There is a fleeting chance we’ll see them lit again if we act now.
In a kind of double-whammy, The Guardian newspaper has published two articles on the same urgent topic: Europe’s disintegration. “Europe ‘coming apart before our eyes’, say 30 top intellectuals” and “Fight for Europe – or the wreckers will destroy it” (25 January 2019). They warn of the grave consequences if nationalist/populist politics destroy the European ideal of neighbourliness and democratic accountability.
“Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes.”
The articles say that unless efforts are made to combat the rising tide of populism, EU elections in May 2019 will be “the most calamitous that we have ever known: victory for the wreckers; disgrace for those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe, and Comenius; disdain for intelligence and culture; explosions of xenophobia and anti-Semitism; disaster.”
When gender equality is still a divisive issue, it is unfortunate that the authors cite four men as having given Europe its intellectual legacy. Where are Christine de Pizan, Olympe de Gouges, Annie Besant, and Clara Campoamor, for example? But let’s make allowances for good intentions. Europe’s legacy – ignoring conflicts from the Hundred Years’ War to the Bosnian War (and what of Ukraine?) – is about the technological advances, music, art, and literature that are supposed to have civilised its peoples and nations. That legacy includes attempts to bring about greater understanding and cooperation: from the Enlightenment to the concept of a European Union.
Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk has said that the idea of Europe was also important to non-western countries:
“The historical success of Europe made it easier to defend these ideas and values which are crucial to humanity all over the world. There is no Europe besides these values except the Europe of tourism and business. Europe is not a geography first but these ideas. This idea of Europe is under attack.”
The idea of Europe is absent from the spurious nationalisms fuelled by populist politicians with an eye to the main chance. Not one of today’s populist leaders has his or her nation’s peace and security at heart. They all foment division, hatred, and alienation – even between European countries themselves. In doing so, they are manipulating a malaise that is difficult to pin down.
In “Can Emmanuel Macron’s ‘great national debate’ save his presidency?” (The Guardian 23 January 2019), Guillaume Liegey writes:
“Data collected in France and Germany reveals that the reason why citizens who are drawn to populist parties hold grudges against the ‘media and politics’, is because they adopt an ‘agenda’ that doesn’t at all fit their concerns. Those main concerns are ‘precarious working conditions, worries about money and declining social infrastructure’. Data drawn from door-to-door conversations shows that right-wing populist parties’ central anti-immigration narrative is far less prevalent among their voter base than is generally assumed… Migrants aren’t what people spontaneously mention if they’re truly asked about their lives. Rather, they complain about a lack of attention from politicians and public institutions. Voters who lean towards populist parties, whether left or right, often say they feel ‘abandoned’.”
Swathes of the populations of every European country feel politically adrift. They do not necessarily feel left out of the national narrative and they are not necessarily against the European ideal – if they even recognise the term. They feel ignored. And for their own nefarious ends, populist politicians are pandering to their genuine and misplaced fears.
As an alliance of countries that seeks to live in mutual peace and prosperity, the future of Europe is at stake. The European Union’s failings should not be used as an excuse to destroy the luminous vision of people like Italian leader Alcide de Gasperi who, accepting the Charlemagne prize for his pro-European commitment in 1952, said:
“The future will not be built through force, nor the desire to conquer, but by the patient application of the democratic method, the constructive spirit of agreement, and by respect for freedom.”