‘Conversations with EU officials reveal how wonderful everything could be’

For his novel about the European Union, ‘Die Hauptstadt’ [The Capital], former Mercator Senior Fellow Robert Menasse received the 2017 German Book Prize. During his fellowship, Menasse developed a model for a ‘European’ democracy. He describes the current state of the European Union as seriously undemocratic and calls for a ‘post-national democracy’.

Bureaucratic monsters, aloof officials, decisions that are out of touch with the real world, a lack of democratic legitimacy: There are lots of criticisms and clichés regarding the European Union (EU). You have been studying the EU for a long time and know it from the inside. How would you characterize the EU, Mr Menasse?

Robert Menasse: My most significant criticism regards the EU’s democratic deficit. That is not a cliché. It is true. The EU is a political hybrid, in which heads of state and government who have been elected in their home countries make decisions in the European Council. Yet these leaders have really only been legitimated at the national level. While they defend national interests for their electorates, they are simultaneously inhibiting pan-European development. Making policies in the national interest in a supra-national institution undermines European democracy and the creation of a European public sphere, as well as transparency and citizen participation. All our current crises stem from this contradiction.

The lack of a common European refugee policy, for example?

Menasse: Yes. The EU Commission has been making proposals for a comprehensive European policy on migration and refugees since the mid-1980s. The facts about the countries and the reasons behind massive flight and migration have been known for a long time. But the Council of Europe destroys the relevant information. Why? Because the heads of state and government don’t dare explain to their national constituencies that the only solution is a joint one: They all want to seal themselves off and leave Greece and Italy alone with the problem. When refugees arrived en masse in late summer 2015, the EU had no legal basis to respond to them. Each country acted on its own: some accepted refugees, others didn’t. Some countries were quickly overloaded; others showed no solidarity and behaved aggressively, encouraging resentment, xenophobia and racism. Governments didn’t respond to their citizens’ fears, they stoked them. They did precisely what the EU was founded to prevent. I can understand citizens who say that the EU isn’t functioning.

At the same time, separatist movements are growing in many countries. What does that mean for Europe?

Menasse: People who defend nation-states are preventing the EU from becoming more democratic. To my mind, the EU Commission takes the wrong tack with regard to the many separatist movements. Lots of people want to break away from their nation-state…to live in an autonomous region of the EU. A region that wants to leave its state is a sign that the nation-state is no longer functioning. The EU should accept that. But the EU Commission bows to the European Council heads of state and government, who of course reject any separation. The representatives of nation-states have too much power within the EU – although its basic idea is to move beyond nation-states.

When you were a Senior Fellow at Stiftung Mercator you focussed on developing a model for European democracy. You criticize the current system. How could it be improved?

Menasse: I can easily summarize the insights I gained through my research: Defend the European idea, develop a vision worth having and ruthlessly criticize the status quo. I use the working title ‘post-national democracy’, which has many aspects. Important among them is the idea that regions, not nation-states, should be the administrative units. That would solve the problem of big differences in size. The regions are all about the same size. Currently it makes a huge difference if you represent a big country like Germany or a very small one like Cyprus. In addition, the notion that the EU is a ‘peace project’ only makes sense if you take social peace into account. I propose a kind of European unemployment scheme, in which every jobless person would first get 50 euros from Brussels. While this sum would then be figured into what they get from their national unemployment insurance, it would send an important signal. Such a system could develop into a safety net for all EU citizens. We could gradually break down the huge differences in the social safety networks of the various countries. No one knows what ‘post-national democracy’ will look like. You might lack imagination, but you should still dream. During my fellowship I made contact with lots of people whose work I knew nothing about. We’re still in contact. Many people are working on interesting ideas and projects that aren’t reported in the media.

You conducted research in Brussels among other places. What was your impression of the EU officials who are said to be so disconnected from the world?

Menasse: When you talk with officials of the European Commission, you get the feeling how wonderful everything could be. The cliché about the detached EU officials is plain stupid. They are highly qualified and do great work. But they can only do what the Member States allow. All other initiatives are ditched. EU officials need a remarkable ability to tolerate frustration.

Your award-winning novel includes a story about pig exports. How does that help illustrate the EU?

Menasse: In the EU Commission, the pig is a cross-sectional topic. Different directorates are responsible, each with different interests, depending on whether the pig is in the pigsty, the slaughterhouse, has already been exported or is going to be. Reaching agreement calls for complicated procedures. That’s why the pig serves as a perfect example – that is also highly symbolic. Stiftung Mercator facilitated my visit to a pig-fattening unit in China. When I first inquired about the possibility, the Chinese responded that there must have been an error in the translation: I surely wanted to see a pig ‘farm’. No, I wanted to see pig fattening. The plant was incredibly huge and very impressive. Nevertheless, China cannot satisfy its enormous domestic demand. Enter the EU and the various conflicting interests: Some players want to reduce pig production to stop prices from dropping in the internal European market, while those with large pork industries want to increase production with European funding in light of the prospect of selling on the Chinese market. For this reason, the Commission was unable to negotiate a joint agreement with China, and individual countries have begun to compete ruthlessly with each other. This is so revealing of the contradictions to European policy-making that I had the idea of using this story line throughout my novel.

People sometimes say that Europe needs a new narrative to get people excited again. What do you think?

Menasse: I think that’s nonsense. Europe already has a narrative – that couldn’t be more beautiful. After Europe’s hideous experience of nationalism, we had to create a unified, post-national Europe founded on respect for human rights, where se can live in peace and dignity. Who’s ready to say they don’t want that? Since we started developing the EU, the challenges of globalization have become an issue. Globalization has basically obliterated national borders. If you don’t prepare for globalization, you’ll have to suffer it. In that regard, who has more expertise than the EU, which is tasked with developing trans- and post-national policy? The EU already has supranational institutions and is supposed to integrate nation-states. The EU is not just a logical and reasonable lesson to be learned from history. In the age of globalization, the EU could also be the vanguard – if it chose.

We recommend