Germans have no sense of humour and the French think highly of themselves. Italians are chaotic and Belgians eat nothing but chips. Of course there are prejudices and stereotypes in a union of 28 countries with more than 500 million inhabitants – and who doesn’t have some of their own? But European integration also means overcoming resentments and starting to think not only as a German, French or Italian, but also as a European.
Cohesion is crucial if Europe is to find solutions
Whether it is about the euro or the refugee debate: Without cohesion and mutual respect among the member states, there can be no common solutions for Europe. It is the task of the EU to foster mutual understanding among its citizens. The EU is also tasked with creating the necessary structures in the common decision-making process.
This is not about egalitarianism. Europe thrives on diversity in the countries and regions and the different strengths that each of them contributes to the European project. Many political decisions can also be better taken on the national or regional level, in areas such as education and social policy. No one wants a European superstate. But a Europe of national egotisms doesn’t work either. How can political decisions be made if the first question every member state asks is: “What’s in it for us?”. All countries must fundamentally benefit from their membership in the EU. But it is utopian to think that every country can always get exactly what it wants.
Transparency and the will of the majority
Yet the demands of an individual member state still play a key role in major EU decisions, to the extent that a single country can potentially block the will of the other 27 EU members by veto. This often leads to a policy of the lowest common denominator and horse-trading among the member states, whose logic the citizens cannot possibly understand. This is why the EU should make all decisions transparent in the European Council. Overall the union should be aiming at abolishing the right of veto for individual countries. Instead, the powers of the European Parliament should be increased to achieve genuine representation of the citizens with all the rights of national parliaments, such as the right to propose legislation.
We are all Europe and we all stand to gain
The member states are responsible for reliably implementing European decisions and explaining them to the citizens. Cohesion in the EU presupposes trust and fairness. National governments must understand how dangerous it is to cater to prejudices instead of overcoming them. When decisions are unpopular, it may be tempting to play citizens of different nationalities off against one another and to grumble about “those guys in Europe” – but this gets in the way of the EU’s success. Because despite our national differences, we are all Europe and we all stand to gain.