One of the most compelling elections of 2019 comes in May when voters of the European Union choose a new parliament, which represents more than a half-billion people. Normally a boring democratic exercise, the election this time could result in nationalist, right-wing parties winning many more seats. Their continuing rise poses an existential threat to the future of the 28-country union.
Yet just as compelling is how the bloc’s most powerful defenders – France and Germany – are responding. In recent days, leaders in each country have tried to redefine how the EU can provide a stronger identity for its people, even a feeling of a common home despite disputes over issues like immigration. This Pan-European debate is not politics as usual. And the outcome could be more important than Britain’s possible exit from the EU.
On March 5, a letter written by French President Emmanuel Macron was published in 28 newspapers across the Continent. It proposes stronger, more centralized institutions, such as a single security force for the EU border. It also uses the language of the populist parties. Mr. Macron, for example, appeals to “citizens of Europe.” He asks them to reinforce the bloc “because it is European civilization that unites, frees, and protects us.” The euroskeptic nationalists are misguided, he writes, “when they claim to defend our identity by withdrawing from the EU.”
His letter triggered a response on March 11 from Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of Germany’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union. As the front-runner to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel, she could be the next power broker within the EU. She is also an able challenger to Macron’s vision.
She opposes what she calls a European superstate, preferring to see identity in Europe as still rooted in each country but bound together by shared interests, values, and goals. The EU’s many institutions cannot claim any moral superiority over the collaborative effort of national governments.
“The reform of Europe will not work without the nation-states,” she writes. “They are the guarantors of democratic legitimacy and a sense of belonging.”
Her vision is to better balance the interests and resources of each member state. “The more [a state] does in one area, the less should be its contribution in other fields,” she proposes.
She sees Europe’s attraction as lying in its diversity and its ability to work together. Her mentor, Ms. Merkel, often quotes the Czech writer Karel Čapek: “The Creator made Europe small and even divided her, so that our hearts could find joy not in size but in diversity.”
The EU was designed after World War II to be both an economic and a values-based community that could prevent a return of blood-and-soil nationalism. Now, with the coming election, two of its leaders are offering visions of a different sort of nationalism. They may differ, but at least they aim to counter the type of nationalism that shuts its borders and turns against democratic values. Most of all, each sees Europe as home.