After the recent RC-BGIE on Europe, I wanted to share some concerns a lot of European people have right now. What social norms does a united Europe need and what do we want to do with the idea of Europe going forward? These were exactly the questions that Martin Hirsch and Alexander Graf Lambsdorff came to discuss in a panel on European social policy at the USA/Germany Conference. It is an interesting fact in and of itself that it is actually easier to attend a conference on European social policy at Harvard than it is in most of the large cities in Europe.
For those who are not familiar with those politicians, Martin Hirsch is a member of the French government, something of a UFO because he refuses to be named minister. He is a “high commissioner” who was in charge of social policy and is now in charge of youth policy. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff is a German member of the European Parliament. Below are my key takeaways from the panel in general and on Martin Hirsch and Mr. Lambsdorff in particular.
Martin Hirsch and Mr. Lambsdorff are excellent. They are very accessible, do not speak like typical politicians (at least as long as it is not too sensitive) and have a very pragmatic approach to problems. They are very keen on experimentation which is quite new in the French political world where we usually love speaking for hours on how to tackle an issue without ever trying anything. To sum up, if you want to know the names of some of the future leaders of Europe, you may want to note down these names.
Today, European social policy is non-existent in spite of the fact that it is a major issue in all countries. There is coordinating committees on fisheries, the chocolate industry, the standardization of the size of condoms, but there is not enough effort to coordinate social policies.
Both agreed that social policies should be decided at the local level (city/region/state) but that there is some value in the coordination between European states (once you assume that European states share a value system around the idea of a social market economy). Among the possible topics: harmonization of tax regime, labor laws as well as introduction of principles of non-discrimination everywhere, minimum wage (but not the same in all countries), and the right to social protection and decent pensions, etc.
Both asked themselves how we can use social policies to enhance European integration and to establish the concept of European citizenship. Today most citizens see Europe as a threat because they do not see the concrete benefit Europe brings them in their day-to-day life (e.g., low inflation, low oil prices thanks to a strong Euro, antitrust protection, and free circulation of goods, money, and people). Today, the ERASMUS program educates elites by sending students studying in universities all around Europe but at present the number of students enrolling in the program is declining. The low cost allows more and more people to travel throughout Europe but does the middle class really take advantage of this opportunity? Twinning between municipalities helps to promote friendship and understanding at various levels, but is it really enough to build a social contract between European citizens and Europe? Is there such a thing as a European citizen? Is it possible to build this citizenship without proving the concrete social benefits brought by Europe?
They agreed that some of the big obstacles to this citizenship are the lack of common references and a lack of commitment to the idea of Europe. The idea of binding countries together to avoid future bloody wars is to my mind a lot more appealing than a common currency. But this idea is fading as Europe is currently experiencing its longest period of peace for centuries. About the lack of common reference, the ironically noticed that The Economist and The Financial Times – two notoriously Eurosceptic British newspapers – are the only two news organizations with large audiences covering European events consistently often only describing it as a complex technocratic labyrinth. There is no television with a European coverage (excuse me, there is Arte but who really watches Arte amongst the young generation?). Language barriers and national pride make the construction of a European identity difficult.
A final word from Martin Hirsch about the purpose of Europe: avoid at all costs a new war between States that have invaded each other every 50 years since the Roman Empire. Bind the destinies of France and Germany strongly together through a common currency and a common foreign policy so that the prospect of a war becomes unthinkable. European leaders (Merkel, Brown, Sarkozy, Zappatero, Berlusconi, etc.) must better explain these issues to the people and must stop hiding behind Europe to make the difficult reforms required by the aging population and to adapt Europe to globalization.
Open question: is it possible to build Europe while maintaining strong national identities? The panel believed in this idea but failed to provide any convincing argument. I personally doubt it and I think that European politicians say that only because they fear the reaction of people. I do not think you can have a strong power in Brussels with great powers at the state level. We have seen that in the second part of 2008, Sarkozy was holding the presidency of Europe firmly and Europe was able to articulate a common answer to the collapse in the financial markets. In the first semester of 2009, the Czech president Václav Klaus has been unable to show such a grip and each country started to adopt some protectionism measures. In my opinion, only a strong power in Brussels will take Europe forward and break the perpetual deadlock.
The building of Europe is an exciting and difficult challenge. Europe has grown too fast over the past 10 years and must now be structured. (The Constitution should have been decided and voted on before the entrance of all new states to avoid having to deal with the different opinions of 27 members states on such a sensitive issue!) I think Europe has gained legitimacy among elites in almost every European country over the past 50 years but now must convince all peoples of their long-term interest to give up their sovereignty and pride to build a strong and effective Europe!
Quentin Seemuller is an RC student from France. He is a strong advocate of the European model. He thanks Johanna and Nadja for their help on this article.