort in the Mediterranean. The Germans, who are weary of reform, should do something for the economy, say her detractors. The give and take that was once Europe’s recipe for success has now turned into punching and and stabbing.

Taking baby steps was the right approach when the crisis erupted, but it isn't a solution.

After six years of rescue efforts, there is a growing risk that, in the end, no one will actually know what exactly we are rescuing. In his new book Peter Thiel, a native German and a Silicon Valley investor, describes Europe’s self-image as blurred and pessimistic. In other words, the leadership expects a bleak future and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. As it muddles along on its path to the bottom, it is ensuring that its expectations will come to fruition.

Taking baby steps was the right approach when the crisis erupted, but it isn’t a solution. The euro is currently the source of discord, but in the long run it will only endure as the basis of new commonalities. The European currency demands a shared understanding of competitiveness and innovation.

So Europe needs justified optimism once again. In fact, there is only one goal for those who want to keep the euro: An all-of-the-above Europe, one of economic strength and solidarity, in which the south reforms itself and the north guarantees the funding, and knowing full well that these roles could be distributed differently in the future.

This vision of Europe requires a constant give and take, one that visibly benefits countries and in which they can learn to trust each other again. Six years after Lehman, however, it doesn’t seem that national governments have the strength to do so, which is why it’s time to pose this question directly to citizens: Should Europe grow more closely together, in conjunction with more shared reform and fiscal policy – or not?

This vision of Europe requires a constant give and take, one that visibly benefits countries and in which they can learn to trust each other again.

Although the process would still have to be described in detail, even more important than a future referendum is what it would trigger right away: Europe would finally reopen the debate over what it wants to be and what it can be.

Given the level of anger among citizens from Berlin to Biarritz, it’s only natural to feel anxious about what happens if the answer is ultimately no. In that case, the obvious consequence is that the euro will break apart. But why should that happen? Do we think our citizens are that stupid?

Part of the reason citizens are so angry is that Europe’s obsession with details creates the impression that whoever backs down first in the struggle over thrift and solidarity has lost. They have to realize, once again, that there is value in cooperation among nations, and that there is a path in which everyone makes sacrifices and, in return, everyone comes away with new economic strength and security.

But can Europe even afford such a gamble, as it is forced to assert itself in new conflicts with Russia, radical Islam and data spies from around the world?

In fact, this makes the risk all the more worthwhile. An economically weak and divided Europe cannot ultimately prevail in these conflicts. Without inner strength and concrete goals, Europe will hardly be able to prove itself to the rest of the world – yet another reason to choose the courageous approach.

Decades ago, former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard recognized that a great leap is sometimes easier than taking many small steps. The countries of the euro zone are just approaching a decision between the two options.

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author: uwe.heuser@zeit.de

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