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.