Cornelius Adebahr: If everybody does as they please, then it is not a union


If German citizens don’t see the situation in Poland and Hungary being put in order, there is a high likelihood of Euroscepticism rising, says German foreign policy expert Cornelius Adebahr.

Author: Zuzana Gabrižová, EURACTIV Slovakia

Cornelius Adebahr is a political analyst focusing on European foreign policy and entrepreneur based in Berlin, Germany. He is an associate fellow of the Research Institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and an associate in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He was part of the project team in the CODES project that looked into the Eurosceptic narratives of citizens in 6 EU countries, including Germany.

Read more: One Union, Two Universes? Critical Perception of the EU in Six EU Member States.

The German country report within the CODES project that summarized the discussions with citizens was different in a way your respondents talked about the EU. There was basically no trace of populism unlike in other countries. The summary from the meetings was actually an insightful analysis of the state of the EU. Do you think that the design of the groups and where they were situated played a role or is it really the level of self-identification of the Germans with the European project?

The first played a role. We organized these events in big cities and not in the rural areas and we work through established structures of both DGAP and also partner organisations – in one city it was the chamber of commerce, in another it was a university, and in third the Europa House – Europe direct centre, so initiatives that work on the mainstream pro-EU side. This has probably brought us people who have this kind of general positive attitude. But even through this positive attitude they would voice criticism, so these weren’t discussions where everyone would agree how great EU is.

No, but the criticism was valid, no populism. There was an interesting point raised in the discussion about the conclusions from all of the countries, whether the in case of German respondents it is more about the level of EU awareness or rather an EU identity.

If you asked them there would probably be some that would say “Well, I am Bavarian, but I am also German and European”. You can have different layers of identity and one identity does not exclude the other. What you also had is that ingrained element of Germany in Europe. People would rarely speak of Germany as a single entity, they would always make this context. They see that the EU integration process has benefited Germany, sometimes they can point to specific benefit, but even if it was just the fact that we are living in peace in the past decades, being friends with all our neighbours. It doesn’t have to be tangible and people still recognise it. But that is also because we have grown up knowing this or learning about this and seeing the EU that way. It is conscious, but maybe more on the level of awareness rather than a deeply felt identity. I would say that most of the people who were there saw themselves as some sort of Europeans, even if they were Europeans critical of a lot of things the EU has done, or there were some that maybe wished back the EU of the 12 or of the 15 – that is the perception that they have, so they like to think of the EU of the past sometimes.

The issue of enlargement was raised in a manner that „ok, maybe the EU enlarged too quickly,” – it wasn’t a position that the EU shouldn’t have enlarged at all. In neighbouring Austria, the narrative in the citizens’ groups was rather different, much more radical. Germany also feels that there is or there was a lack of solidarity coming from V4 region, but again it is not voiced that radically. Would you say that there is a different view of the Eastern Europe in Germany than in Austria?

On that particular point you do see differences in Germany, whether you are in the eastern part of the Germany, the far west or the south, where there is geographically more of a connection. There is this feeling of togetherness having lived under Soviet rule that you find in East Germany, maybe understanding how difficult transitions can be, whereas people in west, some of them wouldn’t even consider central and eastern European countries to go on a holiday. Of course, there are others who do that, who go precisely to these countries.

What we found striking was that idea of reproaching Hungary or Poland for what they are doing internally. Making a value statement and deploring the lack of these common value bases which they found expressed in the most recent domestic development. It maybe has to do with this feeling of Germany being a founding member – we know what the club is about, we established the rules and we obviously let everyone in who is playing by the rules, but once these countries are in, they start playing by other rules and we don’t like that. So, it has a little bit of the “we have been here long enough” feeling to tell others how they should behave. Whether it helps or not, I don’t know, but that is what citizens seem to feel.

Germany was the only from the 6 countries country were this narrative about “core values” of the EU actually appeared. Do you feel that if this is not addressed on the European level, it can increase the Euroscepticism in Germany?

Definitely. That is something that citizens seem to care about. If everybody does as they please, then it is not a union. This rule bending, right now it is focused on Hungary and Poland, but before there was the idea of the Greeks bending the rules and fiddling the numbers and being bailed out with German money and the German banks. It is a different story of course, but it is easy to portray it that some play by the rules – the Germans like to see themselves as such – and then there are others who don’t play by the rules, but want to get the benefits. And whether it is Greece wanting to be bailed out, or whether it is Poland wanting to receive structural funds, but not accepting the same values – solidarity in the refugee crisis – it seems to be an image obviously very positive to the German themselves, but it seems to be an image that they have, on which they will build a continuing the support for European integration. If they don’t see this is somehow being put in order, there is a high likelihood of Euroscepticism rising, or staying very critical at least.

It seems from the discussions you had in Germany, that differentiated integration is creating tensions as well. What is the preferred scenario for the people who are saying this is a problem? Because in Slovakia we have almost a consensus that there is going to be a core of the EU, that is going to move forward and Germany will be the vanguard of this course.

It is interesting that you are asking about this, because it is not like the Germans want this core. There is enough Germans saying “no, everyone who is in the boat now should stay in the boat and we have to move forward together”, but then there is a lack of understanding if one country or another, doesn’t want to advance, like the Brits never wanted to advance on the common currency. People cannot really appreciate that. The idea I guess is that we should all advance. It goes back to the very fundamental feeling of the Germans that European integration is good for us. If it is good for us, it is good also for the other countries. So why don’t they want this extra level of integration?

Last week Martin Schulz proposed these United States of Europe in 2025. He was harshly criticised for this particular point that whoever wants to go along can stay and those who don’t want to go along should leave. There is a strong feeling that Europe should advance as a whole, that is what this is about, it is a common project. My own criticism would probably be that people don’t see why citizens, not just governments, but also citizens in other countries don’t want to have the same level of integration that we Germans seem to want. We tend to overlook that the French are much less enthusiastic about all this integration, they may want the European finance minister and the budget, but then again there are other elements where they are very hesitant.

How are you reading these Shultz’s comments about the United States of Europe within his domestic political strategy?

First of all, I am thinking why didn’t he say this half a year ago, when he was campaigning. If he has raised it, I am not saying it would have changed the results dramatically, but it turned out that after the election was lost many people asked: ‘Why didn’t you talk about Europe? Why didn’t you raise this as an issue, you could have distinguished yourself from the chancellor’. My second point is that I do find it quite ambitious – to propose this on actual terms. Why did he propose 2025? Because in 1925 the social democratic party in a manifesto said we are aiming at the United States of Europe – so he is actually playing on this anniversary. That is why he didn’t say 2030, which is a different ballgame. When I think back to how we tried to have European Constitution in 2004, 2005 – that is twelve years past and now he wants to have something entirely different in eight years’ time. The time horizon is very ambitious. It seems that he wants to put down a vision, he wants to invigorate the debate. There is a personal element in this, I think.


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