Uniting Europe, One Case at a Time

News | Margaret Childs | September 2012

Cartoon: Paul Lachine

The Eurode Business Center is perched right on the border between Germany and the Netherlands, in the towns of Herzogenrath and Kerkrade. Built in 2001, the building was meant to demonstrate the necessities, possibilities, and difficulties involved in cross-border relations in the new "borderless" EU. Today, 11 years later, it still takes a week to send a letter from the German to the Dutch side of the building, only metres away.

A computer security company called Alunsa has offices on both sides of the building. On one side, Alunsa employees call German customers on German phones. On the other side, it’s all Dutch. Raimond Potgens, the company’s CEO, has two offices, one on either side of the border. He carries his laptop back and forth all day long.

Is this the reality of a unified Europe? The more the lifting of border controls between EU countries has done for travellers and commuters, the more it seems to raise questions, and the more visible the little differences become.


The cogs of democracy

The EU website europa.eu gives examples of the issues EU lawyers face.

"Ana from Poland worked six years in Poland and then moved to Germany, where she worked for two more years." After a car accident she applied for a disability pension in both Poland and Germany. Since the minimum period to qualify for the pension in Germany is five years, her application was dismissed.

"However," the site points out, "in calculating Ana’s working years, the authorities should have included the periods she worked in Poland, making the figure eight years, well over the German qualification minimum." So, Ana is entitled to a pension from both — each country paying proportionate to the years Ana worked there.

Over time, these sorts of issues are getting solved on a case-by-case basis, laying the groundwork for the way the EU will work in the future. Some countries have more vacation days than others, or different taxes on cars, complicating things for cross-border commuters. Also, pensions are still handled individually. An Austrian who has worked in Germany most of his life can collect his Austrian pension at age 60 but must wait until 65 to collect the German one.

Some say Europe is becoming a union of entitlements: They fear unconditional bank bailouts and unregulated financial support for governments. Particularly Germans fear they will be paying for the EU for as long as they have been obliged to pay the solidarity tax to East Germany.

The fear of never-ending demands has also prompted Austrian headlines like, "This is How Expensive the EU is for Us" in the Kronenzeitung on 5 August, listing the givers and receivers among the EU countries.

On 14 August, Der Standard asserted a "German Export Surplus: Economic Imbalance is Growing", highlighting their trade surplus of $200 billion, according to the OECD. In Germany this was met with a finger pointing to austerity measures. Josef Joffee, Editor in Chief of the German weekly Die Zeit, pointed out that Germany and Finland were the only countries that had abided by austerity measures, with a German deficit of 1%, while other countries ranged from 4 to 13%.

"And that is their doom," he wrote.

The question remains: How can an alliance that is constantly laying blame become a unified power? What will it take?


The United States of Europe

"I am a declared supporter of the United States of Europe," said Austrian Ex-Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer in an interview with Austrian weekly Format, published 10 August. "The European political system needs a directly elected president with a cabinet." There should be directly elected MEPs, as well as the current European council, with member state representatives. "For such a large heterogeneous realm as Europe, there is no better model than the fundamental structure of the USA," he said.

In an interview with Der Spiegel in July, former German Constitutional Court Judge Udo Di Fabio disagreed. "The dream of ‘governing through’ a European State is dangerous and should be buried," he said.

All over Europe, as the 51% youth unemployment in Spain and currency issues in Greece loom heavily over any feelings of unity, politicians are getting nervous. Following rumours in German parliament of reinstating the drachma in Greece, Angela Merkel interceded, saying on 24 August, "I would like Greece to remain in the eurozone."

Back on the German/Dutch frontier, the Eurode Building stands as an ironic symbol of the impasses that continue to hamper a borderless, united Europe. But if Alfred Gusenbauer gets his way, Raimond Potgens may one day combine his two offices into one, and get a desktop computer.

It took the United States a good 100 years to become a functioning union. As the Union evolves, constant reforms will still be necessary. Can we rule out the possibility of the euro collapsing? Most Europeans are like Gusenbauer:

"I’m invested in the euro, and if I believed it would break down, I’d be behaving differently as a businessman."

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