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Europe’s one-point plan

The heart of the European crisis is not economics or politics, but trust. A focus on restoring trust and confidence is the key to Europe's future, says Andre Wilkens.

Andre Wilkens
12 September 2012

The European dream is about to burst. Within two years a local debt crisis has turned into a European identity crisis. Europe’s international partners and the financial markets have almost given up on the euro and Europe, and have priced into their activities the collapse of the eurozone. But even more important, Europe’s citizens are doing the same: they have lost confidence and trust in their politicians and started to make their own contingency plans.

Trust is a valuable resource which fortunately cannot be traded in stock-markets. It is an old-fashioned resource. Trust is created through repeated experience; it must continually be gained, nurtured and confirmed. It takes time to build trust and, in most cases, any venture needs an advance of trust in the beginning.

Europe has always been about trust. It started with a tremendous advance of trust in the idea of a united Europe - granted in particular to Germany by France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Over decades, bit by bit, project by project, trust and confidence were being built, in each other and in a united Europe.

True, there were also setbacks along the way, such as the failed European Defence Union, Charles de Gaulle’s "empty seat" policy, and Norway's referendum which decided against EU membership. Yet problems also create opportunities to build more trust, because partners who solve problems together will have greater confidence in each other afterwards.

This piecemeal approach and joint problem-solving constituted successful basic principles for Europe. They have paid off for everyone in Europe in terms of better, more secure and freer lives.

Trust and and confidence are what Europe is missing today. Trust that we will master the crisis together, that the euro is safe, and that all eurozone countries will stick together. Confidence that the countries of Europe will work together in finding and using sustainable ways and means to stabilise Europe, rebuild prosperity, and thus create the basis for Europe to play a responsible role in the world.

At this moment, in contrast, citizens and the markets have no confidence in politicians’ ability to master this crisis. And politicians seem to have lost confidence in themselves. They do not trust each other beyond national borders any more. Instead, in almost weekly summit meetings which end at 3am, politicians can be seen arguing and blaming each other. Trust is literally fading away summit-by-summit.

Yet these sixty years have shown that Europe can do better. Much of what has been reached was possible because of positive thinking, strong political will and a healthy dose of self-confidence.

And there are still good reasons for European self-confidence. Europe as a unit looks still pretty solid in a global framework, based on most OECD indicators. The combined public debt is lower than that of the United States and Japan. Inflation is low and under control. And on most governance indicators - such as functioning institutions, corruption and the rule of law - Europe is still leading by a long way. These are also key factors for investment decisions. Moreover, a joint European Union sports team would have been the clear winner at the London Olympics with a wide margin in front of the US and China in second and third place.

That is why we do not need the thousandth five-, seven-, or ten-point plan from think-tanks and public intellectuals to address Europe's crisis, but rather a serious one-point plan. This is to recreate trust and confidence in European unity through joint action, honesty, reliability, fairness and respect, and thus initiate a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. If we manage this, everything else will be possible. But without confidence and the political will in European unity, even the technically best ten-point plans will be obsolete.

Also, it's important too to stress that symbols matter. A good start would be if the European heads of state would explain publicly, together and in a united fashion the next steps Europe will be taking. This should be a demonstration of unity and a clear sign that Europe will master this crisis together and that on the decisive issues Europe will not be divided.

Instead of a press conference in Brussels' grey council building, why not give a joint statement before the European parliament? And why not do this while holding hands? After all, Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand understood the impact of symbols and they used them to great effect in their policies.

Historic times call for historic deeds - and symbols.

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