Banishing the evil spirits of Europe’s past

Do we really want to go back to the dark ages?

European nations are more than the sum of their parts, like those of the Russian Federation or the People’s Republic of China. So much is obvious. But President Obama sees a future for Europe whose starting point is less integration than cooperation, and which, despite convoluted histories and animosities, depends on a growing sense of oneness. Obama directed his remarks to the “people of Europe”.

In “A truth we hate to admit – we are one people in Europe” (The Guardian, 6 May 2016), Natalie Nougayrède points out :

“That choice of the singular form, ‘people of Europe’ and not ‘peoples’, was the most striking part of Obama’s message. It ran counter to Europe’s growing populism; the self-glorification of national egos, the distrust towards outsiders, and the reflex of putting up walls or closing down borders. The president was deliberate and specific. ‘The people of Europe, hundreds of millions of citizens – east, west, north, south – are more secure and more prosperous because we stood together for the ideals we share,’ he said.”

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, European leaders were single-mindedly divisive, breaking alliance after alliance, suppressing minorities, and ultimately waging total war. After 1945, and with the Cold War in full swing, Western European leaders squabbled and bickered, as each one sought political and economic dominance within the framework of the “Free West”. With the demise of the Soviet Union, old antagonisms and suppressed grievances rose to the surface as the twice vanquished foe – Germany – slowly reasserted itself in European economics and politics, much to the chagrin of the French and the British.

The concept of Europe was always one that conveniently ignored a patchwork of ethnic and linguistic minorities, whose rights were invariably trampled on by the dominant powers. The atrocious events that took place in European conflicts during the 20th century (Bosnia was barely 20 years ago) inflamed old wounds, and Europeans are still trying to reconcile disputes (think any East European country) that have delayed creative thinking about a future of unity and common purpose. As Natalie Nougayrède observes:

“Today, identity politics are back with a vengeance, as the British referendum debate shows, and as other developments have illustrated, from Hungary to the Netherlands, where the far right is on the ascendancy. The EU may have retained its own flag (officially called a‘logo’ when it was adopted in 1986) and it has an anthem (Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth symphony – with the words ‘all men will be brothers’) but the idea that a single European culture can be the bearer of a single political order is overwhelmingly resisted. This is not a new phenomenon, but now seems more pronounced.”

Let’s be clear. This is not an argument for imposing one national culture on another. Yet there is a sense in which European culture (based on more than four thousand years of struggle and compromise, success and failure, and including everything ever learned from those who forcibly or otherwise became part of the great European experiment) has created a recognizable European identity. It encourages Barack Obama to speak of the “people of Europe” and their future as one body that must cooperate in full measure in order to tackle the trials and tribulations coming its way.

All of which serves to underline the futility of Brexit or any other hare-brained scheme that sees fragmentation and divisiveness as the solution to how to survive in a complex and increasingly broken world.

In 1992 Helmut Kohl said, “I doubt that the evil spirits of the past, under which we in Europe have already suffered more than enough this century, have been banished for ever.” Let’s prove him wrong.

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