“We cannot continue like this” 


After ten days reporting live from the troublespots of Europe GENERATION SEPARATION meets Martin Schulz. The President of the European Parliament admits: There is such a generation. And he knows: Europe has to deliver. Now.

Martin Schulz, interviewed by Virginia Kirst and Christoph Wagner
Martin Schulz (right), interviewed by Virginia Kirst and Christoph Wagner

Mr Schulz, has the youth lost faith in Europe?

Martin Schulz: To some extent, yes they have, and this is also because in every generation there are people who, out of an emotional response, are against everything. There is a huge destructive potential – from the right as well as the left.

How would you explain this?

I travelled all over Europe between March and May; I visited all 28 Member States, and had discussions with many young people there. It differs from country to country, but there is one thing they all have in common: The idea of Europe, which means that states and peoples work together across borders – most people think this is right and proper. But many people no longer identify this idea with the EU as it is today. They believe that the EU does not represent this idea, that the EU no longer has this big common goal. Which is namely peace, prosperity, justice and career opportunities for everyone. Instead, they feel that Europe is undemocratic, boring, aloof and far-removed from the people.

Is this why the young are distancing themselves?

Yes, I believe that there is a loss of relationship within the young generation. In different countries, in different forms. Let us be under no illusion: The feeling between the idea of Europe and the perception of a Europe that is fair and protects people is drifting further and further apart for young people.

Why do so many people feel they have been abandoned by the European Union?

Because the crisis, through which they are living and are growing up, has led to unemployment and a lack of perspective in many places. From the viewpoint of many young people, this is the result of the development of Europe.

Can you understand this?

Certainly. I can imagine how it feels to some people, that their perception is that there is one new millionaire and ten thousand more impoverished people every day. The problem is: Europe is regarded as if it were the United States. Yet the United States is a single state, the EU isn’t. And then people ask themselves what Europe actually is. But Europe is quite clearly a feeling – and in this case, it is a feeling of injustice. I can understand this basic feeling that is connected with Europe for many people.

Where does this lead?

At best, to passivity. At worst, to outright rejection.

Which is already there without doubt.

I can understand that. We certainly have signs of disintegration in our social cohesion, we see everywhere and every day, that the fight for survival is becoming harder. And from the feeling: My standard of living, my future is under threat – this first leads to aversion. And sometimes also radicalization. Political radicalization.

Has populism in Europe already become a part of mainstream society?

I’m afraid so. In the EU Parliament, I have to deal with politicians from populist parties on a daily basis.

Why are they so successful?

They are successful because of one of the basic patterns of populism – the prejudice and scapegoat strategy: It is always THE Others who are to blame. Islam, the refugees, the Slovaks, the Slovenes or whoever it might be. Or the lazy Greeks. Or the arrogant Germans. And if we now take this one step further: Where does the reason for this lie? In Europe. This works perfectly with many voters.

What can the EuropeanUnion do to combat this crisis of confidence?

It is not only the EU that has to act, but also the Member States as a whole. The first step towards regaining confidence or trust would be for national and European institutions to jointly acknowledge that this loss of trust exists at all.

And that it can only be regained if they work together?

Exactly. I’ll put it very practically. Following a tough battle within the EU, we included six billion euros in the budget for 2014 and 2015 to combat youth unemployment in the crisis-hit countries. And in this year, which has about two weeks left to run, only one percent of the available funds have been drawn up to now. Only one percent! What people often forget: The EU is not a federal state, which can initiate projects in Greece from Brussels. It is the Member States that are responsible for this. That is why I say: Institutions – both on a national as well as on a European level – must finally make their actions visible. They need to show at last: Something is happening!

Is the European idea in danger?

We must be more specific: The EU itself is unpopular. And the more unpopular its form, the more its content is in danger. The main problem is that after an EU summit of 28 leaders in 23 official languages, you hear the same message: Good news is presented as the success of the head of the national government. If something doesn’t work they say: You know the EU – nothing works here. The media reports in the same way: Everything good is national, everything bad comes from Brussels.

Do Europe’s leaders actually support Europe?

That depends on who you mean by leaders. However there are many who are no longer unconditionally committed to the idea and who are putting the case for renationalisation. This is a large part of the crisis that we are going through.

What has to change at the top in concrete terms?

The leading thinkers in Europe have to finally stop making use of the above-mentioned patterns of right-wing populism across all other policy areas. That is to say, making the EU the general scapegoat for everything that goes wrong. Both right-wing as well as left-wing governments do this. They get up and they say: WE are not going to allow ourselves to be dictated to by Brussels. We cannot continue like this.

Why do citizens often criticize their state less than the EU?

The Germans, for example, have no problem with their state, because the state carries out its protective function and delivers visible results. Not always good ones, but this is something that can be discussed. And that is precisely what is not the case in Europe. In the past, people saw Europe as a protecting power, which brought peace, social security and progress. Europe is now often perceived as an annoyance. But this is also the consequence of the rhetoric of a large number of governments.

There are still borders in people’s minds.

I used to think that Europe would become a federal state. After 20 years in the European Parliament I know that this will never happen.

Why not?

Because national identity is strong and has a strong effect. National identity makes people feel protected and at home. A comparable European identity does not yet exist, or at least is not as strongly expressed

Doesn’t that run completely contrary to the original plan of community?

It was never the idea to replace national identities with a European one. It was always about a supplementary, additional element. We are living in a time in which the European Union needs to take a protective approach towards our cultural diversity. This is because our values count for nothing in intercontinental competition. Other parts of the world say: Your European values, your decadent, declining multicultural society – we want to have nothing to do with it. Take a look at Putin. His message: Europe is a   decadent, declining, self-centered, soft society.

How can we move closer together again in Europe?

By delivering. Our continent has drawn the right lessons from its history and was a promise for more peace, for more security, for more jobs and greater prosperity. Today many people associate Europe with a message of less security, fewer jobs and risks to peace as a result of social instability. If this continent finally starts to deliver again, if it keeps its promises – and this is possible – then people will believe in Europe once again.

But at the moment it is not delivering what it promises.

No, Europe is not keeping its promise for greater fairness. And simultaneously we have experienced the deliberate moving of a border in Europe for the first time. That one country has questioned the territorial integrity of another country by military means.

Europe was unable to prevent this.

Europe drew its conclusions and acted as a single entity. The sanctions, difficult as they were to agree upon, are having an effect in Russia. Which, incidentally, not only proves that – if we can agree upon something despite our opposing interests – we are strong and effective, but also proves the fact that Europe does not need to use military power in order to resolve conflicts peacefully.

What can you learn from such a conflict?

Ukraine has shown: Peace does not come like electricity from a socket. Yet we also see that Europe’s economic power, when correctly put to use politically, can change things.

Finally: Is there a Generation Separation?

I believe there is a Generation Separation in Europe – to some extent. However, I remain optimistic that we can recover the trust we have lost. But this is only possible if national and European institutions work together.