European Revival

A Sleeping Beauty Awakes

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    In the face of rising nationalism and populism across the continent, strong voices are emerging from grassroots organizations and politics alike, all in support of the European Union.

  • Facts


    • The treaties that created the European Union were signed 60 years ago on March 25, 1957.
    • As more nationalistic rhetoric emerges after events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, new movements are bringing people together in support of the European Union.
    • A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that 70 percent of all E.U. citizens would decide in favor of their country remaining a member of the institution if they were to vote on it.
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Pro European demo dpa 78939277
Demonstraters gathered in Goetheplatz in Frankfurt in Main at a rally organized by the Pulse of Europe.

The happiest people live in? Europe. The cities most worth living in are in? Europe. The best health care is in? Europe. The most publicly listed companies and the most Olympic champions come from? Yes, you guessed it: Europe. Only one thing has been missing in Europe recently: Self-confidence.

Tired, old, worn out – that was the image many Europeans had of their continent. Tired, old, worn out was how most speeches about the E.U. sounded. But since Donald Trump began governing on the other side of the Atlantic and putting to question what the United States stands for – from free trade to the rule of law – something has changed in Europe as well. With nationalists and populists on this Atlantic coast threatening intrinsic European values, the counter-forces have been growing.

It can be felt in Berlin, Vienna or Lisbon, where each weekend, thousands take to the streets to celebrate Europe.

It can be heard in the speeches of European politicians, whose tone toward the E.U. has suddenly changed.

It can be seen in the economic upturn that is currently happening on the continent.

Right after having been written off, Europe is suddenly an option once again. Not as a blast from the past, but a promise for the future; an alternative to the USA and to the authoritarian rulers closer to home,from Moscow to Ankara. The existential necessity of the E.U. must no longer be explained and, all at once, it has become intuitively obvious. It is like a reestablishment of Europe.

The six founding nations of the E.U. gave up part of their sovereignty for the first time and of their own free will.

It is as it was 60 years ago, when six European countries came together in Rome. Renée Haferkamp was involved in the preparations – the Belgian worked as an interpreter and witnessed the event. While the gray-haired woman sits at the dining table of her home in Brussels and gazes into the garden where the first trees have pink blossoms, she recalls the men who invented the E.U. and long ago entered into history: Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak, Frenchman Jean Monnet, German Walter Hallstein, who then became the first president of the commission. “They were great Europeans,” says Ms. Haferkamp, referencing their shared attitude toward a firm conviction that together more progress is possible than alone.

It was raining in Rome when the treaties were signed on the evening of March 25, 1957. The spectators waiting for the politicians on the Capitoline Hill were hidden under large black umbrellas. As 6:00 p.m. approached, the first politicians arrived and hurried up the steps into the magnificent Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii. Photographers were already waiting to capture the crucial moment as earnest-faced men in dark suits would reach for thick fountain pens to sign the birth certificate of the European Union. The fact that the six founding nations of the E.U. gave up part of their sovereignty for the first time and of their own free will – that they established an economic community, an atomic association, the predecessor of the European Parliament and a court of justice – was based on the shared conviction that excessive nationalism ends in disaster. But what was crucial was the enthusiasm of a handful of realistic idealists. “They believed in it,” remembers Ms. Haferkamp. “They really believed they could create a United States of Europe.”

But when do people lose their faith in an idea? Ms. Haferkamp answers hesitantly: “That happens over time. I had my first doubts when, at the beginning of the 1960s, I accompanied the Commission president Walter Hallstein and Paul-Henri Spaak, who at that time, was Belgian foreign minister to Athens, where an association agreement was to be signed.” As the commission didn’t have its own airplane, as it still doesn’t today, it used the Belgian state aircraft. Ms. Haferkamp tells how the plane landed, the red carpet was rolled out and Walter Hallstein wanted to step out first – the agenda was Europe and Athens. “But then Spaak thrust out his elbows and pushed to the front – none other than Spaak, who had fought so hard for Europe. He believed that, as the representative of a member state, he was more important than the man who represented Europe.”

Ms. Haferkamp continued to work in Brussels during the subsequent decades. She met all the commission presidents and even more heads of government. And she was there as the initial enthusiasm gave way to disillusionment. The Rome treaties turned into more than 85,000 pages of community law incapable of inspiring anyone anymore. Brussels became a synonym for bureaucracy. Even when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the derision was greater than the joy: Of all things, the E.U.!

