Germany and other EU members must see the problem in European terms, says Norbert Röttgen
As the debate over Greece’s membership of the euro lurches towards its final act, there is a rising risk that this very European crisis is seen in overwhelmingly national terms. This is true in Germany, which will play a crucial role in resolving the dilemma, as it is elsewhere in the bloc. But Europe’s leaders and people must rise above this temptation, despite all the frustrations of the Greek saga.
Many Germans firmly hoped that last weekend’s referendum would deliver a Yes.It would have been taken as a strong signal that Athens still sees the euro as a vital means of modernisation. But Greece saw things differently. Its No vote united German public debate as rarely before.While previously Athens’ stubborn position was mostly attributed to the Syriza government, the No vote made clear it had popular backing.
The great majority of the German parliament would clearly prefer Greece to remain in the eurozone — but on condition that the country be ready to modernise by establishing a functioning state and efficient economy. This willingness is in doubt. Should the Greek government fail to dispel these doubts, a new aid package would cause a devastating loss of credibility for the euro and the EU as a whole.And yet, if Grexit does indeed occur, such modernisation will become even more difficult. This is part of the Greek dilemma.
There is still hope that these two extremes can be avoided. If the Greek government proved able to present a viable reform plan, a stormy debate could ensue but the German parliament would ultimately be likely to vote to support for its European partner.
However, even if an EU-Greece deal is reached on Sunday, it will only be a temporary fix to a problem that runs much deeper than the current crisis. Indeed, what we are seeing is first and foremost a European crisis — economic, geopolitical and political in nature. Greece is just part of it.A failure of the common currency in Greece would make the eurozone as a whole much more vulnerable,since markets would challenge other European economies. Although the eurozone has become more robust since the financial and economic crisis first hit in 2007-2008, it is still lacking sufficient resilience to withstand external shocks.
Grexit and all the ensuing doubts about Athens’ European future would also thwart the EU’s efforts to combat threats in the continent’s east and south. All this has to be seen in the context of the deepest European political crisis since the Treaty of Rome. A rise in self-interested nationalism — a phenomenon of which Syriza is part — is leading to a general paralysis in European decision-making. The ineffective response at the last European summit to the refugee crisis showed as much.
This is the challenge for the EU as a whole. Do we continue with what amounts to a laissez faire attitude, in which narrow nationalism extends an ever-tighter grip on member states; or instead forge a true European leadership that recognises our most urgent problems not as national but as European problems? Problems such as persistently high unemployment — particularly among the young — are undermining governments’ democratic legitimacy. No less important challenges are the refugee crisis and the question of how to guarantee European security in the 21st century.
Governments must not only speak to their electorates in national terms but also take up the burden of explaining unpopular decisions when necessary. Germany, like other European member states, has a strong interest in solving this crisis: the euro and Europe are the most important foundation of our economic and political stability. We simply cannot afford to concern ourselves merely with our respective national interests. All European member states can flourish only in a stable EU. Therefore, we need a European success — a European deal that looks beyond ideological trenches and blends liberal reform efforts with policies that stimulate jobs and growth.
All this will come at a cost. Yet not solving these problems would be much more expensive, both economically and politically. Even the more prosperous of the European countries will not continue to do so well if other member states are suffering. Today, there are no longer purely national costs and benefits but only European ones. The writer is chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.