Rethinking Europe and Remembering Helmut Schmidt

A panel with illustrious speakers.

If there’s one thing Helmut Schmidt wouldn’t have wanted, it would have been people constantly asking what he would have wanted or thought. But he’d have to forgive us, because on many occasions over the two days of #RethinkingEurope, his words and actions shaped the events.

And that is the thing about Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor: he shaped events during his lifetime and still has the ability to do so posthumously. A quite spectacular line-up of speakers descended on Hamburg on Friday 22nd February to talk about three topics regard the future of Europe: populism, economics and Europe’s role in the world. They wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t for him and his legacy.

Friday at the Körber Forum

It’s not within the scope of this article to summarise the entire day’s proceedings in detail, however there were some points of particular interest or that seemed to represent accepted consensus of most of the policy-making elite.

It seemed to be agreed that the Euro needs further work to make it resilient in a future crisis. Exactly what form that should take was not a matter of agreement though. Here, the jury is out between risk reduction and risk sharing; or rather, the order in which it should occur. In other words, should Italy reduce its debt before other members share liability for it, or vice versa? At one point, Pascal Lamy put the “German” case for risk reduction before risk sharing, and pointed out that there are instruments with which the European Central Bank can help countries such as Italy: I think he spoke of past bailouts. At this point, Peer Steinbrück, who was in the audience, nodded vigorously – which prompted me to glance over to gauge his reaction on more occasions, but he didn’t give away much.

I think Vivien Schmidt usefully delineated the open wounds that fester populism: they are economic, political and cultural and all need to be taken into account when understanding why, for instance, the Brexit vote went the way it did.

Zanny Minton Bedoes, Editor-In-Chief of the Economist, explained the unholy alliance between austerity, immigration and the financial crisis and how that provided fertile ground for populists in the UK.

A panel with illustrious speakers.
A panel with illustrious speakers.

Anna Diamantopoulou, former EU Commissioner and Greek Government Minister, said people want leaders not teachers – this in reference to Schäuble’s reception during the Greek crisis. She noted, however, that Greek’s were unwavering in their support for the EU but were simply against its treatment of them. She also said that liberal forces should use fear to motivate people to support the EU because its dissolution would lead to war. I think I disagree with her on this: time taken in weaving horror scenarios is usually diverted from working on the European dream, which, I would argue, is more motivational.

Simon Hix explained that the Single European Act of way back when (1986) was a balancing act between ensuring a level playing field for trade and social standards to ameliorate losses on an individual level. This is, I feel, the spirit in which most people at the event (and indeed Helmut Schmidt) conversed: finding a balance between various interests and seeking understanding. It’s quite the opposite of incendiary populist tactics.

On foreign policy, there were various nuggets but the consensus seems to be that the world is moving from unipolar (i.e. US hegemony) to bi- or multi-polar. This theme was continued into the next day, when Federica Mogherini said, “There are two types of European states: small ones, and those who don’t know they are small yet.” Europe’s only chance is to be big together. How exactly to present themselves to the world when they do so is a different matter: with deliberations on independent military capabilities, Europe is showing urges to be more independent. It was pointed out that, with China growing and the US distancing itself from the multilateral system, the EU might not have any co-operative friends on the international stage.

Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, was interesting on Russia: he says Russia isn’t particularly interested in dictating to others, but more inclined to ensuring it isn’t dictated to by others. Its resistance to the USA is a useful display to China that it is willing to stand up for itself.

Saturday at the Elphi

This was followed by Saturday morning’s ceremony to mark what would have been Helmut Schmidt’s birthday had he still been alive, and had he been born exactly two months later: his 100th would actually have been 23rd December 2018.

It was held in the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s recently opened world-class concert hall, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as well as EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini held speeches to commemorate the occasion. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was present and Peer Steinbrück answered the presenter’s questions.

Of all those who spoke, Peer Steinbrück managed to pique the aura of perfection that admittedly surrounded Schmidt’s memory on the day but in a nevertheless affectionate manner. Steinbrück, who is Chair of the Advisory Board of the Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt Stiftung, said, “He wasn’t state of the art on ecological matters, nor on women’s rights.” Answering the presenter’s question on what Schmidt might have said about the ceremony (bearing in mind the rather opulent location and the high office of many guests), he said, “He would have said we shouldn’t have made all this fuss, while thinking it was more than justified.”

Over the two days, we learned a lot about Schmidt but chiefly – as was the intention – about the current challenges Europe is facing and some ideas on how to confront them.

On a side-note: the musical accompaniment was exquisite. The band of the Bundeswehr, constituted at Schmidt’s behest many years ago, played some jazzy numbers. Understandably, they avoid military marching music which – for me personally – is a shame because for entirely non-belllicose reasons I rather like it. Ensemble Resonanz, a kind of pocket-sized orchestra, played extraordinarily well and it confirmed for me that the Elbphilharmonie’s acoustics are unbeatable with the right music.