Interview with Ellen Ueberschär (Heinrich Böll Foundation, Greens)
Ellen UeberschärChairwoman of the Heinrich-Böll Foundation
21x29,7cm - 102 pages Issue #1, September 2021 24,00€
Elections in Europe: December 2020 — May 2021
How do you imagine the EU in the year 2030? Where do you believe is reform most needed? Which amendments to the Treaties would you propose?
The European Union of the year 2030 will be invigorated by the crises of the 2020s. The Conference on the Future of Europe will have provided it with new impulses. It will manifest itself as a federal union that strengthens the democratic and social rights of its citizens and guarantees pluralistic democracy and the rule of law — the core idea and the motive for the foundation of the EU — internally and globally. The internal constitution of the Union in 2030 will make it attractive again for its European neighbours, and the European integration will have progressed through the extension and deepening of the EU. The United Kingdom will already have re-applied for EU membership. The EU in 2030 will be deeply interconnected with European civil society, not least because of the newly created European media and the consequently applied European Association Law.
The 2020s will be decisive years, during which the European Union will need to prove its resilience and effectiveness. To this end, it is essential to present a comprehensive and coherent answer to the multiple crises of our time. A European Green Deal that takes place at the municipal, national and European levels can strategically handle imminent transformations and connect social security, ecologic and economic innovation and digital modernisation. In the same time, it will integrate the European periphery through specific propositions, so as to again make the EU an autonomous actor on a global scale. These expectations are shared by the German public, as shown in the study “Selbtverständlich Europäisch” published in June 2021, in which two thirds of respondents said they expected the EU to be active and co-operative.
In order to become more resilient, credible and active, the EU can use a vast number of instruments already available without amending the Treaties. The most important of these is the extension of qualified majority in the Council of the European Union to matters for which unanimity was previously required, as laid down in Article 48 (7) TEU. Using this disposition would help overcome political blockades and increase the EU’s agency. As a prerequisite for this, the European Parliament should be strengthened. In addition, the Rule of Law mechanism adopted in 2020 makes it possible to consequently enforce rule of law standards under stronger parliamentary control. Employing this mechanism could be essential in the future co-operation with some eastern European Member States.
Resilience also means taking a bold step towards a political union in terms of fiscal and social policy. In a 2021 Eurobarometer survey, 9 out of 10 Europeans said that a social Europe is important to them personally. The study “Selbstverständlich Europäisch” also shows that citizens place a high priority on social security in the EU — an assessment whose acuteness is further heightened by the increasing social inequality and unemployment caused by the pandemic.
A fiscal union would give the EU the possibility of an integrated economic and financial policy. The Covid 19 pandemic has made it clear that an ideology of austerity and iron-fisted budgetary cuts does not work since, across borders, robust social and ecological infrastructures as well as health care services are vital in moments of crisis. An economic and fiscal union must go hand in hand with the strengthening of Social Europe — for example, the strengthening of social rights through common European labour and social standards, and a European directive introducing minimum social security standard and coordinated minimum wages in all EU member states.
On which partnerships (in the Council of the EU and the European political groups) should the next German government rely in order to implement this vision?
Shaping policies for the coming decades means tackling it together in a robust democratic alliance. Major transformations need strong backing in both society and politics to support, shape and implement the change. They therefore require strong political and civic alliances on all levels — from the municipal to the European and international levels. Many actors in political institutions are now active promoters and supporters of a green, socio-ecological transformation. Basically, a strong EU with the ability to act requires the capacity for compromise between all democratic party families that are interested in the economic sustainability of the Union. But negotiating concessions between the individual member states and the European institutions is also necessary.
On a political level, the outcome of the French Presidential election in 2022 will be decisive for the Franco-German partnership as a catalyst for the EU. The past years have shown that cooperation between Paris and Berlin is essential for the EU’s capacity for action — even if this is not the only lever of progress in European integration.
In the field of asylum and migration policy, it is possible that the EU will have to rely on a coalition of the willing in the short to medium term to promote a sustainable, humane asylum policy. As long as the EU as a whole is incapable of acting on the issue of asylum and migration and reforms are watered down beyond recognition due to the necessity of agreeing on the smallest common denominator, the “willing” states must take responsibility through increased cooperation. However, it remains central to include the Central and Eastern European member states and their perspectives in the process.
At the international level, the pandemic has made it clear that the EU needs global, democratic alliances based on trust and shared values to strengthen its global agency — including first and foremost the transatlantic relationship, the UK-EU relationship, as well as international alliances such as the Paris Climate Agreement, WHO, NATO, to name but a few.
In order to strengthen the European project, the people who will be directly affected by the changes — the municipalities, civil society and local initiatives on the ground — should be directly involved. The dialogue among civil society actors as well as between civil society and politics should be strengthened structurally on a transnational level in order to enable the political participation of all citizens. Ultimately, it is also the support of civil society that will strengthen the credibility of the European Union as a successful project and provide it with societal support in times of crisis.
Which foreign-policy approach should the EU follow regarding the USA, China and Russia?
