Next Wednesday, the German Chancellor and the French President will jointly address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. This will be the first time that the leaders of the two greatest political powers of the Union address the representatives of the European citizens together since François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in 1989 in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
On that occasion, President and Chancellor celebrated the perspective of German reunification and showed a face of unity in front of the new challenges that the end of the Cold War would bring. They adopted very different, if not opposite, attitudes and styles in their respective speeches. François Mitterrand made himself the spokesman of pragmatism and continuity, accepting the ineluctability of German unification and its impact on the European order. Kohl played the card of moral leadership. Nevertheless, the common message was clear: the European Communities needed to be profoundly transformed in the direction of a political union to be able to cope with a unified Germany and embrace the European citizens liberated from the Soviet yoke. Needless to say, political union didn’t follow suit. But plans for a European monetary union, subject of studies and reports for the previous two decades, received a final impetus in those crucial days.
On Wednesday, the two leaders will meet a very different Parliament under very different circumstances.
The Parliament they will address has infinitely more power than the 1989 assembly. A diligent law-maker, it doesn’t show any will to play a driving role in the broader discourse on the future and reforms of the Union. Some of its members still stand out for their ambitious projects and encouraging discourses. Well-intended declarations and resolutions are not in shortage. But it seems impossible to find the spirit and necessary consensus for the Parliament as an institution to act as a real driving force in the broader discourse on the future of the Union. Its leaders are resigned to leave such a role in the hands of the Heads of State and Government. It is also a much more sceptic Parliament, not only due to the new Eurosceptical and nationalist parties.
Today the two leaders don’t have much to celebrate. The challenges are greater than ever as Member States struggle to find a common view on the ultimate shape of the monetary union, the migration crisis, instability at the borders of Europe, the threat of a Brexit. Since 1989, the Franco-German engine has lost much of its power, inevitably in a much wider and diverse Union with an increasingly powerful Germany and a France economically weak and unable to come to terms with the limits of its national sovereignty. To make their task even harder, the trivialisation of the European Council, meeting virtually every second month, makes their visit almost an ordinary event. President Hollande has the hardest task: after years of low profile European policy, does he intend to give consequences to the high flying statements of the past months on the need for “a political Union of the Eurozone” supporting his increasingly outspokenly federalist Minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron?
If the Chancellor and the President want to leave the room with something more than a polite applause, they will have to come back to their fundamental roles. They are the representatives of the two great peoples which, through their friendship, allowed Europe to be pacified and the European unification process to be started. Their intent has driven European integration forwards for six decades. What we need from them is a vision for the future of the European Union and particularly for the Eurozone. They should show that they are aware of the real challenges that threaten Europe, from outside, from inside and from its foundations. And that they are able and resolute to address them from their roots, no matter the obstacles they may find on the road and the efforts they will have to put into it. This is time for statesmen, not just for politicians.
While rhetoric is inevitably high on such occasions, they should not leave us just with rhetoric. Europe needs a project. More concretely, we need them to show commitment to a plan for a fiscal, economic and political union for the Eurozone and at the same time to solutions for the less integrationist Member states, first and foremost the United Kingdom. We need them to restate the Union’s role as an agent for peace and security in the world, and above all in its neighbourhood, and to take a united stance regarding the conflicts that surround and threaten our continent.
The President and the Chancellor are the only ones who can cut the Gordian knot that opposes national sovereignty and European integration, the only ones that can lay the foundations for a plan for the reform of the Eurozone and indeed the Union. Any ambiguity, vagueness or division in their statements – or, even worse, an over indulgence in rhetoric without serious intentions – would be ruinous for the credibility of what is left of the Franco-German engine and give a further blow to a Union in desperate need to inspire and rally its citizens around a clear plan for its future.
The odds are not in favour of what we wish, but we would be glad to be surprised.Paolo Vacca