Leader of the 1968 Student Revolt and radical Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit on his idea of Europe

MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, prominent leader of the student revolts which erupted throughout Europe in 1968, came to Kings College London on 28th February to give a talk on where the EU should be headed in these equally turbulent times. Originally nicknamed ‘Danny the Red’ for his outspoken anarchist views, Cohn-Bendit became known as ‘Danny the Green’ when he joined the environmentalist movement during the 1980s. He is now co-president of the European Greens–European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, and has become known for his fiery wit, idealism and willingness to challenge the status quo.

Cohn-Bendit is a living embodiment of the European project, having been born almost literally from the ashes of World War II. He explains how his French-Jewish mother and German-Jewish father conceived him after hearing that the allies had landed in Normandy in June 1944, at which time they were hiding from the Nazis in the countryside of Southern France. By the time his mother gave birth to him in April 1945, it was only a month before Germany formally surrendered. Therefore while for his parents the idea of a Europe with no borders would have seemed completely unimaginable, even insane, for Daniel the EU represents a major step forward in civilization. “The discussion is no longer about how to make war with each other,” he explains, “but about the level of integration we want and how we should be governed.”

Yet despite this strong emotional attachment, Daniel is quick to admit the significant problems currently facing Europe. He describes how as a project the Euro has always been “economically weak,” being based more on political than economic logic. Amid French fears about a resurgent, reunited Germany in the 1990s, a deal was struck in which German unification was accepted in exchange for deepening ties in the form of the single currency. Daniel argues that this was more of a sacrifice for the Germans, for whom the strength of the Deutschmark had become a symbol of economic efficiency central to their post-war identity. But for him the main problem was the assumption that the Euro would lead to greater political integration. Instead, the 20th century view has remained dominant in which the nation-state is seen as the best way to answer people’s needs.

Cohn-Bendit is adamant that European countries must instead act together in order to exert global influence, especially in order to tackle climate change. He also has strong views about the financial crisis, and the need for more economic governance combined with stronger democratic control at the European level. Particularly interesting is his take on the situation in Greece. Whilst admitting that problems of tax evasion and clientelism contributed to the Greek debt crisis, he points to the complicity of countries such as Germany and France in selling weapons to Greece, which over the last 10 years has spent 4% of its GDP on its military. “When people say Greece has a corrupt system, you have to think who else is involved in this corruption,” he says. “Many French and German enterprises have paid bribes and had a major corruptive influence on the system.” He also argues that one of Merkel and Sarkozy’s first conditions for the initial Greek bailout was to maintain military expenditure in order to keep up Greece’s arms imports.

Another big issue related to the debt crisis is that of solidarity. Cohn-Bendit advocates a system in which European countries pool their debts so that they can all borrow at the same interest rate, instead of Greece paying 20% and Germany just 1.5%. Whilst each state’s individual debt burden would remain the same, the borrowing costs would be lowered improving the chances for economic recovery in struggling countries such as Greece and Portugal. He is also highly critical of the austerity policies being imposed on these countries, and says there is a need for more investment to help kick-start their economies. “Right now we are pushing people down, effectively saying they have no future,” he says. “This makes people angry. They think, ‘we would rather be poor and standing up than poor and on our knees.’” Furthermore, he criticises the widespread perception in Germany that debt-ridden countries are simply lazy, pointing to the macro-economic imbalance at the heart of Europe’s problems. Significantly, he argues that “the surplus exports of Germany are the debts of other member-states,” particularly as 70% of Germany’s exports are to the EU.

Moving on from Europe’s sticky economic troubles, Daniel talks a little about European culture and the continued cultural dominance of the USA. He laments how European fairy-tales are now repackaged as Hollywood films, despite a long historic tradition shared across almost all European countries. He also mentions how the story of Schindler’s list was originally proposed by a German filmmaker who failed to secure funding. For Daniel it is imperative for Europe to recount its own cultural heritage, both its best and worst. In particular, he emphasises that “it’s the duty of Europeans to tell our own history.”

He then turns to global politics, specifically the need for Europe to work together if it is to remain a major player and respond effectively to emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil. He seems particularly vexed by the hesitant attitude of the British government, which often seems to have one foot in and one foot out. “The UK needs to choose what it wants,” he exclaims. “It needs to choose whether it wants to be the 51st state of the US, or the 27th Member State of the European Union!” However, Daniel emphasises that this choice should be made by the British people. In any case, he stresses that the UK has to choose one way or the other, rather than imposing its own vision of the EU on other Europeans. “We need Great Britain, but we need a Great Britain that wants to be inside Europe, not half-way out.”

Concluding his passionate talk, Cohn-Bendit proposes that the Security Council should be reformed, and that the British and French permanent seats should be combined into one EU seat. He describes the current veto right accorded to permanent members as ‘madness,’ suggesting it should be abolished in favour of a qualified majority form of voting. As shown by recent events in Syria, currently as soon as one member’s interests are at stake no significant action can be taken. Cohn-Bendit’s controversial proposal to reform the Security Council show that, despite having joined the political establishment, his ideas are no less radical or idealist than back in his anarchist days.

By the end of the talk the MEP’s infectious enthusiasm seems to have permeated the room, reminding everyone that despite the doom and gloom of recession a better world is still possible. Perhaps it is the way that spin and jargon have come to dominate the political landscape, but it is refreshing to hear someone speak their mind with such passion and conviction. And though not everyone may agree with his ideas, there is a sense that a truly meaningful debate has been started. It feels as though, even after all these years, the spirit of the 1968 student protests still lives on.

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