Since the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the historical transatlantic partnership is being reshaped. In the midst of a global pandemic, as we face an economic crisis and the continued presence of revisionist autocrats, it has become clear that bold responses need robust international alliances. As Europeans, it is now our responsability to provide the conditions for a strong partnership, especially in matters of climate protection, democracy and the strengthening of civil society.
In order to achieve the goal of climate neutrality by 2050, a transatlantic climate coalition among democratic allies at the political level is necessary. This coalition should help create common, ecological, social and economic framework conditions and set new standards, for example in the field of green technologies. With the appointment of John Kerry as Special Climate Envoy, the USA have taken a first important step in this regard, also towards the EU.
At the level of civil society, a renewed European-transatlantic partnership also offers many opportunities for cooperation, especially in areas where civil society actors are already interconnected across the Atlantic, such as climate justice, gender democracy and anti-racism. To seize these opportunities, it is essential to strengthen the international cooperation of civil society and municipal actors.
Furthermore, the European Union must find clear responses towards autocratic regimes. A positive example of joint transparent action is provided by the sanctions list agreed between the EU, the USA, Great Britain and Canada towards Belarus. In terms of a value-based foreign policy, it must be clear that dialogue must remain a priority as long as no red lines are crossed. In future, foreign policy must not only be oriented towards values such as human rights standards and towards interests, but also towards environmental standards. Value-oriented foreign policy in a democratic alliance would therefore create greater independence vis-à-vis China and Russia regarding trade and infrastructures and set clear conditions for cooperation. At the same time, European values must also be strengthened and defended internationally by the EU as a global actor. This involves protecting endangered and persecuted civil society partners and human rights defenders, such as many democratic opposition members in Russia and Belarus.
What type of climate policy do you wish the EU should adopt? Which global role should the EU play in climate questions?
The climate crisis requires rapid political action, not only from the EU, but also worldwide. In order to still achieve climate neutrality and the 1.5° target, this action should be oriented towards fundamental structural transformation. The European Green Deal of the European Commission is an important step towards climate neutrality by 2050. In April 2021, the German Federal Constitutional Court declared the German Climate Protection Act unlawful because parts of it were incompatible with fundamental rights, as they would shift the dangers of climate change onto the younger generation — a landmark decision for the climate generation also at the European level.
The EU must now move forward with ambition and rigorously implement its own goals. First and foremost, this means thinking jointly about environmental recovery, digital transition and the ecological-social transformation of the economy. The reconstruction programme Next Generation EU, for example, could lead the way for ecological renewal if investments are consistently oriented towards ecological and social criteria.
Furthermore, it is central to find common European solutions for an energy, mobility and heat transition, because the mobility sector still accounts for 30% of CO2 emissions in the EU. The European Mobility Atlas of the Heinrich Böll Foundation illustrates the opportunities of a sustainable ecological infrastructure in Europe, for example in the form of a night train network. Green hydrogen from renewable energies will also have to play a role here in the transformation of major industries. Not least, the EU must manage to consistently think ecologically and collectively about policy areas which will also require a fundamental reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.
If the EU shapes its policies in a climate-friendly and sustainable way, it can also take on a leading role globally: Within the framework of the transatlantic partnership, it could create a climate-neutral transatlantic zone that sets new standards — for example through joint CO2 taxation, coordinated trade criteria and the promotion of new and green technologies for climate protection.
Democratic allies can learn a great deal from each other about climate protection, such as how to implement the energy transition in cities, agricultural reforms in rural regions, Smart Cities or a European train network, if they establish the forums that are needed for close exchange. Here, the revival of the US-EU Energy Council, a Clean Energy Bank as well as a joint coordination of the democratic allies at the UN climate conferences could be milestones of international cooperation.
What European perspectives are necessary for the next generation of Europeans, especially in relation to the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic?
In the midst of global crises (whether economic, health, rule of law or climate crises), the European Union is faced with the responsibility of creating a future in which the young generation can lead a self-determined life — a life that is worth living. The fact that their perspectives are still insufficiently heard and taken into account is shown not only by the worldwide climate protests of Fridays For Future, but also by the Women’s Movements and Black Lives Matter protests in Germany, the EU and the USA. The movements equally demand the implementation of democratic promises — equal political and social representation in a diverse society, participation opportunities for all, and policies that seriously address the climate crisis as well as structural inequalities.
This is why the European Union must focus on young people and give them a prominent seat at the negociating table. The measures taken to contain the pandemic, from school closures to the vaccination campaign, have shown that the young generation is not the primary focus of political decision-makers. The pandemic has clearly revealed the deficiencies in social infrastructures, especially in schools. It is all the more important to now provide perspectives to address the growing social inequalities and to give everyone an equal chance for a self-determined life and education.
This includes creating opportunities for participation and increasing the representation of young people, women and people of colour in civil society, politics and institutions. Equally important is the strengthening and systematic inclusion of young and civil society voices in political decision-making processes — as is already the case, for example, in the Citizens’ Climate Council in Germany or through the involvement of climate activists in the shaping of Joe Biden’s climate agenda. Ultimately, it must be the European Union’s goal to make today’s policies sustainable for future generations through a democratic process.
To cite the article
Ellen Ueberschär, Interview with Ellen Ueberschär (Heinrich Böll Foundation, Greens), Sep 2021.
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