Europe’s impossible dream
The economic logic of European integration is now directly confronting nationalistic sentiments in the hearts and souls of Europeans. It’s becoming clear that nationalism resonates more deeply. That is the stuff of our patriotic life, fragments from our history that we use to shore up our present and point to our future. To discard them is to discard part of our mental and moral makeup.
For much of the last 60 years the Union has been Good, scattering tangible and intangible blessings upon its growing group of member states. It brought investment to the poorer countries that joined. It broke down physical and psychological barriers between states, so that their citizens now pass casually into and through countries that once required major preparation. It gave the former Communist states of Central Europe an ideal to which to aspire and templates by which aspirations could become routine. And it made inter-European war so unthinkable that its possibility ceased to be thought about at all.
The dream of the founders was an ever-closer union transforming itself into something like a federal state. They thought it could exist in idealistic form while the practical changes were put – with much labor, compromise and argument – into place. One of these founders, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, called up the ideal in a speech in 1948:
We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.
Two years later, in another speech, he filled in the nuts and bolts:
Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.
But solidarity is easier in easy times: It is in the hard moments that it is tested. Real solidarity is built up through deeply shared experience and common response in the midst of despair. It is strongest in those who feel part of one community – through place, work, or the result of misfortune or oppression. That kind of solidarity, we Europeans do not have.
We do have, more or less, another kind of solidarity, which we have been taught to respect. We see it in our national days: France’s July 14, Bastille Day, a commemoration of the storming by the Parisian mob of a grim prison in which enemies of the monarchical state languished and often died, marking the transformation of the absolute monarchy into an absolute republic. Italy celebrates national unity, in 1861; Germany, national reunification, in 1990; Poland, independent statehood, in 1918; the Slovaks, independence from the Czechs, in 1993. The Irish, in celebrating St. Patrick on March 17, conflate the fifth-century saint with the violent struggle for independence from the British, and have created a pageant global in its reach, the largest of its kind. The British, whose national day (if such it is) is the Queen’s birthday, will belt out Land of Hope and Glory again at the Last Night of the Proms in September: Woe to the progressive bureaucrat or politician who cavils that the song’s injunction for the British to rule the waves is jingoistic, or “inappropriate.”
On these days we celebrate independence, freedom and the creation of a nation previously suppressed, fragmented or denied separate existence. Like our anthems they tell us we owe our freedom to our nation, and our nation guards that freedom against the rest. The enemy defied in the song may have long ceased to threaten (the Star Spangled Banner’s invocation of a land of the free was a land to be freed from the British. But the rousing of valor and its identification with national and personal independence, to which most anthems speak, still stirs.
It is this complex of emotions, loyalties and prejudices that politicians have honored and furthered – and which, in Europe, are now being trashed. The cold logic of the economists, that only a central administration can offer the financial, fiscal and political power to draw the Union out of its crisis, is now commonly held. Even those like the British government, which wishes no part of it but gasp for the 17 members of the euro zone to set the zone to rights so that the UK’s biggest market can again show growth, agree. But economic logic, now stands more opposed than ever before against the real solidarity that remains: the solidarity of the national community.
European politicians must now attempt something for which they are wholly unprepared – and thus have never prepared their electorates. They must tell peoples who wave tricolors symbolizing freedom and sing anthems glorying the national spirit that this is all very well, but it is to be brought out with an indulgent wink, signifying very little if anything at all. They must propose solidarity among nations that will approximate that which we muster for our compatriots. They must advocate seeing part of our tax go to support other countries’ citizens in their age, their sickness and their enforced idleness.
When that logic and that emotion are forced to face each other – as if on a dusty main street in an old Western – one must win. The fat years of the past six decades have served both our politicians and us, the populace, badly. They have diverted our gaze from the huge choice built into the foundation of the Union. But the choice is here now, everywhere in Europe. Once the summer is over, it will demand to be made.
PHOTO: People stop to look at a map of Europe, which is part of a marble world planisphere, in Lisbon August 14, 2011. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro