In a highly unusual joint address at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg today, the leaders of France and Germany appealed for “more Europe” in the face of pressures mounting in the European Union – a sign of the fragile spot the 28-member bloc finds itself in the midst of a tumultuous period.
The last time a Franco-German duo addressed the parliament was in 1989, just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That talk was considered historic. Amid the uncertain forces unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the address by then French President François Mitterrand and particularly West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was credited with speeding up the construction and enlargement of the modern EU.
But if then citizens were clamoring for more EU at the time, today French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to be selling its staying power. And while history will tell whether the crises today outweigh those of a quarter century ago, the EU is facing a daunting task list: the flood of refugees; the debt crisis; conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq; the threat of terrorism, including by homegrown terrorists; and growing euroskepticism, even within the parliament.
The landmark session today was seen as an opportunity to move forward in a pivotal moment for Europe – despite all those who want to see it rolled back.
“I think neither France nor Germany can neglect the risk that the whole project is sliding into reverse,” says Andrew Duff, a former EU parliamentarian from Britain.
After years of political turmoil in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis and economic stagnation, 2015 has been a particularly fraught year: a “series of crises” is how Mr. Hollande put it today.
It is the refugee crisis this summer that has most tested some of the continent’s basic principles – and highest achievements – including the free movement of people within the Schengen zone. Several countries, especially eastern European ones, have balked at the EU’s attempts to impose quotas for taking in refugees. Instead, they have adopted a nationalist response that France and Germany have both condemned.
"We need not less Europe but more Europe. Europe must affirm itself; otherwise we will see the end of Europe, our demise,” Hollande said today.
Ms. Merkel has emerged as Europe’s greatest defender of the obligations the EU has in this crisis, as Germany expects to receive some 800,000 refugee applications this year. Her response has many betting she could win the Nobel Peace prize on Friday.
"The huge number of refugees is a test of historic proportions. And to allow these people a dignified life in their homelands, is a European and a global challenge," she said Wednesday. "We must now resist the temptation to fall back into national government action. Right now we need more Europe. Germany and France are ready.”
'Let's not be naive'
But not everybody is. A poll on Monday in Germany showed that 59 percent of those surveyed disagreed with her decision to allow Syrian refugees to enter Germany from Hungary without registering there, as European asylum policy stipulates.
It drew even stronger condemnation in Strasbourg today, as Europe's euroskeptics, who made great gains in EU parliamentary elections last year, voiced their disapproval.
Nigel Farage, founder of the UK Independence Party which is pushing for Britain’s exit from the bloc, took aim at a German-led EU. "When Kohl and Mitterrand came here representing their countries, it was a partnership of equals. But no longer,” he said today. “France is now diminished, trapped inside a currency. It is an irony that a project designed to contain German power has now given us a totally German-dominated Europe.”
But others used the opportunity to shore up the Franco-German position, that the EU must remain united, by invoking the principles from the bloc's founding. While the Franco-German alliance was always at its heart, the EU was based on a principle of peace, to end centuries of war. Later it also became an economic partnership of open trade and borders, giving European countries more power than they’d face against the US or China as individual nations.
As Guy Verhofstadt, a parliamentarian from Belgium, put it, “Let's face up to reality. This multiple crisis puts the very existence of the European project in danger. What if tomorrow the euro disappears? Or if Schengen falls apart? Then we are left with what? With nothing more than a loose confederation of nation states,” he said in an impassioned defense of the EU. “Weak economically, insignificant on the world stage. Let's not be naive. It will be the Americans and the Chinese that dictate our economic standards.”