Battle lines drawn as Merkel, Juncker slam European nationalism

Juncker says growing political intolerance is challenging European peace project a century after the end of WWI


BERLIN/STRASBOURG • Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker (picture) warned of the threat posed by rising nationalism across the European Union (EU), painting next year’s continent-wide elections as a clash of fundamental values that will determine the bloc’s future direction.

In tandem speeches in Berlin and Strasbourg yesterday morning, Germany’s chancellor and the European Commission president struck a common tone of alarm at the EU’s cohesion in the face of increasingly nationalist rhetoric in some member states. Both made the case for Europe to step up and show unity in the face of global challenges.

Juncker used his last major policy speech before he steps down next year to say that growing political intolerance is challenging the European peace project a century after the end of World War I (WWI).

He urged national governments to show more willing ness for compromise and to bridge sharp differences over the handling of migrants, the strengthening of the euro and the filling of a Brexit-induced hole in the bloc’s budget, signalling that progress is needed to counter a populist upswing in countries from Sweden to Italy.

“Let us decry knee-jerk nationalism, which attacks others and seeks scapegoats rather than looking for solutions,” Juncker told the European Parliament in his annual “state of the union” speech. “Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit.”

EU Cohesion

Merkel, who is reviled at home by the Alternative for Germany party over her opendoors policy during the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, said that migration was fast becoming the defining issue for Europe. It is “a much bigger question for the cohesion of the EU” than even the euro-area debt crisis, she said.

The stark comments paint a picture of the battle lines being drawn up between EU supporters and opponents as the bloc wrestles with its very future. The UK’s plan to leave in March, democratic backsliding in eastern Europe, renewed Russian assertiveness and US President Donald Trump’s challenge to the global order with his “America First” agenda are all tugging at the foundation of the European project.

It’s a concern that’s rippling out beyond politics into the world of business. Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser has warned that the scenes of anti-migrant unrest in eastern Germany damages its global image, and urged employees to speak out against extremism.

Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges said at a conference in Cologne yesterday that he’s concerned over the rise of a “new nationalism”, trade wars, thugs taking to the streets in Germany and a “brutalisation of language” in the public discourse. “Sooner or later, this will dramatically effect” economies in Europe, he said, adding that it’s important “to fight for the freedom we have achieved”.

Art of Compromise

Juncker struck a similar tone, saying there’s a need to “revive the lost art of compromise” and “say ‘no’ to unhealthy nationalism and to say ‘yes’ to enlightened patriotism”.

He spoke as the EU Parliament prepared to hold an unprecedented vote on whether to recommend that the bloc’s national governments trigger a sanctions procedure against Hungary for eroding democratic standards under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban has held talks with Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League, on forming a common platform to fight elections to the European Parliament next year on an “illiberal” ticket.

The vote in 27 EU nations next May — minus the UK — is looming as a key test of the bloc’s direction, with antimigration, EU-sceptic forces facing off against the liberal establishment as espoused by French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel.

Addressing the Bundestag, the chancellor condemned the far-right unrest in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, saying there can be “no justification for hounding people and Nazi propaganda”. She raised the prospect of Europe’s implosion in the face of challenges like migration, with the May elections as the ultimate test of unity on matters such as trade and the single currency.

“This European election will stand under the question of how and whether we’ll solve these problems,” she said. “It’s very clear — if Europe simply says that we’ll isolate ourselves, and we don’t deal with the things that happen in our region, then that’s going to end badly.” — Bloomberg