Feature

The Case for Europe

As Europe swings to the right, BBC journalist Nick Fraser asks: is the EU worth saving?

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

One day in early April, I passed a bizarre series of advertisements in my local London tube station. At first sight, they appeared to contrast two identical plastic-wrapped chickens, one of them profusely labelled with health warnings. They were, it turned out, political ads designed to increase turnout for the European Union parliamentary elections in June, which the EU is billing as the biggest transnational ballot in history. It seemed the most inspiring message the organization could muster was that it had enabled us to know exactly what was in our chickens.

Later that month, in Strasbourg, I watched Barack Obama address a crowd of well-behaved teenagers. He apologized for the often patronizing tone adopted by his country toward Europe, and rebuked Europeans for their anti-Americanism. He also told them about his desire to see a world without nuclear weapons. “C’est le président du monde,” a small girl said, and she wasn’t exaggerating. I couldn’t help but compare Barack and Michelle’s expansive style with the pursed-lip, pinched presence of our own leaders at the nato summit taking place that week. In so many material aspects, especially its commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, Europe was failing to deliver. Who would speak for Europe, I asked myself. Not Italy’s grotesque Silvio, caught on camera incurring the Queen’s displeasure after attempting to attract Obama’s attention. Not the diminutive Hello! magazine president from France, with his beaky pop singer wife, nor the former chemist from eastern Germany, nor indeed our own rumpled-suited, frenzied über-geek of a prime minister.

Europe has lately come to seem like a well-furnished, slightly faded café where the service isn’t so bad and from which, weather permitting, one can admire the passing flow. From time to time, Europeans complain about some minor, anomalous alteration to the decor, but generally we’re contented, even as we voice under our collective breath the words of Napoleon’s mother: “Pourvu que ça dure” (“Let’s just hope it lasts”). Knowing that nothing so pleasant can endure, we sit back and hope for the best, offering a minimalist response even when the world comes unglued.

“The European idea is empty,” the French philosopher Raymond Aron wrote in the 1950s. “It has neither the transcendence of messianic ideologies nor the immanence of concrete patriotism.” The latter, at least, was supposed to change when the Treaty of Maastricht took effect in 1993, transforming the European Economic Community into the high-sounding European Union and supposedly bringing cohesion to the sprawling European institutions based in Brussels. Neither a superstate nor a humble set of arrangements governing trade, the Union was, as political scientists like to say, sui generis. Unique it may be, but it has never been especially well defined. The EU has managed since 1993 to carve out a role as a bureaucracy, but, chickens notwithstanding, it is hardly a robust one. And it has never claimed much loyalty from European citizens. I used to think the EU was a bit like an overpopulated Canada, minus the Mounties and the Inuit. But it’s possible to experience patriotism in relation to Canada, and in their diffident way most Canadians I know do experience such emotion. They also share with Americans, in muted form, a sense of destiny; surely Canadians were not just set on earth to argue over their awesomely complex constitutional arrangements, or to indulge in the joys of bilingualism, but to do good. Europeans do not conspicuously display such emotions about a shared mission.

Frustrated by the inactivity of the continent’s leaders in the days after the G-20 summit, I began to discuss the state of Europeanness with friends. One of them, a journalist at The Economist, worried that he had never made up his mind. “I might feel better if I was a real Euroskeptic,” he said. From recently accepted countries such as the Czech Republic, as well as former redoubts of Europhobia, came a different message. A young Danish director, embarked on the seemingly impossible task of making a comic film about attempts to create a European Constitution, felt that the lack of European gravitas was bearable, even good. No longer fashionable, not even rated much in the world, Europe remained a good place, if not necessarily an exciting one.

Did it really matter that the sense of European nationhood was undeveloped? Perhaps not. But a fresh set of threats seemed to be pressing in, as Europe responded belatedly to the impact of a world slump. Governments had fallen in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia. In France, citizens were once more taking to the streets in a spirit of disgust. There were signs of a renewed surge of interest in far-right politics, as some Europeans came to resent the many jobs held by immigrants in their midst. Plans to extend the European Union farther into the Balkans, even as far as Turkey, were languishing. Given the stakes, I had to believe that the EU was more than just a chicken-stamping organization, or a forum whose existence tacitly prevented World War III. Was there something there worth believing in?

