Centrifugal Force

An Interview with Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

Guttenberg: Germany will, because they don't want to be perceived as a gravedigger of any European idea. Again, that's part of the DNA within the European construct. I'm very worried about the future of the euro project if we don't come to terms with the realities we are facing within the European Union. The realities are far away from the illusions that the treaties are reflecting.

These illusions are of a Europe of equals, a Europe of the same speeds, which couldn't be more different from the realities we are facing right now -- and that we have actually faced from from the founding moments of the European Community and later on the European Union. The Europe of six, of nine, of 12, of 15 -- all the way up to 28 now -- is a Europe of different speeds, a Europe of concentric circles. But the treaties don't reflect it.

The one thing that needs to happen to keep the whole thing as stable as possible is to finally get a grip on the treaties and to acknowledge that it is not helpful to persist in this nostalgic, Romantic view. It's about coping with realities.

OR: Is the E.U. as a structure able to make tough decisions, given that most substantial changes require unanimity?

Guttenberg: I think that was one of the more important steps in the last few years: i.e., that there are more and more fields in the European Union where unanimity is not any longer a dogma. It, of course, takes time to change the system into a more functioning, more flexible one. In general, the institutions are (at least on paper) not that weak, but that's the abstract view. In reality, you certainly have a point: as long as you still have too many obstacles where unanimity is the core precondition, change will be extremely hard.

That, again, asks for a couple of the stronger member states to wage a debate, which Europe has never had. Europe never had a discussion like the Federalist Papers in the U.S. We've never had a discussion about the philosophy or the core thoughts of something entirely new that needed to be created that went further than a couple of articles in the feuilletons of the newspapers.

As long as such a thing is not happening, led by people with the necessary credibility and independence and the backing of the stronger member states, we won't see much movement. Especially now, when everyone is breathings sighs of relief about the less-bad-than-expected election results in the Netherlands and France. Well, it's almost as bad as predicted, and it would be even worse if complacency now leads to our just kicking the can down the road.

OR: Could Brexit, when it happens, be a salutary shock on this front?

Guttenberg: I had the hope last year that Brexit -- in combination with Trump's election over here -- would serve as a real wake-up call, that we would realize it's just not enough to turn around in bed and say, "Okay, let's sleep through this interesting shockwave," while hoping that when we wake up again everything will be fine.

Nevertheless, the first thing that happened in Europe post-Brexit was that most of the leading protagonists stepped back and said, "Whoa, whoa, let's not be too quick. Let's first resolve the Brexit issue."

At the time, I asked for a different strategy. I said, "Take it as an opportunity to refine and reform the European Union. There won't be many more opportunities of that quality where the European public will be willing to accept such an event.” Now it's all about: how do we handle the Brexit? Let's get to the root causes after we are through our long-lasting negotiation phase, which most probably won't be resolved in two years.

OR: What are the big strategic risks facing the E.U.?

Guttenberg: Any macro threat outside of Europe with a potentially enormous impact on Europe hinges on the functionality of the European Union as an institution. Is Europe dysfunctional or potentially functional? We do have a good number of significant threats that could lead to a weaker and weaker European Union. Outside threats such as a migrational wave that has hit us -- not the first, and it won't be the last one. Or conflicts on the borderlines of the European Union with potential spillover effects. Or the role Russia plays in using any tiny little rift within the European Union to immediately widen it and to undermine its stability again.

There’s also the growing disinclination of the U.S. to get involved in geopolitical threats where Europe is potentially the first target. All of these things can only be handled properly if you're capable of speaking with one voice. It is very, very hard to find the necessary stability for the years to come.

OR: How does the next wave of potential E.U. accessions play into this?

Guttenberg: I think Turkish accession is for the time being not an option any longer. That's mainly due to the path Erdoğan has chosen. The E.U. cannot accept accession negotiations with a partner that obviously doesn't fulfill any of the criteria of a potential member state of the European Union -- that's the first thing. Secondly, they are now coming up with a lot of things that are also tied to cultural differences: we've heard that before. But mainly it is talking about a country that has already moved into autocracy and is potentially moving into a dictatorship. It's out of the question to continue promising accession talks.

OR: When you say, "Out of the question," do you mean morally or pragmatically?

Guttenberg: Both. Some member states or some governments would argue more from a moral perspective, others would come up with the obvious deficits regarding the accession criteria. But there is certainly not a majority any longer advocating Turkish membership in the European Union right now. I have the impression that Turkey is only using it as a domestic tool and not following it enthusiastically any longer.