It’s been ten years since Joschka Fischer, together with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, piloted Germany’s foreign policy in the first national Red-Green government. His seven-year tenure was marked by military deployments abroad—the first since 1945—in Kosovo and Afghanistan and by opposition to these missions by a good portion of his own political party. His term was further marked by the impact of 9/11 and the conflict with Washington over the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.
Fischer’s unexpected rise to foreign minister in 1998 mirrored the unexpected formation of a Red-Green government coalition after Helmut Kohl’s sixteen years as chancellor. Fischer met the curiosity of many outsiders about this former street protestor and self-taught politician—now representing Germany as its vice chancellor—through his personal relentless efforts to prove himself up to the job. Despite the enormous clash between Schröder and Bush during most of his time in office, Fischer sustained transatlantic communication channels better than Chancellor Schröder (with the exception of those with Donald Rumsfeld) largely because he sought them out. After he left office, he sustained and expanded those channels, especially with Madeleine Albright. That was also the case in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East. Over the last decade he has continued to enjoy his notoriety, making the rounds on the global talk show circuit.
Scheitert Europa?:Is Europe Failing? (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2014), Fischer’s latest book, is primarily a question about the future of the European Union. To find answers, Fischer reviews the role of the European Union past and present, with a particular focus on the decisions dealing with the financial and economic crisis of 2008.Fischer is dramatic in declaring a good portion of those decisions wrong. He also declares that “the European integration project is more seriously threatened now, in this summer of 2014, than it has ever been before.” According to Fischer, the European Union lacks the necessary clout and coherence to act as a major international actor. That accusation is related to what he sees as the fragile structure of the European Union and its inability to respond to the crisis.
Fischer is particularly hard on Berlin and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He argues that, instead of deepening EU integration, German policy choices have exacerbated a nationalist trend, which undermines needed economic and fiscal governance to deal with the crisis.
Contrary to Helmut Kohl’s affirmation that Germany should be more European after unification, Berlin has made decisions aimed at forcing other European partners to be more German. That path not only emphasizes budgetary consolidation, but also generates doubts about the viability of the European project. Fischer relates this to the increasing weakness of the Franco-German relationship, which has been the core of the EU project. He sees a political vacuum emerging in Europe, giving room to right-wing nationalist forces and others actors opposed to the European Union.
Fischer still believes that the EU project can be salvaged, based on the belief that most Europeans still have hope for a common European home. The threats stemming from Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine reminds Europeans why that home is needed. The commitment to the euro remains vital, even though the institutional framework remains incomplete.
Likewise, there is a need to rekindle the strong political bond between France and Germany, not only to save the euro, but also to take the lead toward community-wide efforts to enhance pooled sovereignty. That will require Germany to overcome its opposition to pooling economic and fiscal sovereignty and France to cede part of its sacrosanct political sovereignty. That pact is difficult, but critical to make Europe again possible.
Fischer argues there is a need to return to his proposal of integrating the members’ national parliaments further into the EU’s decision-making infrastructure. However he sees no prospect for the idea of a United States of Europe based on the American federal model, given the heterogeneity of Europe’s past and present. He suggests instead that the Swiss federal system would be a better model for Europe’s future. That may offer some solace to Europeans, but not to Americans, who see Switzerland as more of a neutral security island than as a global player.
This book is not particularly helpful on specifics. It sits at about 30,000 feet looking down at Europe, and leaves the immediate policy challenges to the political leaders he roundly criticizes. Fischer seems to think he has “been there, done that” and leaves those specific problems for others to untangle.
Europe has yet to resolve the question of how much unity and diversity it can except and tolerate. Fisher reminds Europeans that the world will not wait for them to resolve that question. Europe must find a way to be better at responding to challenges within and abroad, and he is particularly critical of what he singles out as the “policy of small steps” followed by Chancellor Merkel. In the end, the former street protestor and foreign minister argues that more bold decisions and steps are required if Europe is to assume more capability and responsibility.