My parents met during the 1944 campaign, when my British father was an officer and my French mother lived in a Normandy village, and I am therefore, whether I like it or not, part of the European experiment. Growing up in Britain, I could see how anomalous was the British detachment from Europe. Especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed to smack of John Bullshit stupidity. We Brits were urging on the countries of Eastern Europe. They should be allowed to join, we told our fellow Europeans, even as we held back ourselves, disdaining the single currency and the EU bureaucracy. For my part, I’d always wanted to be a skeptical European rather than a Euroskeptic, so I set out on a quest, not just as a reporter, but as a citizen. I found my concerns becoming urgently aroused.

When I first went to Brussels, in the late ’90s, the city was still filled with those who purported to believe in a European utopia. In its fumbling day-to-day reality, it made me think of a giant stage set, on which many thousands of men and women, soberly dressed, were in search of dramatic parts capable of expressing their bureaucratic identities, Pirandello style. I remember standing with an English friend in a large hall, watching a large number of mayors from middle-sized European cities file up to a dais, accompanied by hostesses wearing folkloric costumes. At that moment, the EU was busy promoting the idea of regionalism as a counterpoint to the old (and presumably toxic) nation-states of Europe. “It just won’t do,” my friend said, sadly.

The Yugoslav War, about which I had produced many disheartening films, had recently ended in exhaustion, and the gap between slogans of European unity and the messy, violent reality was vast. European politicians had explained to us at the outset of the Balkan conflict that they could use the resources of the European Union to end it. Then they’d explained that there was nothing they could do about the bloodshed. I still think of the European Balkan moment as a nadir, even by the blackest standards of the continent’s history. Yet here in Brussels, I was told that things could be different. I was angry at the presumption inherent to this belated attempt at utopia in blue and yellow.

But another development was underway, unbeknownst to the European public, that made me revise my negative views. As it set about creating a common currency, Europe was also slowly incorporating the lost territories of the old Habsburg and Russian empires, essentially returning Europe to itself. Few books adequately describe this process, because it is one without conspicuous heroes. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marks a great European year, fit to stand alongside 1848, 1945, and the magically radical 1968. Revolutions begin in the streets, but their endings usually come in chipped-off chancelleries reduced to rubble, with armies regaining power. The revolution of 1989 ended more happily, with the introduction of democracy. It took painstaking, patient work to transform these Soviet bloc satellites back into European countries, but there was a stretch during the late ’90s during which I went from capital to capital in a state of elation. On previous visits, I’d seen concentration camps, barracks-style housing projects, and socialist realist sculpture. Now I was watching parliamentary proceedings, often featuring people I’d encountered as dissidents not so long ago.

Of course, the euphoria couldn’t last. The politicians proved in many cases to be corrupt. (In Poland, the dissidents were succeeded in power by a pair of risible former child movie stars, devout Catholics with chauvinist views about Polish greatness.) But crude democracy is better than no democracy, and we democrats are always being told to accept the fact that there is no utopia, only many ways, more or less bad, of running your life. I once stood in Warsaw holding in my hands the green-bound volumes of the acquis communautaire—the 30,000-odd statutes required to be met before a country could join the European Union, covering not just the right of the EU to impose standards on any number of pork and poultry products, but also the true reach of the various overlapping authorities that comprised the Union, superseding national parliaments. These laws passed within just over a decade, in ten countries once part of the Soviet bloc—in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania. A new Europe seemed to be forming.

Perhaps understandably, the identity of this new Europe has proven difficult to grasp. In North America, expectations vary from year to year, and, depending on fashion or ideology, commentators praise or revile Europe for its social democracy, its environmental bent. They display the same alternating attitudes toward the European treatment of foreigners, particularly Muslims. Liberal American writers don’t really think Europeans have tried hard enough to accept immigrants, contrasting European efforts with their own tradition of generosity to the poor and huddled, whereas neo-cons feverishly utter warnings about Europe as if every cathedral were about to be deconsecrated and, with the hasty addition of minarets, turned into a mosque, from which sharia law will be proclaimed.

The continent’s failure to develop a collective identity based on its shared democratic principles should perhaps come as no surprise. The early European institutions, built atop the wreckage and despair of World War II, were seen as a means of preventing the kinds of horrible wars that had destroyed the continent. But the means of rescue were primarily economic. Europeans, it was reasoned, would be less likely to fight if they were hooped together under an integrated economic system. And indeed, the best books about the EU ideal, like Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, recount a long march of sorts, from one resolution to another, but also from poverty, atrocity, and darkness to unabashed prosperity.

