A New Leitmotiv for the European Concert!

– “Ever closer union” to be balanced against “subsidiarity” –


  • After Brexit a new Leitmotiv for the European concert is needed
  • Major Impulses for a fresh European discourse have to come from France and Germany
  • The centralist concept of „ever closer union“ has to be balanced against the federative „principle of subsidiarity“
  • EU policy based on subsidiarity as a new Leitmotiv could draw on 170 years of federal experience in Switzerland, a  Europe en miniature comprising four cultures and languages
  • The Swiss example  points to more centralization in same areas, but also to less integration in others, and it  shows for example that a common currency does not mandate joint liability for member state debt.

A sober analysis of European integration from the Schumann Plan (1950) over the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) to the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) reveals a few important key facts on European integration: major impulses to be agreed upon by 27 member states will have to come from France and Germany; a re-assessment of existing treaties is needed; after Brexit our two countries no longer can blame the United Kingdom for blocking EU progress; and, even more importantly, we have to become explicit what we mean by “progress” from the current state of the Union.

It still feels wonderful how Macron won the French election with a pro-European agenda thereby stopping a potentially vicious circle for the EU. Now is the time for a very honest discussion about the meaning of  “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” (“union sans cesse plus étroite…”; “immer engere Union…”), as stipulated in the preamble of the EU Treaty. This European discourse has to be lead from a French, German and other EU members´ perspective.

The centralist French tradition and the federalist and regional tradition of  Germany alone are not easily reconciled. And while the EU Treaty continues to be “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” as the basis for freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, the Treaty of Lisbon (2007) has been widely understood as focusing pragmatically on economic efficiency and closer political integration. The European concert appears to be following a score which not all members of the EU orchestra have been willing or able to play along.

It was the British Angst (!) of being drawn into an irreversible process of ever closer European integration that ultimately lead to Brexit. Back in 2014, then UK Prime Minister Cameron left no doubt that in his view an ongoing EU integration process at some point might become irreconcilable with British interests and political instincts; summarizing his EU reform agenda, Cameron highlighted a crucial action point in 2014 as follows:

“… dealing properly with the concept of ‘ever closer union’, enshrined in the treaty, to which every EU country now has to sign up. It may appeal to some countries. But it is not right for Britain, and we must ensure we are no longer subject to it” 

(The Daily Telegraph, March 15, 2014, quoted after http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7230).

Brexit has not solved, but rather accentuated, the riddle of what “ever closer union” means. A growing number of EU orchestra members may have become hesitant just to play along without knowing where the musical score ultimately takes them. And they certainly have taken note of the conspicuous German silence vis-à-vis the remarkable and almost revolutionary enthusiasm of Macron´s “en marche” movement towards a next stage of European integration.

Therefore, a re-assessment of the EU treaty architecture post Brexit has become indispensable. It is not only due for obvious “technical” reasons concerning re-calibration of quora, majority and blocking minority definitions. It is simply a necessary condition for a continuation of the European success story. The European concert needs a new Leitmotiv.

The responsibility for initiating and steering such a re-assessment lies with Germany and France. And, after France´s grand re-opening of the European discourse in 2017, it is now Germany´s turn to end its silence and speak its mind, even if we agree with Thomas Mann that Germany “does not speak well” and will never be able to match the beautiful rhetoric of our French friends.

A good starting point for the Franco-Germanic dialogue would once more be the preamble of the Treaty of Lisbon: when the EU-skeptic discourse of our British friends narrowly circled around the words “ever closer union”, it ignored the explicit desire of the signatory states to balance the concept of ever closer union against the principle of subsidiarity, by aiming for

“… an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity(underlining added).

From a German perspective the importance of the principle of subsidiarity as building principle of the EU cannot be overstated. Not only is it embedded in Germany´s historic federal, religious and social traditions; the Bundestag as the German sovereign was paving the way for the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 when it enshrined the principle of subsidiarity in Article 23 of the German Constitution. This so-called “Europa-Artikel” authorizes the transfer of German sovereign rights in connection with the EU integration process only as long as the EU, among other things, is bound by “federative principles and the principle of subsidiarity”.

In the search of a good way ahead for the EU, a conscious and real focus on, rather than mere lip service to, subsidiarity as an organizational principle for EU cooperation should provide an excellent Leitmotiv for a continued European success story. And, by the way, our Swiss neighbors with 170 years of federal experience should be invited to provide additional insights to the European federal discourse. Switzerland, like a Europe en miniature, comprises four cultures and languages and has incorporated the principle of subsidiarity in the new Art. 5a of its Constitution in 2008, as mandated by a referendum.

To start with, a real focus on subsidiarity could do away with the common misunderstanding that efficiency and cost savings are ends in itself and synonymous for “progress” in the context of European integration. Like in any organization, central units with respective budgets tend to create central expertise followed by a centralization of competencies, in the apparently best interest of a most efficient use of available resources. While this may be a desired outcome in a business context, the principle of subsidiarity aims to have political responsibilities exercised as closely as possible to the citizens who are affected by the respective legislative, administrative or judicial acts.

Ideally this decentralized approach produces results which adequately consider the particular local situation and needs of the citizens. It should also help European citizens to better understand how the EU helps to solve or mitigate their concrete problems and concerns. It seems obvious that these concerns are very different today from what they were in the first 50 years of post-war European integration.

It is probably realistic that today European citizens from Tallin to Lisbon are less concerned with high level European ideals or with the next step in a seemingly abstract process towards an “ever closer union”. They expect a sober and transparent assessment of the status quo of the Union, lessons learned from the causes of Brexit, and political leadership on how to address  the most urgent challenges for us Europeans. Topics such as external and internal security, demographics and immigration, government debt and sustainability of welfare states have in reality – that is in voters´ minds – gained top priority. When talking about democracy and the rule of law, we should also not forget direct physical threats of terrorist attacks as evidenced by the fact that France  was governed under a state of emergency for two years until October 2017, well into Macron´s presidency!

In such „interesting times“ pro-European leadership means to meet citizens´ and voters´ expectations for a thorough, honest, forward looking, „glass is half full“ democratic debate on the shape and spirit of post Brexit EU. A revival on EU level of the principle of subsidiarity would probably still point to significantly more coordination in areas where concerted acting is indispensable (e.g. internal and external security, migration, central bank policy), but it would certainly mean less, slower, and more careful integration in quite a few areas where the experts in Brussel may have unduly sacrified diversity of approaches for assumed efficiency gains. In this context, the Swiss model also provides evidence that a common currency does not presuppose joint liability for member state respectively cantonal debt!

With responsible political leadership and forward looking citizen engagement across the European Union re-focused on the time-tested Leitmotiv of subsidiarity, the new music score for the European concert will not resemble a swan song like Ravel´s famous La Valse first performed in 1920, but rather express the optimism and Lebensfreude of Schumann´s “Rheinische Sinfonie”, composed 1850 after a joyful and peaceful trip to the Rhineland together with his wife Clara.


In February 2018

Dr. Klaus Mössle, Rechtsanwalt und Mitbegründer von YOUROPEAN e.V.

Der Inhalt des Beitrags liegt in der Verantwortung des Verfassers und gibt ausschließlich die Meinungen, Ansichten und Einschätzungen von diesem wieder.

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