And today, 60 years after the Rome treaties were signed?

“The truth is that Europe isn’t as anemic as many thought. All we need to do is restore the emotionality.”

Daniel Röder, co-founder, Pulse of Europe

The Goetheplatz in Frankfurt am Main is filled with at least 3,000 people. When the 1990 Eurovision hit song Insieme (“Together”) is played from the loudspeakers, the crowd undulates. Students and pensioners grab hands and dance in a circle. Others wave E.U. flags or wear the blue cloth with the golden stars as a cape. They look like fans who have pledged life-long loyalty to their team, in this case, the European Union. Until recently, many people thought it no longer had a cheering section.

But a few weeks ago, the Pulse of Europe appeared in public squares for the first time. It is a pro-European, grass-roots movement that now has presence in 60 cities – above all in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, France, Portugal and even Great Britain. Its advocates – tens of thousands as of late – meet regularly on Sundays in Freiburg, Berlin and Bad Kreuznach, as well as Lyon and Lisbon. And in Frankfurt, where everything began.

An hour and a half before the rally, Sabine and Daniel Röder hurry through downtown Frankfurt. The Pulse of Europe is their brainchild. It was an evening-with-wine idea, developed on the sofa at home of the two lawyers in their mid-40s. Never having organized a demonstration, they founded a political start-up that aims to bring more advocates onto the streets than the anti-E.U. voices of Pegida had in their best days.

The decision to do something came after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. The couple worried that the E.U. could break up because of the growing success of its enemies – not only Front National’s Marine Le Pen in France, but also the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The Röders formulated an appeal that they spread via Facebook. “We’re a sort of reanimation machine,” says Mr. Röder. “The truth is that Europe isn’t as anemic as many thought. All we need to do is restore the emotionality.” Unfortunately in the public arena, write the Röders on Facebook, “it is primarily the destructive voices that can be heard.” Pulse of Europe seeks to mobilize the silent majority.

At the demonstration, a trumpeter plays the European hymn Ode to Joy and the crowd sings along. Fan articles are being sold at a stand: In return for a contribution, there are balloons and armbands in E.U. blue, pennants and flags, even woolen caps with golden E.U. stars knit by an E.U. fan. A celebratory event? Yes, for sure – but that’s not all.

Whoever wants can take the stage to speak to the crowd for three minutes. Today’s focus is on the success of pro-European forces in the Netherlands (rejoicing, flag-waving), the democratic movement in Romania and the need to “bring a European springtime awakening to Brussels”. There are almost no banners and placards at this demonstration. Written on one of the few is simply “Yes!” This is a stark contrast to the Pegida assemblies, which are driven by anger and the denigration of others. The people who come to Pulse of Europe are decidedly in favor of something.

The story was once clear: We have to stay together in order to protect ourselves from ourselves.

The E.U. has long worn itself down in the search for a new narrative. The story was once clear: We have to stay together in order to protect ourselves from ourselves. We are a union of peace.

But at some point, people started taking that peace for granted. The underlying trust in the correctness of the European project disappeared. The crises of recent years – from turbulence over the euro to the flood of refugees – seemed to have delivered the final blow to the union.

So Europe’s advocates have adopted the following argument: In a world where developing countries are becoming richer and more powerful, European states will soon be too small to survive. Only through joint European effort can outside countries be precluded from deciding the fate of Europe. Jean Monnet made the same point long ago. “Our countries have become too small for today’s world,” wrote the pioneer of European integration in 1954.

The argument may even be more accurate in the 21st century than in the previous, but it didn’t stick. The idea that the E.U. is a collection pot for enfeebled nation states in the era of globalization became a small-minded, defensive narrative incapable of capturing anyone’s imagination. Not E.U. skeptics – because in that sort of hostile world, they were particularly determined to depend solely on the citizens of their own countries. Not the pro-Europeans – because they bemoaned the lack of grandeur and sublimity. And finally, not the level-headed pragmatics – because shoulder-to-shoulder with America, things just couldn’t get so bad.

But then came Brexit. And President Donald Trump happened.

The gloomier the circumstances, the more brightly the 12 golden stars of the E.U. shine.

