The potential impact of German unification on the process of European integration unsettled politicians in 1989-90, especially in Paris and London. Would a united Germany assign the same priority to the project of European integration? Would Europe be dominated by Germany in the future? French president François Mitterrand feared that his country would lose power to its neighbor across the Rhine, and he demanded assurance that Germany would continue to remain firmly anchored in Europe. In order to dispel all reservations and to emphasize the continuity of German-French cooperation in Europe, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand agreed on a number of initiatives to advance European integration. The initiatives included accelerating the time frame for an economic and monetary union.
The Treaty of Maastricht represented a major step in the further advancement of European integration; symbolically, the importance of this step was underscored by the name change from European Community to European Union (EU). The treaty was signed by the heads of state and government in December 1991 and then had to be ratified by the member states. The ratification process turned out to be more difficult than expected. In the Federal Republic, the treaty did not take effect until it was ruled constitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court on November 1, 1993. One of the most important aspects of the treaty was the creation of an economic and monetary union and, with it, the introduction of the Euro as the common currency. As a major economic and financial power in Europe, Germany played a leading role in determining both the conditions governing the adoption the Euro and the functions of the European Central Bank, located in Frankfurt. All the major political parties supported the introduction of the Euro, but many citizens were skeptical, since the Deutschmark enjoyed emblematic status as a symbol of the German economic miracle.
The introduction of the common currency followed without delay, and the Euro was able to hold its own on international markets, but strengthening cooperation in the areas of foreign and security policy, which was also a goal of the Maastricht Treaty, remains problematic. This cooperation faced a harsh test during the wars in the former Yugoslavia and then again during the war in Iraq a decade later. The result was sobering, because the European member states were unable to agree on a common strategy for dealing with the disputing parties. As before, Europe’s significance on the world stage and its relations with the U.S. remained problematic. In Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, Europe’s military dependence on the United States was underscored time and again. For this reason, defense policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic sought to establish a strictly European operational force and to clarify its relationship to NATO.
German unification and the collapse of Communism in Europe meant that the EU was faced with the difficult task of intensifying its goals and at the same time expanding its territory eastward. The former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe sought to “return to Europe” as quickly as possible and become alliance members in NATO and the EU. In this process, German politicians proved to be advocates of speedy integration in both organizations, but they pushed especially for EU expansion, whereas the United States assumed the leadership role in NATO expansion. As was the case with the introduction of the Euro, many German citizens were more critical of Eastern expansion than the political elite, in part because they feared that low-wage competition would threaten their jobs.
Part of the positive reality of an integrated Europe is civil Europe, as reflected mostly in the mobility of EU citizens and in their diverse choices for travel, education, and lifestyle. This “Europe from the bottom up” may be far more valuable in fostering a European sense of community than bureaucratic regulations. Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted the debate on the European constitution to put more emphasis on common values and culture. As long as the EU is associated primarily with technocratic measures by Brussels bureaucrats and not seen as part of a common identity, the idea of Europe will remain largely a political construct.
It did not become clear that the project of European integration had arrived at a crossroads until the referenda on the EU constitution were rejected by voters in the integration-friendly countries of France and the Netherlands in the summer of 2005. Even though the constitution was rejected for a number of national and European reasons, the message was clear: the European Union did not have a future if it remained a project of the elites. In the Federal Republic, EU treaties are voted on by the German Bundestag, not the citizens, and the Bundestag ratified the constitution without any major objections. Important aspects of the rejected constitution were eventually incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty, which was negotiated under the general direction of the government of the Federal Republic in spring of 2007 and took effect on December 1, 2009. But in Germany, too, one cannot overlook the fact that the public has become more critical of the EU as its competencies have grown and its territory has expanded. People often charge that there is democratic deficit, since EU decisions are not transparent and are made without adequate participation by the citizenry. In the Federal Republic and other countries, the degree of ignorance about the EU and its duties is very high indeed. This serves to promote skepticism toward European integration. Concerns about the stability of the Euro and the role of Germany in “saving” the common currency in the wake of the financial crisis triggered by Greek debt in the spring of 2009 only caused this skepticism to grow.
Members of the older generation of “Europe politicians” [Europapolitiker], such as Helmut Kohl, saw European integration as a guarantee of peace and economic growth. Today, it is more necessary than ever to find new forms of legitimation. The EU has become far more than an economic and monetary alliance; at the same time, however, it is still less than a traditional nation-state. For example, it cannot levy taxes directly, nor does it have its own army. The member states vary in their willingness to relinquish national competencies to a supranational organization like the EU. Therefore, a Europe of varying speeds with a core group of states that are willing to give up more sovereignty than others was a constant subject of conversation in the past. Here, concrete power issues definitely played a role, since it remained open whether Europe, with more than two dozen member states, would be able to become not only an economic but also a political force on the international stage. What are the common values that bind Europeans together, and where are Europe’s territorial borders? These unanswered questions surfaced above all in the discussion of Turkey’s potential EU membership. Recent developments have made the boundaries of integration ever clearer. The question of whether the EU should evolve from an association of countries into a federation, as it was posed at the beginning of the decade, is no longer on the agenda. Right now, the matter is preserving and strengthening what has been achieved.