On October 8, 2020, the Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP) organised the third “Digital Public Debate” on the topic “The Future of the EU and Euroscepticism: German Perspectives in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic” in the context of the publication of the book “Euroscepticism and the Future of Europe — Views from the Capitals”. The discussion focused on the influence of the pandemic on Euroscepticism in Germany and Europe and the question of whether and how the European Union (EU) can decisively address this development. The guest of our third Digital Public Debate, Daniel Freund, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/European Free Alliance, discussed together with Dr Katrin Böttger, Director of the IEP, and the more than 70 participants how to deal with Euroscepticism. The debate was moderated by Prof. Dr. Michael Kaeding, Jean Monnet Professor “ad personam” at the University of Duisburg-Essen and co-editors of the book “Euroscepticism and the Future of Europe – Views from the Capitals”. Georg Pfeifer, Head of the Liaison Office of the European Parliament in Germany, welcomed the participants.
In their opening statements, the speakers pointed out that not every criticism of Europe or the European Union also represents euroscepticism or even populist euroscepticism. However, this criticism must be acknowledged and taken seriously, especially when discussing the future perspectives of the EU. Moreover, it was pointed out early on in the debate that the status quo of the EU is no longer sustainable and that there is a need for reform. Global problems and crises such as climate change, a changing balance of power within international system and the COVID-19 pandemic could not be managed and solved individually by European states and governments. The EU stands at a crossroads now: either the process of European integration is pursued further or the member-states retreat to their national borders and sovereignty to deal with these problems on their own. While Daniel Freund and Katrin Böttger clearly advocate a common path towards more integration, eurosceptics seek a reversal of this path.
The subsequent discussion with the participants focused on how to deal with euroscepticism. It was noted that in Germany in particular the general consensus in the debate about the future of the EU had been lost and that criticism of it had become louder. However, a pessimistic view of the EU and a fundamental opposition of parties such as the AfD could not be the solution: Rather, a signal should be sent and an unbiased discourse on the future of the EU should be conducted, in which all parties and positions are included. This is the only way to show the citizens of Europe that their criticism is taken seriously. One should not demonise Euroscepticism in general and not ignore all objections. Rather, only a regular exchange and intensive debates could lead to mutual understanding. There is a clear appeal to European politicians to face the debate with Eurosceptics and argue that renationalisation is not a solution to the world’s global problems. It is especially important to give citizens a sense of stability and security in a society that is undergoing structural changes, but also to be transparent and honest and not to conceal possible difficulties and problems.
Finally, the question was discussed how to conduct the debate about COVID-19 in Europe. Solidarity is an “old-new” narrative that has to be brought back into the day-to-day life of the EU just like ideas of “prosperity” and “peace”. In the discussion, reference was made above all to the different perceptions in the member states: While in Germany, for example, the self-perception prevails that France and Italy in particular were provided with a lot of support during the first wave of the pandemic, Italy has experienced an enormous loss of trust in the EU. Closed European borders remain more present in the minds of citizens than financial solidarity. Both solidarity and sovereignty, as well as euroscepticism are thus directly affected by subjective perceptions. Euroscepticism grows when solidarity within Europe is no longer perceived. The EU must therefore, especially in difficult times such as the pandemic, commit itself to common, solidary solutions in order to revive the basic idea of Europe.