Interview with Prof Dr Werner Weidenfeld, Editor of the Yearbook of European Integration

The Yearbook of European Integration 2016 was released in December. In around 100 contributions from a variety of different authors and research areas, the Yearbook creates an up-to-date, detailed account of the process of European integration, as it has done since its inception in 1980. The Yearbooks, and with them over three decades of contemporary European history, are available online at www.Wissen-Europe.de.

Together with Prof Dr Wessels, you are the Editor of the Yearbook of European Integration 2016. What can you tell me about the process of generating this work?

Given the increasing importance of European integration and the power transfers involved, Wolfgang Wessels and I were particularly concerned with ensuring that the information would not be limited to a general, superficial source when we took the initiative to make this Yearbook. There are numerous fields of work that need a current, systematic, detailed and critical analysis of the different circumstances surrounding integration. Now you end up with an expert in fishery policy, you have one in monetary policy, you have one in public opinion – these are specialists, and you need to incorporate them into a working process. In light of the complexity of the system, it is impossible to say, “I know somebody who knows EVERYTHING about European integration”. We wanted a publication that would gather the best experts writing analyses on their particular areas of European politics. We decided on a Yearbook to ensure that this information would stay current. When we began with the Yearbook 1979, renowned scientists said that such a publication could never work – now we are on volume 37. In this way we made it possible for experts to collectively deliver their respective analyses in a single volume, and so over the years developed the most precise historical work on European integration.

Which challenges do you currently notice for European integration?

Both the current situation’s politicisation and the dramatisation of crisis phenomena are symptomatic of a challenged integration process. There were, of course, crises in earlier years as well – however, this contemporary crisis is something different. For the first time, this crisis has not developed along the same lines as earlier crises. The first large crisis was in 1954, when the European Defense Community failed in the French National Assembly. Other crises include the failed Fouchet Plan of 1961/62, the empty chair crisis of 1965/66 and the Eurosclerosis at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. These crises have always played out in a similar way: crisis, pressure, learning process, solution or regulation. Now we have a crisis where this is not occurring.

Why?

Because we have a specific combination of circumstances. On the one hand we have the age of complexity, Europeanisation, globalisation, and digitalisation, which is being combined with problems of culture. Moreover, over 70% of citizens say, “I don’t understand anything that is going on” – we are then also speaking about the age of confusion. In this combination, the question of the entire European project’s meaning is being raised in a crisis for the first time. You need to seek out answers for that. That is the greatest challenge. In everyday life you experience situation-specific crisis management, and it is not the case that nothing is functioning in that regard. What is missing is the larger, strategic design. Understanding that, we need to analyse attempts to formulate strategy in the Yearbook of European Integration as well. Such a plan has still yet to succeed.

You explore this theme in the chapter “Balance of European Integration”. You discuss the identity of Europe, or at least the search for one, before discussing a community of communications, a community of memory and a community of experience. Could you go into more specific detail about what you mean with these concepts?

The question is how Europe perceives itself. When the question of meaning is raised, it is naturally very closely connected to the question: what makes us collectively Europeans? The Pope often says, “Europe is losing its soul”. What constitutes the soul of Europe? That is an element of historically founded self-perception. Who are we? Public spaces for European self-perception need to be made, with intellectual contributions, with corresponding political questioning, with related scientific contributions and with contributions from journalism and mass-media, so that this type of self-experience might become intellectually feasible. That is a piece of the work on the project of Europe’s future. Over the years, Europe has shown – and you will see this in our Yearbook – a number of different faces.

Which faces of Europe do you mean?

When somebody says, “I know Europe: it’s this and that, and everything else isn’t important” – that is false. There are different faces. I want to name three of these faces for you, which are all reality, and on all of which you can find material in the Yearbooks from 1980 to today. The first face is Europe as a project of success. The great peace project, there was no war for decades within Europe. Economic success, the overcoming of the division of Europe, the magnetic attraction of Europe for external candidate states that would gladly become members – this all belongs to the face of Europe’s success story.

The second face is pragmatism. You can talk about dramatic crises: this wavering continent, the European catastrophe – the machinery simply keeps functioning. Look in the Yearbook: statistically, approximately 1,5 legislative decisions are made per day. They have to do with hygiene in restaurants, food labelling, divorce law, data protection – everything possible. We continue to regulate pragmatically.

The third face of Europe is crisis. You are not seeing that for the first time today, although it is a different type of crisis. Still, we have already experienced crises. You must develop a form of self-perception. What will the self-assertion of Europe be tomorrow? The day after tomorrow? You need to generate answers for these questions, and for that you need material. The most current form of this dense material is always available for you in the Yearbook of European Integration.

Beyond the Yearbook, let’s talk about a current topic. Which outcomes do you hope to see from Malta’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, which began on 01.01.2017? Do you have any expectations?

One should not expect too much from Malta as the president of the Council of the European Union, due to the continuation of routine processes that are on the agenda. That is the disadvantage of these very small member states. To expect from them a tremendous, historic impulse for forward movement is an excessive demand, simply political. In earlier decades there were such initiatives from Luxembourg, also a small member state, but the European Community was not as comprehensive at that point. Today, at this stage of integration, that would be unthinkable. Now when something is up in the air, the large, leading member states join together in order to take significant steps. If anything, I expect routine processes and a continued development of the collective organs of the EU, but not necessarily as a result of Malta. For me, the most important of these significant steps will be Bratislava, regarding questions of security. Security policy as it is being discussed now could not have existed in the past; as long as Great Britain sat as an equal partner at the table, they always put an end to such questions.

On 17 January, Antonia Tajani (EPP) was elected as the new president of the European Parliament. In December, Martin Schulz (S&D) gave a speech bidding farewell to the European Parliament in order to transition to German politics. What do you expect from a future president of the Parliament?

The question of legitimacy will accompany us with every further step. “Does the European Parliament have the legitimacy to do that?” In this respect, the perception of the European Parliament must change, and the perception of the cooperation between national parliaments and European politics must change as well.  Although public perception is currently quite narrow, the European Parliament is the victor of the institutional concert of the last 20 years. European public perception of the Parliament has improved since the last European Parliament elections in 2014, when there was a real electoral campaign with high-quality candidates.

In addition, the European Parliament eked out extra powers that are not included in the treaties. Among these is the possibility to cooperate on filling positions in the European diplomatic service, which exceeds Article 24 (TEU). Moreover, the European Parliament managed to secure the possibility to generate informal initiatives from the Commission.

The areas in which there will be future problems are, in my opinion, entirely clear: legitimacy and transparency. The Treaty of Lisbon is not transparent. Effort is required to clarify the Parliament’s procedures. The matter of leadership structure is difficult to understand. Nobody knows who among these five presidents or various other offices truly has the final say.

Prof Dr Werner Weidenfeld is Co-Editor of the Yearbook of European Integration, and sits on the board of trustees of the Institute for European Politics. He is a emeritus professor of political science at the University of Munich and Director of the Centre for Applied Policy Research.

The interview was conducted by Vivien Weigt.

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