Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Are There Any Europeans Left?

(European Politicians, Robin Hood Tax/Flickr)
While being this week in Europe, I couldn't help reading the most international newspaper of Europe, The International Herald Tribune. Soon it will be renamed the International New York Times, which is too bad but a sign of the times - no pun intended - and reflects the reality of being solely owned by The New York Times. The International Herald Tribune used to be a joint-venture between the Times and The Washington Post, but the Post stepped out in 2003, so now The New York Times wants to extend its global branding: see for a personal memory Adieu Herald Tribune by Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker. Anyway, coming back to where I began: I was reading a thought-provoking article by French writer and journalist Olivier Guez, titled: Are there any Europeans left?

It starts out by saying that Europe is in a crisis "not just of Europe’s currency, but of its soul." and he continues:
 


"If there ever was an emerging vision of a united Europe, it is falling apart for lack of support from its various peoples. Each has its own resentments or suspicions of its partners. But all suffer the same lack: very few of their citizens think of themselves first as Europeans.
 
"But maybe, to understand where we are now, the story should start earlier — not with the coalescing of France and Germany in the 1960s but with the model of Europe in the decade before the calamity of 1914. In important ways, the Europe of 1913 was more cosmopolitan and European than the Europe of today. Ideas and nationalities mingled and converged in a hotbed of creativity.................
And there were large communities of cosmopolitan expatriates — “passeurs” between cultures, notably urbanized Jews, as well as German minorities, scattered throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Though prejudice ran deep and they were harshly mistreated in many places, in others they could identify as citizens of a broader European group, not merely the land they inhabited, and aspire to respect and comfort.

"Later, at the hands of totalitarians, most of the Jews would be slaughtered, and the Germans — like other groups — deported to their country of origin. Alongside their greater crimes, Hitler and Stalin thus did their parts to erase the idea of cosmopolitanism as the old Europe had understood it.

"Europeans prospered in an increasingly common market. But the unifying element was not optimism as much as dread — fear of another war among themselves or of Soviet expansion was what spurred West Europeans to bridge differences if they developed.......After the Berlin Wall fell, Western Europe expanded east and seemed to be serenely approaching the End of History — peace, prosperity, social security, democracy, with a unifying token, the euro, from Helsinki, Finland, to Seville, Spain. For its more than 400 million people, Europe became a theme park, museum, supermarket — the EasyJet continent: efficient, fast, open to all at little cost. But now Europe asks for sacrifices and solidarity, and it finds itself on the decline. Everywhere, populists and nationalists gain. Managing austerity, fighting debt — this, it turns out, is no way to unite Europe.

"Leaders of opinion, commerce and government generally agree that the Continent could benefit from greater political unity, since globalization favors continental blocs. But the nations and peoples of Europe would have to give up great areas of sovereignty, and nothing has prepared them for this. At the rate things are going, if Europeans are asked to push for unity, they will refuse.

Guez then calls for a new vision for Europe, referring to Czech born writer and French citizen, Milan Kundera's talks of "Europe’s “maximum diversity in minimum space”, a foundational ideal, which Guez considers "the sine qua non of Continental political unity." He invites European leaders to come to action:
  
"Fran├žois Hollande, Angela Merkel and especially David Cameron: remember the passeurs! Encourage the creation of a single European public and cultural space. Give us a vision for the peoples of Europe: make them dream of being one people, and leave your ambiguities behind. If you sincerely aspire to a political Europe, then take up the responsibility with courage and a vision that goes beyond the next elections and the next economic bump in the road. Promote the Continent’s spiritual unity, organized around its diversity."

Let me say that I admire Guez for his passion and idealism, and agree with some of his observations: Europe is indeed in a crisis of its soul, and that has not been helped by the fact that European citizens, like myself, think of themselves often in national terms, whether it's Dutch, French, German, Greek etc. I also agree that many Europeans have gotten used to the ease of prosperity and the "benefits" of globalization, such as affordable international travel, and the ubiquity of Hollywood and social media, without a true cultural or spiritual understanding of what it means to be European and be part of a larger real regional - not fake global - community. 

But there is a deeper problem, which is either one of unclarity of Europe's ultimate purpose, or of a hidden agenda pursued by bureaucratic elites against what many consider wise. Is Europe's purpose a unified political Europe - i.e. a federal Europe -  or is it a Europe of interdependent but sovereign nations? This discussion should have been honestly held, while the times were good and more people would have been open-minded enough. Now after French and Dutch referendums against a European constitution, after a global financial crisis, after bail-outs of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and who's next, after severe austerity measures in name of the Euro and after falling credibility of political leaders in Greece, Spain and Italy, this is not the time to push through new visions. It's like during a neighborhood fire, you are not going to decide on a nice redecoration of the living rooms, let alone a new vision among the neighborhood residents, many of which are scrambling to get out of the heat. In other words, yes, Europe does need a new vision, but that needs to be created against a background of honest presentation and discussion of the political and economic alternatives for Europe. That needs to happen, sooner or later, because, just like Guez, I too believe in European ideals and commonalities.  However,  I doubt that that can happen, while firefighters are fighting fires, and a call for a unified political Europe - without a full understanding of the democratic consequences - seems to be fading away from many European voters' minds.
 






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