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"Still Standing and Long-Lasting " – Prof. Dr. Jörg Philipp Terhechte on the European Union’s Current Situation

2018-01-23 Brexit, Euroscepticism, rejection of the rule of law: The European Union is currently in a quandary – this, at least, seems to be the case. In the interview, Vice-President Professor Dr. Jörg Philipp Terhechte, who teaches public law, European and international law, draws a more differentiated picture.

Is Europe in a crisis?

A pithy illustration equates the European integration process to riding a bicycle; one must keep moving to keep one’s balance. Apparently, the same applies to the EU: it needs a constant supply of integration procedures to keep moving forward. The things we are currently discussing in public and in European law, such as Brexit, economic challenges or the Eastern European situation could suggest that Europe's bike is either close to stopping or will soon be reversing. This is why, today more than ever, there is a need for research into European law that shows that Europe is not characterised only by crises, but also by great successes: 99% of European law is implemented in a very cooperative and constructive manner. It goes without saying that one can cross an EU internal border without having to show a passport – a good sign. I am optimistic that the monetary union will also turn out to be successful. Peace in the EU is assured, and no EU member ever went to war against another. Quite a feat for a continent that experienced centuries of murderous internal struggles. Europe has moved closer together – at almost all levels. We forget these successes all too quickly. Nevertheless, they show that the bicycle has by no means fallen over.

Brexit marks the first time a country plans to leave the European Union. Has Europe just entered a new phase?

Above all, the EU has never been as large as it is today. It is clear that in a group of this size, questions arise about “What good is it to us?” “What shape will the EU have in the long term?” Of course, Brexit is a turning point. Dramatic, if it comes. The Form it will have if Brexit is implemented is unpredictable. This also is a reflection of the political classes’ blatant failure. This must be stated quite clearly. Not just in the United Kingdom. We must recognise that the benefits which the European Union undoubtedly brings to its citizens must be stated over and over again. We must fight for the continued existence of the European legal community every day. At the same time, EU membership remains extremely attractive. A large number of countries want to join today rather than tomorrow. Brexit could thus mark a phase of “self-contemplation”, which is certainly also necessary. It will be seen whether there can then be further enlargements.

But is Brexit EU’s unsolvable problem?

Since the Treaty of Lisbon, there has undoubtedly been a right of withdrawal in European Union law, which was once controversial. Perhaps no-one ever thought that this would become a practical issue. But the Treaty defines a procedure for such a withdrawal, at least in terms of procedural law. However, it says nothing about its substantive prerequisites. One problem seems to me to be that hardly anyone was aware of how complex such a withdrawal would be. There is a complete lack of political vision as to how this can be achieved. But we should not try to make it as expensive or difficult as possible for the United Kingdom to leave, nor should we try to make it all too easy. There is simply a middle ground to be found. The different perspectives must also be taken into account: The European Commission must consider, for example, that Brexit could trigger a massive upheaval in the EU. Vigilance is warranted especially in view of countries like Poland or Hungary, whose enthusiasm for Europe has apparently considerably declined.

Is this likely to happen?

Not if the EU re-evaluates its values and goals. The EU stands on broad foundations. The commitment of the peoples of Europe to common values, freedom, democracy and human rights is already much more deeply anchored in the consciousness of European citizens today than we sometimes believe. It is present especially in the consciousness of the younger generation.

Sometimes the EU is accused of not being democratic enough.

Debates about EU’s democratic deficit going far beyond jurisprudence and political science now fill whole libraries. But we must also make it quite clear that Europe can only be as democratic as the Member States allow it to be. It’s up to us to work on a remedy instead of reciting this litany of Europe’s shortcomings.

Does it need a European army?

That's something that we've been working on for a long time and has been the subject of many discussions. It has not developed satisfactorily as yet. I personally believe that a deeper common European defence policy is essential for Europe to be able to act on the international stage. The difficulties and conflicts at our doorstep, in particular, show that we need one. At the moment, some Member States, for example in the Mediterranean, are more or less left alone with problems that are sensitive in terms of foreign or defence policy. This also applies to the border with Ukraine. It is a direct neighbour of the EU and has been at war for years. Difficult to fathom really!

Will Turkey join the EU in the foreseeable future?

This is a discussion that has been going on for a long time. Turkey had long-standing a special relationship with the European Union and is also a candidate for accession. The negotiations have proved to be very difficult. In recent years, Turkey has moved much further away from Europe. I believe that this will largely cease to be an issue in the coming years. Its shortcomings in the area of the rule of law are simply too considerable for membership. That may change, but will take a long time.

What is a future issue for the EU?

To name just one: Digitalisation. Where the digitalisation of society is concerned, the EU will become a central actor, quite naturally, so to speak – simply because the Member States will find national regulation extremely difficult. This can already be seen in part, the EU Commission has launched numerous initiatives. Many aspects of digitisation will in future be negotiated in Brussels and not in the Member States.

Thank you very much!

Martin Gierczak. Translation by Beatrice Goutfer