Open markets may generally coexist with open societies, but democracy has always seemed to remain in second place for the EU. Europeans have found it hard to translate their affluence and new-found security into a spirit of principled, collective internationalism. They may inhabit an international space, but they remain Dutch, French, or Brits, arguing for Dutch, French, or British solutions to human rights crises while the EU’s leadership concerns itself with such matters as blocking the import of tomatoes from the developing world.

It’s not merely individual culture or bureaucracy, however, that shapes our inability to speak and act with one voice. Our past is significant, too, in a way that outsiders find hard to comprehend. The last vestiges of the awful European twentieth century have been consigned to what the French historian Pierre Nora calls “lieux de mémoire,” but our memories have made us cautious. One not wholly desirable bequest of our violent past is the tangled, contradictory set of attitudes Europeans have developed, not just to defending ourselves from acts of terrorism, but toward the use of force in the world, even when the cause is something we view favourably.

Europeans have retreated to what one American historian calls “a super civilian state”—a haven from which we felt free, during the Bush years, to express a great deal of hostility toward Americans and American imperialism. I was in Germany on the eve of the Iraq War. Almost alone, the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, confronted Donald Rumsfeld, expressing his view that war would be a gross stupidity. The Germans I met didn’t think Fischer had gone far enough. They believed that Europe, given its past, should never again fight any war—something they probably still believe. Similar, if less extreme, sentiments litter the texts of European theorists and politicians. Robert Cooper, who advised Tony Blair during Blair’s brief flirtation with the euro and later became a Eurocrat, has depicted Europe as a “postmodern” state. Cooper believes, reasonably enough, that no state can afford to stand alone today. For him, politics, like life, consists of oftenjostling, multiple allegiances. The EU is a means of expanding a nation’s choices and loyalties. But it also means choosing to rely on laws, declarations, and the like, as if the world could be remade along the lines of the European Union, if the EU simply set a good enough example.

The neo-con Robert Kagan was much criticized for his observation that Americans came from Mars and Europeans from Venus, but his analysis was correct. By advocating small armies, humanitarian intervention, and diplomatic overtures, Europeans on the one hand speak to a utopian longing for a world in which the notion of “soft power” can lead to the democratic communion it ostensibly wishes to see and to represent. On the other, they ensure that they—and their ideals—will continue to be defended by an America still prepared to countenance military adventures. The result is a Europe that refuses to take sides. I recall a 2008 interview with the exasperated president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose country was about to be invaded by the Russians. “Europeans like to sit in the middle as if nothing was anything to do with them,” I remember him complaining. “It is the greatest decadence.”

In the absence of a robust, democratic internationalism, the EU has fallen back on its bureaucratic achievements. It would be cruel but not inaccurate to suggest that when you can’t accomplish something in Europe you just come up with another piece of paper. Kicking my heels at dreary summits while covering the hundredth attempt to reform Europe’s wasteful agricultural policies, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder the paper malaise that obscures the EU’s potential. An irony of European history is that the eec was designed as a counterpoint to socialist ideology, yet many of today’s Eurocrats believe in what political scientists call “economism”: if you organize what Marxists referred to as the “infrastructure,” all the rest—political ideals, unity, prestige—will follow.

With a persistence that sometimes borders on folly, European politicians have applied these principles to the construction of their multi-nation democracy. Then they’ve acted surprised when Europeans, given the option, have ignored or rejected their proposals. This explains the sorry history of the European constitution. Mooted in 2004, the document was sold as a way of formalizing the status quo without claiming any greater importance or influence for Brussels. It offered some innovations, most notably a president, though one without any significant powers. However, the Dutch and the French turned it down, and it was abandoned. Its successor, the less than imaginatively renamed Reform Treaty, was substantially the same as its antecedent, with a few provisions eliminated or watered down. Some Eurocrats argued that the treaty shouldn’t have to be subjected to a popular vote. But Ireland’s constitution specifies that all significant changes to EU treaties must be voted on, and last year the country rejected the Reform agreement. (Rebuked for being ungrateful, given the subsidies they have received from Brussels, the Irish have agreed to hold another referendum, which will take place by November.)

The constitution’s failure seemed to mark the end of the old top-down experiment of Europeanism. In its place have come no ideas about Europe, only gridlock, and, here in Britain at least, the return of national sentiment. Promises notwithstanding, Tony Blair did nothing to reconcile Britain with its real role in the world—middle-sized European state—while the Tory government-in-waiting is mainly composed of Euroskeptics. Throughout Europe, skeptics and new nationalists are adroit when it comes to using the tools of democracy against Europe. They don’t want to destroy it, but they’re content to gain support by critiquing and exploiting the contradictions of European multiculturalism or pointing up the lack of democracy in EU proceedings. The continent’s divisions offer a happy field for such endeavours. A referendum regarding the admission of Turkey, a large, dynamic Muslim country with a messy but thriving democratic culture, has been bandied about for some time now. Ten years ago, Europeans told the Turks that their human rights record wasn’t good enough for them to qualify for admission. Now Europeans mutter inconsequentially (and misleadingly) about how they belong to a Christian civilization and the Turks do not. It might be better if they either resolved to admit the Turks or turned them down, but one can be certain they will do neither. So much uncertainty has radically altered the mood in the European café. Ebullient, prepared to countenance expansion ten years ago, Europeans now seem fearful, cowed by the future.

The café lights burned brightly in Riga, the capital of Latvia, upon my visit just late last year. The country, an EU member since 2004, appeared to be yet another model of European democratic reclamation in miniature. The Soviet-era factories had become cafés or galleries, and the shops were filled with goods from Sweden and Germany. But as of this writing, loan negotiations with the International Monetary Fund were stalled over the question of budget cuts. Many economists tell us that all Eastern European economies, not just Latvia’s, will soon be obliged to adopt the euro, even if they don’t officially join the eurozone.

It is hard to see how the EU can avoid becoming far more deeply engaged in the fates of the places to the east that it proposed to save, even though this is something most Europeans would be loath to see happen. (The Germans, on whom the burden will fall heaviest, because they still have money, are most reluctant to offer assistance, recalling the expensive bailout of East Germany.) Countries within the eurozone may also fail and require help: after Ireland, Austria is expected to go down, and Greece and Italy are said to be on the sick list. In a way in which the EU’s founders couldn’t have anticipated, but that harks back to the postwar days of the eec, economic crisis may lead to a different, more closely organized Europe as an alternative to the breakup of the Union. But it is possible, too, that the old demons of nationalist Europe will be reawakened by economic misery. We Europeans know these things can happen.

I retain some faith in the possibility that Europe can use this moment to become more than the sum of its economies and bureaucracies. When I set out to discover the continent more than a decade ago, what gave me hope was not just the flourishing of democracy, but the potential of pluralism, even in the worst circumstances. At its best, Europe now shows how elements of national cultures can be mixed together without ever quite losing their separateness. And the new Europe now has a history of its own—comprising the official process of integration, to be sure, but also, more important, the knowledge that so many millions of Europeans, with their tangled histories and ethnic origins, can live together without all-encompassing war.

Many of the greatest achievements of European civic culture have come from the continent’s margins—from such inspired inventions as Médecins Sans Frontières or Amnesty International, or indeed the green movement. To be a European internationalist, you don’t have to sign up to some of the more outlandish aspects of European integration. It’s possible to remain a bit remote, yet fitfully respectful. Scandinavians, for example, have kept their distance from the European experiment without ever becoming mindlessly hostile, as so many Brits have. Recently, I’ve grown interested in the degree to which Europe has become Scandinavian, in things as diverse as generous unemployment provisions, greenness, and the freely expressed attention paid to the plight of the world’s poor—a vision of good that Canadians might appreciate.

Some of these attitudes are present in the current Scandinavian bestsellers, now being sold in their millions throughout Europe. The Millennium Trilogy recounts the efforts of a left-wing journalist and his punkish female companion to ensure, in the style pioneered by Tintin, that the cruel, the stupid, and the greedy receive their just deserts. The author, Stieg Larsson, who died at fifty, before his books were published, was a left-wing journalist and an anti-racist campaigner, and his books reflect these views comprehensively. Mildly paranoid, featuring the odd bit of deviant sex happily engaged in a Scandinavian spirit of collaborative equality, they trade on our indignation over the evils of greed and patriarchal sexism. There is something wholly old-fashioned and generous about these fat page turners, and I suspect that in their idealism and nostalgia they represent, charmingly, the true state of European opinion. In a bad time, they are making Europeans feel better about themselves.

We’re not likely to see grass growing on the Unter den Linden anytime soon, but I’m starting to think that our leaders, like the rest of us, should come off the fence and appeal to Europeans—starting with the Irish, but including the Brits—to preserve and strengthen what has been accomplished with such pain. It might just prove to be the making of Europe. In the meantime, I’ve shed any vestiges of skepticism. Europe matters in the world. Now that the new Europe has a past, it should be possible to map out a future that doesn’t consist of slogans and detailed directives. I’d like to see the lights burning night after night in the European café, as Europeans finally resolve the question of who they can be.