In 2012, Robert Menasse’s essay Der Europäische Landbote. Die Wut der Bürger und der Friede Europas was published (trans. Craig Decker as “Enraged Citizens, European Peace and Democratic Deficits”). Menasse provided a personal appraisal of the European Union, its real functions as well as its problems and urgently needed reform. In 2010, at the start of the Euro crisis, the Austrian writer with a reputation for his proactive comments on European topics, had lived for four months in the European capital to glimpse behind the scenes of EU institutions. His original intention was to write a novel, but it evolved into an essay and clearly had a revolutionary aspiration, as suggested by the allusion to Büchner’s Hessischer Landbote, a pamphlet aimed against social grievances in the then Grand Duchy of Hesse. Menasse’s theory at the time: “Either the Europe of nation states will founder, or the project of overcoming the nation-state will. One way or another, the EU will be our downfall!”
Now, four years later, after the rise of the populists and EU opponents in the last European elections in 2014, the near ‘Grexit’ one year ago after the Greeks said ‘no’ to the bailout plan proposed by the Troika and, at first, the belief-defying, yet indeed real ‘Brexit’, you have the feeling that it is highly likely that the latter could happen in the foreseeable future.
It is all the more reassuring to follow Menasse’s experiences and intelligent observations and in the end perhaps even to be infected by his courage of comprehensively and radically rethinking Europe and the EU.
To do so, however, it is necessary first to understand the problem leading to the current Euro crisis. It is a political problem, as Menasse already emphasized in 2010, and not merely financial. In precise terms, almost with an educational approach, Menasse summarizes what the EU’s ailment was from the outset: the model of national democracy, originally dating from the 19th century, and based on the defence of national interests and identities, and yet no longer fully functional for quite some time in a globalized world.
However, much to the regret of the EU – set up by its founding members in the wake of two world wars as a “post-national” institution, and only functional on the basis of overcoming national interests and, if necessary, yielding sovereignty rights – precisely this model also has a place in Brussels in the form of the European Council.
The Council is attended by heads of government of the member states and they can only maintain popularity with their electorate at home if they assert their national interests against European interests. Therefore, they regularly undermine the work of the EU Commission and, depending on the clout of the individual country, they also have more or less influence, as Menasse experienced in March 2010 during the first EU summit on the Greek bailout. The negotiations had hardly begun when Angela Merkel and the then French President, Nikolas Sarkozy, left the room to find a bilateral solution, which was then swallowed by the other 25 heads of state. “The decision […] was taken one door further, where an institution met, which is not defined and legitimized in any constitution and in no European treaty […]: this institution was called ‘Merkozy’.”
Having travelled to Brussels as an EU sceptic the author was to change his opinion about the much maligned EU officials. They were often “in their practical approach, their work, their lifestyle already what would be undoubtedly attractive, namely, true Europeans, polyglot, highly qualified and educated.” The European peace project was not foundering because of them and, incidentally as Menasse also discovered on the spot, the surprisingly slimline EU bureaucracy (“the EU has fewer officials to administer the entire continent than the City of Vienna has at its disposal”) but because of the egoistic attitude of EU Council members.
Menasse ultimately demanded logically and simply the abolition of the EU Council: “The commitment for a democratic Europe […], the anger of the citizens should be directed against the Council […] and for equipping the parliament with all parliamentary rights.”
Menasse advocates here a “post-national Europe based on the subsidiary principle of the regions.” Not national, but regional representatives of the people should in future be directly elected by citizens to the EU parliament to ensure that Europeans’ comprehensible interests could be put forward. According to Menasse, it was not “national identity” (repeatedly exposed as undefinable) which led to credibility and commitment, but the “sense of home” and being aware of responsibility for the concerns of a specific region.
After publication of his essay Menasse was often asked whether any of this was realistic. “No one conceived that that Berlin Wall would fall”, observed Menasse. “I’m not a politician and not a pragmatist. I am a writer and can develop utopias which are drawn from history and the present crisis. I present political fantasy for discussion. In the hope of objectifying a debate that is meanwhile overburdened with resentment.”
Given that the EU has such a poor record in selling its visions and aims to the outside, and with the voice of creative individuals who work in the cultural sector counting for so little inside, this is precisely why the EU needs exactly these kinds of advocates like Robert Menasse.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright