Katharina Borngässer is 26 years old. She was born and raised in Berlin. She studied European Studies in The Hague and St. Petersburg and European Politics in Bath and Siena. She currently lives in Berlin.
Katharina, do you feel European?
Yes, I do. (laughs)
I feel European because I believe the European identity is this extra layer of identity we have. Meaning we are connected to our region, to our nation and also to Europe. And since I’ve lived in five European countries and I have many European friends, I have kind of taken on the habits from different friends.
How would you describe, characterise being European?
To me, European is that you are culturally open, knowing different languages, having different friends from different, European countries. Travelling, but also being interested in the European art, in the music, just being open to all kinds of culture. As I said, it’s another layer, it doesn’t replace your national identity.
You are a member of the executive board of the Young European Federalists (JEF) of Germany?
What is it you do there?
I’m responsible for the development of the organisation and for big projects. JEF, the Young European Federalists, they are all across Europe, there are the national sections. The big national sections are Germany, Italy and France. One of each always hosts one big international seminar. In Germany there is the Berlin Seminar. There are around 70 Europeans that come together for four days, discussing the future of Europe. It’s quite interactive – always a different programme.
Then there is the other big event we host, “Europawerkstatt” (Europe workshop), which is a “barcamp”, or an “unconference”. I’m responsible for the newsletter and for the coordination in Berlin. So when we have an event in Berlin, I do most of the background organisation, the logistics etc.
What was the reason for you joining JEF?
The main reason is that I wanted to be politically active, but I didn’t want to join a political party. I wanted to be above party lines.
So it all pointed towards JEF?
Yes, exactly. It is pro-European, we are striving for a closer Europe, to be exact the United States of Europe.
Why is that?
Well, there are people like me, who have studied in different countries, know several languages, are in touch with the sections of the other countries, we do organise big street actions all across Europe, several times a year… I wanted to volunteer somewhere and that’s why I joined. (laughs)
In the negotiations around the building of the coalition government in October 2013, you leaked the Europe-section of the coalition treaty, before it was even given to the press. Why did you do that?
Well, first of all we were quite lucky to get the draft of the Europe-section of the coalition treaty. We were disappointed that the national elections weren’t really europeanised. And as we have a strong network with political decision makers we hoped to put pressure on the coalition talks with our open letter to all members of the Committee for European Affairs. And we did get more answers than we expected, however the coalition treaty still could have been a lot more pro Europe. So we are curious how the parties’ European elections campaign will be.
Speaking of the European elections: You are also doing a campaign with JEF. Could you describe that campaign?
The campaign started on the 25th of January, so exactly four months before the elections on the 25th of May. It’s called “Europaretter” – it’s a bit difficult to translate, it’s not really “Europe saviours”, but kind of like that. There will be a nation-wide street action, which might actually be extended all over Europe. This will happen on the 25th to the 27th of April. Also all the different regional sections will have workshops and seminars.
So what does Europe need saving from?
We are pro-European, but not just “rejoicing Europeans”, we also criticise a lot of things. But criticising does not change anything, so we want to step in there. We believe there needs to be a change in foreign policy; if Europe wants to have a say on the global stage, we will only be able to do it as a community, a union. The financial crisis has shown that the euro cannot be regulated by 18 governments, but needs one financial policy. Of course the economic differences between the countries cannot be denied, but with one financial policy the consequences could have been at least restricted. A lot of mistakes have been made in the European integration process and we want to help correcting them, by naming them and participating in finding solutions. So there are loads of things that need to be taken care of. Since a good year now we’ve established our political programme where we laid out concrete steps.
What does the programme say?
We strive for the United States of Europe. European democracy means for us European political parties and the possibility of direct political participation. Federalism for us as JEF is the principle according to which the separation of powers is realised on the political different levels. So a vertical separation of power. We demand a European Constitution, which is based on the subsidiarity principle, so competences are allocated in a way that problems are tackled by those political levels that can most effectively solve them. Our campaign claims one government for one currency, one foreign minister instead of 28, for example.
You also have an online campaign, right?
Yes, we collect statements on our website www.europaretter.de why we want to save Europe and what aspects. So those statements will then be fired back at the politicians we are in contact with. In our adult organisation Union of European Federalists, there are a lot of politicians from the European parliament, the national and regional parliaments. So we have good connections to the political decision makers.
The European Green Party selected their top candidates via the “Green Primaries”.
What do you think of that?
I think that’s really great. Most of JEF participated in the pre-selection process and I think it’s a really good idea. I think the other parties should have done the same. A great example of direct political participation!
So you think a top candidate for each party will encourage people to vote, because they will identify more with one person, instead of THE European Union?
I’m not sure. I mean there will be European-wide candidates. So if you have for example a Spaniard as a top candidate for one party, a lot of Germans wouldn’t know anything about him or her and most probably not be able to identify with him or her.
But then the German media would be forced to report on that Spanish politician.
That’s true, but at least now, most of the German top candidates for the European elections are known to the German public, or at least they hopefully have heard of them.
If they have read the newspapers.
Exactly, if people don’t have much to do with politics, they probably won’t know them. So these candidates will be quite far away from them.
You are hinting at the low voter turnout of the last elections. Why do you think it is so low?
I think the European Union is just too complex. I think that a lot of things are just taken for granted and the shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Well, I mean the main idea why the European Union was founded, was so there would be peace in Europe. But our generation, we regard it as completely normal, which for the older generation it is not. And then that we can travel, that we mostly have the same currency, that we can choose where we live, study and work. And those kinds of things we just can’t take it for granted. We should cherish that.
Coming back to the voter turnout.
I think the main problem is that the people just don’t know a lot about the EU. They just complain about the EU doing everything wrong. But then they also forget that they elected them. So it’s not just them, it’s also who they elected, right?
So what can be done to inform the public?
Well, for example in JEF, we do a lot of campaigns that concern political education. We go to schools, but we also go on the streets, organise seminars in open formats, we get in contact with the people so that they at least get triggered to think about it, to read more about it and then become interested in it.
If you read the newspapers regarding the EU-elections right now, probably the biggest threat to the EU is the rising popularity of populists. Do you think it could ruin the European idea, if too many of them are elected to the European Parliament?
No, not really. I think it’s actually quite good that these populist parties are there. Like this, the main parties have to take a stand. They finally have to take a stand and they have to distinguish themselves from these populists.
Where do you see the European Union in 20 years?
Oh God (laughs). Really? Well we might have more members. Although I think we should first deepen integration, meaning more reforms, take care of the crisis… I believe that these elections will be a turning point. I hope that the member states will realise that all 28 member states together will achieve more than one country alone. So I hope that there will be a change in mindset.
Thank you, Katharina.