One month ago in Munich at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, several high-ranking U.S. politicians were at the security conference there. They included the freshly minted Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary John Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. The world’s most important politicians for defense and foreign affairs anticipated the speeches of team Trump in suspense. And the reaction from the E.U.

After NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg has spoken, Federica Mogherini came to the podium. She is the E.U. Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and spends more time travelling outside of than within Europe. What she has to say comes as a surprise to most in attendance.

The European Union is in a much better condition than Europeans want to believe. Ms. Mogherini speaks about human rights, adherence to the law, dependability, equal rights, the fight against climate change. In all these areas, the E.U. is admired by others. She hears this repeatedly from her conversation partners outside Europe. Proud of the E.U.? Admiration for Europe? Take only a single step beyond its borders, she says, and the perspective changes.

Until recently, it looked as if the destructive, nationalistic furor that Donald Trump has ignited in the United States would inevitably make its way to Europe. The danger is far from averted, but the counter-forces have become more visible – particularly in Western Europe, in long-established E.U. members. And not only in the streets and squares, but also in political arenas. This is most clear in France, where the danger is greatest at the moment. If the right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen becomes president in May, that will be the end of the E.U. as we knew it.

Ever since a majority of the French voted in a 2005 referendum against the planned E.U. constitution, Europe has been a taboo topic in French politics. Whenever something went wrong in France – and lots went wrong – the E.U. served as the scapegoat.

Emmanuel Macron has broken this unwritten rule of French politics. In fact, he simply ignores it. The 39-year-old presidential candidate speaks quite unabashedly about Europe. Not only does he have E.U. flags covering the walls of the venues for his political rallies, but he has already visited Berlin twice during his campaign and even met with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mr. Macron has no fear of close contact, although – or because – his rival Marine Le Pen never tires of warning of “Germany’s dictatorship” over Europe.

The Frenchman isn’t the first campaigner to actively oppose those hostile to the E.U. In Austria, President Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green party called for openness and European cooperation to beat the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the election. And in the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, two explicitly pro-European parties increased their share of the votes: the Greens as well as the liberal party D66. And in Germany, Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz is met with increased enthusiasm when he attacks the nationalists.

Even where it would perhaps be least expected, E.U. flags are once again being waved: In Eastern Europe. When hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to demonstrate against the government at the beginning of the year, they did so explicitly in the name of Europe. Without the E.U., the corrupt political caste in Romania would never have succumbed to pressure. The alertness of the E.U. is “fundamental” to her work, says Laura Kösevi, the head of the anti-corruption authority, though the outcome of the struggle hasn’t yet been decided. But without the E.U., the Romanians would be fighting entirely on their own against corruption and for more rule of law.

The gloomier the circumstances, the more brightly the 12 golden stars of the E.U. shine – this is equally true in Warsaw and Bucharest. While the Polish government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic, Ryszard Petru, currently the most important leader of the opposition, recently wrote an open letter to “our European friends.” The chairman of the liberal Nowoczesna Party writes that Poland has become a better country thanks to the E.U. He offers assurance that a majority of Poles want to be part of a “strong, unified Europe.” Mr. Petru even envisions Poland soon joining the European currency union. Until recently, advocating such a measure was surefire political suicide.

“The concept of Europe was self-evident for us.”

Daniel Röder, co-founder, Pulse of Europe

For a long time, the E.U. was castigated as an elitist project. And the more widespread the discontentment with the elites, the more vociferous the attacks on the E.U. became. The populists derived their energy from this equation. Now it looks as though new energies are emerging from below in support of the E.U. In many countries, grassroots support for the E.U. has increased again.

If they were allowed to vote on the membership of their country in the E.U., 70 percent of all E.U. citizens would decide in favor of the institution. This is the finding of a study recently published by the Bertelsmann Foundation. In March 2016, before the British referendum on the E.U., the figure was 65 percent. The change of heart is even more apparent in another question: 66 percent of all E.U. citizens report that friends or colleagues speak positively about the E.U. Before Brexit, it was only 47 percent. According to a statistically representative survey commissioned by the banking associations that has been obtained by Die Zeit, 61 percent of Germans hold the E.U. in high or extremely high regard. This is 5 percent more than three years ago and even 10 percent more than nine years ago. Furthermore, 63 percent believe that the euro currency has proven itself.

