The beautiful folly of the European experiment
We Europeans are in the mud of agony, but our hearts are among the stars of bliss. Our anthem is Beethoven’s setting – in the last movement of his 9th Symphony – of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, a work of transcendent romantic idealism, above all in its central claim – “All men will be brothers!” (“Alle menschen werden bruder”: in the fashion of the time, Schiller meant all humanity).
Adopted as Europe’s official anthem 40 years ago, it is supposed to be played rather than sung – one wouldn’t want to give the impression that Germans dominated the continent! But it is sometimes voiced, as in 2004, when an orchestra was playing it on the German-Polish border on the occasion of Poland’s accession to the European Union, and the crowd sang Schiller’s words. Given Polish-German history, to sing that humanity will be united in love was a moving event.
The union of Europe was conceived and furthered in much that same vaulting romantic spirit. To be sure, it had its feet on the ground: a coal and steel community was the foundation of the Union. Among its most solid – and perhaps most lasting – achievements are in furthering common rules for trade, for investment and for services: the common market.
But the ideal behind it, the moving spirit of its founders, was to create structures which would make war impossible – to so bind the economies and the societies of the continent together that attempts at conquest of one over the other would be unthinkable. Thus it would work to bring Europeans together in amity, and have them explore their common European, rather than national, identity.
Later, from the seventies on, it became a democratic home for countries coming out of dictatorship – Greece, Portugal and Spain first, then the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The explicit promise was that a European framework would be a protection against domestic dictators and foreign tyrants – the shades of the Soviet Union/Russia lay darkly across the invocation of the latter.
For the more ardent spirits among the pro-Europeanists – and a few of these remain, though their voice is muted – Europe’s destiny was the achievement of statehood. It would of course have a federal structure to give substantial autonomy to the nations, but it would also have a centralized power which could and would express a unified political will, one capable of standing beside the current global hegemon, the USA and any future great power, like China.
But in these grand constructions and visions, two elements were forgotten – or at least ignored. One was the people of Europe; and the second was that the people of Europe thought of themselves as Europeans only sometimes: they otherwise stubbornly cleaved to their national identities.
The people of Europe had approved of much that was done. Especially in the years after the war, when Europe was reconstructing itself from ruins (leaning heavily on Marshall Plan aid from the U.S.), and the horror of war was fresh in the minds of all, the prospect of No More War was both a hope and an inspiration. For the political classes of the vanquished, in Germany and in Italy, the new Union was a means of national civic renewal: an implicit pledge to their neighbours that they were no longer militaristic in outlook, nor did they seek national glory through conquest.
National pride was taken, instead, in the renunciation of conquest. For Germany in particular, where war-guilt was by far the heaviest, a European destiny was a means of purging that guilt. And there was a largely uncontroversial acceptance on the part of the Germans, which lasted for decades, that they would show their pacific, good-European, side by paying the largest share of the bills.
For the nations on the winning side, Europe was both an insurance policy against war and a means of increasing national wealth through supranational agreement. France, the mostly undisputed political leader of Europe (the UK stayed on the sidelines, a late joiner, semi-detached after joining), saw the Union as a means of extending its power and its culture.
But in its growth, the Union became increasingly complex. Its centers of power proliferated, and these were led and administered by people of whom most Europeans knew little or nothing. Though most of the media (British newspapers were the major exception) were friendly to – indeed, dangerously uncritical of – the project, it became common journalistic parlance that stories with “Europe” in the headline were seen by readers or viewers as boring. Journalism, however large its democratic claims, is largely a for-profit business. It does not stick with boring for long.
Distance bred resentment; ignorance bred suspicion. As “Europe” dealt with issues that became increasingly arcane or high-flown or both, the concerns of the Europeans who thought of themselves as French, Dutch, Italian, or German took precedence. When, in 2005, the first two of these voted in separate referenda on the ratification of the treaty establishing a European Constitution, the proposal to ratify was defeated – decisively in France, resoundingly in the Netherlands.
Not all politics are local, but few are more than national. The ideals of Europe were and are fine: but the purchase its institutions have on the hearts and minds of Europeans was and is too slight. Beneath the current financial and banking crises, there lies a longer-lasting democratic one: a failure of identification with the human side of what seems an impersonal engine, created by elites and largely confined to them.
The Europeans see, in the governments, parties and parliaments of their countries, figures they know. They may dislike them for their beliefs and their actions; hold their politics in contempt; vote against them when they can. But popular movements have, through the centuries, fought to establish these institutions to express common wills – to both conduct national business and to confine the antagonisms of class and ethnicity to arenas in which compromises can be made. “Europe” was not built like that. It did not come through struggle, through agitation for reform, through popular campaigns. It was conceived for the best of reasons – for peace and unity; yet it has been built and administered in the worst of ways – from the top.
All men have not become brothers, and are unlikely to be so soon. Men and women require a politics which resonates with their collective history and contains figures who are in some measures like them. “Europe” has not supplied these. If and when the immediate crisis is surmounted, the fundamental limits of democratic and civic engagement must be explicitly recognized. If a new house of Europe is to be attempted, its foundations must be laid, as is customary, from the bottom up.
A woman looks at a billboard showing a photo montage with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel displayed on a Benetton store in Paris November 17, 2011. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE – Tags: POLITICS MEDIA BUSINESS)