European Union: vision and reality

There are two European projects: one is the dream, the other is the reality. It is between the two that Europe has to navigate, and the synthesis between them will determine its place in history.

The dream grew out of both fear and hope. In the post-1945 world and under the shadow of Cold War, it was the fear of Soviet expansion which drew together the leaders of France and West Germany. Together with the trauma of World War II, it inspired them to overcome more than a century of wars and mutual hatred and to commit themselves to a vision that never again should their countries wage war against each other. While the initiative came from hardened political leaders, it was broadly popular. It was not a bureaucratic scheme: it reflected the vox populorum of ordinary people.

And there was hope: devastated by wars, the people of western Europe embraced the vision of a continent overcoming aspirations of nationalist aggrandizement and the politics of power by embracing common civilizational values.

It was this double engine, combining realpolitik and vision, which drove the European project from its apparently modest beginnings as the Coal and Steel Community, through the European Economic Community and the European Community to the European Union. Despite various reservations – from French Gaullists and British Conservatives – the ability of hundreds of millions to say “Civis Europaensis sum” filled people with pride: that the century of mass wars and the Holocaust could end with bringing up the heritage of European common values, anchored in a democratic creed and a belief in human equality, was an incredible achievement.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, equally achieved without violence, added a world-historical dimension to the European project: not Armageddon, but a New Jerusalem, whose gates were now open to the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, who rightly saw their accession to the EU as a “return to Europe” which most of their population never felt had left.

Yet now, there is a bit of a bitter taste in the air. “How beautiful was the Republic – under the Monarchy” many quipped during the French Revolution. A similar feeling of what the Germans call Unbehagen is now casting its shadow, and its causes go beyond the current financial and economic crisis.

Was the move towards a political union too quick? Perhaps. Were the last decades of economic and monetary integration viewed by large sectors of the population as being too bureaucratic, lacking in popular consensus? Probably.

It appears that even those who navigated Maastricht and Lisbon were at one point taken aback by what they had wrought: when the institutional structures for a closer political union were set up and the time has come to appoint a European Council President and a European Foreign Policy chief. The same leaders who pushed for the Lisbon Treaty consciously and decidedly rejected appointing strong leaders and chose two minor politicians who cannot wear the mantle of political leadership. Similarly, despite instruments enabling the formulation of a common foreign and security policy, when it comes to craft an effective common policy – on Iran, Syria, developments in the Arab world – it appears that individual countries, and especially the leading members, continue to pursue their traditional separate policies, deeply anchored in centuries of raison d’etat and historical interests, and can eventually come up with merely declaratory policies, not with what really counts: the capacity to act. Apparently, it is not easy to give up sovereignty: Westphalian concepts have not been overcome.

Similarly, one of the disappointing aspects of the financial crisis is the lack of solidarity across national borders: at the end of the day, there still is no European demos. While one can understand the unwillingness of citizens of some of the richer countries, who had been working hard to gain their economic achievements, to underwrite overspending in other, less rich countries, some of the reactions in Germany, for example, to the Greek crisis show a clear lack of solidarity. This would have been different, had it been Bavaria and not Greece that needed help. And in fact, Germans in the West have shown admirable solidarity in helping the citizens of the former DDR: here the feeling of brotherhood was clear and impressive.

Despite all this, the dire predictions that the European project is doomed are wrong: but it is thwarted. What is needed is to go down from summit meetings of heads of government, foreign and finance ministers and bureaucrats – to the base and overcome the democratic deficit of the EU. There may not be a European demos, but there is a European populus. Europe does not need more position papers or regulations – it needs a fundamental educational overhaul, which will address the people, bring out the common values needed for solidarity and togetherness. Only a bottom-up approach can make Europe what its founders hoped it to be: a common space based on liberty, equality – and fraternity.

Published 7 July 2014
Original in English
First published by Res Publica Nowa 25 (2014)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa © Shlomo Avineri / Res Publica Nowa / Eurozine

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