But this fundamental support for the E.U. is no free ride and certainly not a return to the old doctrine of an ever closer union. This is also apparent from the Bertelsmann study. In spite of the esteem in which many hold the E.U., support for further political and economic integration has declined in most countries.

Brussels is not unaware of this paradox. Even where routines can be especially rigid and laments particularly hollow, new tones can be heard. The discussion about Europe’s future is too often reduced to a choice between more or less Europe, writes Jean-Claude Juncker in a recently-published white paper. The president of the European Commission says this is “misleading and far too simple.” Instead of dreaming up unrealistic blueprints for a better world, Mr. Juncker’s officials have developed five possible scenarios that range from downgrading the E.U. to a mere single market all the way to more extensive collaboration in areas such as defense policy or taxation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also calls for a union that leaves its members space for developing at different speeds. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Juncker are seeking to use this fresh upturn of enthusiasm without falling into the old traps.

Something else new and unusual: The political awakening is being accompanied by a surprising economic revival. After a long crisis, the economies of all E.U. member countries are growing again. Confidence is rising at companies, state deficits are shrinking, unemployment is decreasing. In the last four years, almost 5 million new jobs have been created – and these jobs are not only in booming Germany, but also in France, Ireland, Spain and even Greece, the perpetual problem child. The consequences of the crisis are far from having been overcome everywhere, but there is no longer truth to the story of a sclerotic Europe that can’t compete with the United States or China. Surveys by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that in recent years, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Poland were among the top countries in the world with regard to implementing economic reforms. In recent years, the economy of the euro countries grew faster than that of the United States.

Europe’s supposed weakness in the face of the populist alternative is increasingly proving to be a locational advantage: More and more international investors are coming to value the European social state with its comparatively high tax rates and generous compensations for workers. This prevents the situation found in the United States where “a huge gap is emerging between the elites and the rest of the population,” says Philipp Hildebrand deputy director of Blackrock. The world’s largest asset management company handles more than $5 trillion and holds stakes in countless large companies. This is a remarkable change of heart, considering that in recent decades, financial capital has worked to establish, also on this side of the Atlantic, a wild-west capitalism in the American style.

From crisis region to model for the future – this turn of events is so surprising that it can easily distort the view with regard to unresolved problems. The economy is growing again, but the upturn is still fragile. Companies are creating new jobs, but youth unemployment in particular continues to be far too high. The European Union has a new existential purpose, but when specific issues are addressed, long-term conflicts reemerge in areas such as refugees or currency policy. And in Poland, the deconstruction of the constitutional state continues.

But when and where is there not controversy in politics? Perhaps the point of the enthusiasm for Europe is that solving the problems becomes easier when all participants seek success. In Paris and Berlin, scenarios for reforming the currency union in order to prevent future crises are already being secretly examined. They envision France submitting its budgetary policies to stricter monitoring by Brussels institutions while Germany provides more money for pan-European initiatives. Why wouldn’t it be possible to mimic this model in order to achieve progress in policies regarding domestic security or foreign affairs?

In any case, the founders of Pulse of Europe still face a host of challenges. On the one hand, they are exhilarated that their movement has been steadily growing ever since 200 people came to the premiere at the Goetheplatz eight weeks ago. On the other hand, for this very reason, they are getting little sleep. “We have received inquiries from another 40 cities,” says Mr. Röder. A few days ago, Pulse of Europe opened a small business office in Frankfurt. It has become a coordination hub for many local groups, researching things like who called for flash mobs in the name of Pulse of Europe in Rome or Genoa.

Despite expectations, Sabine and Daniel Röder were not previously E.U. aficionados. They were neither Erasmus students nor members of the European Law Students’ Association. They have little in common with the E.U. elite that casually uses city names as a code for decisions about European policy: Maastricht, Schengen, Bologna, Nice, Lisbon. “We grew up with the basic concept of Europe,” says Daniel Röder. “It was self-evident for us.”

The only conclusion an optimist can come up with: Europe is currently experiencing a new dawn. Long may she rise.


This story was prepared by Die Zeit staff: Jochen Bittner, Marc Brost, Matthias Krupa, Ulrich Ladurner, Petra Pinzler, Elisabeth Raether, Jonas Schaible, Mark Schieritz, Stefan Schirmer.  To contact the authors:

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