Photographer: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Europhile's Case for Europe

Even critics say they could come around if the European Union solved its identity crisis.

A man in the audience was going on and on in a Swabian accent and a querulous tone when I walked into the Stuttgart Playhouse on Tuesday night a few minutes after the start of a discussion titled “Do We Really Need the European Union?” I couldn’t understand what the guy was getting at, but then the moderator, veteran German television journalist Joerg Armbruster, summed it up in easy-to-understand TV-Deutsch:

“So the bureaucracy bothers you.”

“Yes,” the man responded.

“Any specific examples?”

“No, I don’t have any.”

This was great, I thought. I was witnessing Europe’s malaise, in the flesh. Even the Germans are cranky about the EU! And they don’t exactly know why!

But then, after one more monologue of Swabian complaint (all I got of it was Armbruster’s translation: “If I understand you correctly, you don’t have much trust in the European Union”), the tone changed. Armbruster kept polling the audience (“collecting voices,” he called it), but people stopped complaining.

A woman said that maybe the problem with the European Union -- or at least the common currency, the euro -- was that it was too advantageous to Germany. “Because we have a common currency, we get an edge in exports,” she said. “I profit from this. Thanks!”

“Do you think this is harming our neighbor countries?” Armbruster asked.

“Yes, definitely,” she responded.

“Germany was always a problem in Europe,” interjected Andre Wilkens, a Berlin-based policy wonk who was one of the evening’s featured speakers but mostly sat and listened.  “The EU was formed to solve that problem.”

Others got up to say that Europe needed more solidarity, with Germans leading the way. It needed more of a sense of community. More attention needed to be paid to the millions of jobless young people in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Then things shifted to straight-out Euroenthusiasm. “To be totally honest, I think Europe is super,” said a woman sitting in the front row. Added a man a few rows back: “There are problems that we Germans alone can’t solve.” By working together with the rest of Europe, he went on, Germany had a better shot at fighting climate change and preventing war.

It isn’t exactly news that a bunch of people gathered in a theater in downtown Stuttgart support the idea of Europe and even, for the most part, the reality of the European Union. The home of Daimler AG, Porsche Automobil Holding SE and Robert Bosch GmbH is one of the continent’s great economic success stories -- and its residents' political views aren't necessarily shared by other Germans. On the whole, Germans see the EU in a more positive light than the citizens of most other European countries (I've included the 10 most populous EU member countries in the chart below), but they're still pretty negative about it.

Who Still Likes the European Union

Percentage of respondents with a "positive image" of the EU

Source: Autumn 2016 Eurobarometer

The gang at the Stuttgart Playhouse was well aware of this. About two-thirds of the way through the discussion, Armbruster called on Ronan Collett, an English baritone who sings with the Stuttgart Opera in the building next door. Collett, who acquired Irish citizenship via his grandparents after the U.K.'s Brexit vote to ensure against career derailment, said -- in English -- that the parts of the discussion that he'd been able to follow seemed reasonable and relevant. But, he added, "what I can say from experience is that for the people who want to destroy Europe, they're not relevant."

So that became the new focus of the discussion: How do we make Europe relevant, and attractive, to more Europeans? Similar people have been asking themselves similar questions all over the Western world lately. And while I know that such exercises must come across to some as absurd and out of touch, I have to admit that I found the Stuttgart version pretty endearing.

There was no cursing out of backward-thinking xenophobes, just suggestion after suggestion: Give the European Parliament, the EU's main democratic institution, more power and take some away from the appointed European commissioners. Let people vote for the parliament on a Europe-wide basis, not country by country. Take to the streets to show support for Europe (there's a march planned for Sunday in Stuttgart). Create more exchange programs between European countries (several people pointed out after that suggestion that there are already a lot of such programs). Build more Europe-wide institutions ("We have the Champions League," joked Armbruster). Come up with a true common language and get everybody in Europe to learn it. Establish a holiday to celebrate Europe. And so on.

One major theme that emerged was that Europe needs a defining idea or set of ideas. Wilkens suggested at one point that while the European Union has come to be seen mainly as an economic institution, more emphasis should be given to its founding idea: "After centuries of war, how about peace?" His fellow panelist, Heidelberg-based novelist and journalist Jagoda Marinic, said the quest for unifying European ideas ought to reach back much further. You know, liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that.

Modern Europe has delivered remarkably well on liberty, and for a while there it seemed to be making big strides on equality. Fraternity, though -- that's the tough one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.