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.
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3 comment(s)

TriciaJune 18, 2009 06:59 EST

For anyone interested, the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson is published in Canada as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire" (which will be released at the end of July). The third novel, with the working title "Castles in the Sky" will likely be released sometime in 2010.

AnonymousJuly 21, 2009 18:31 EST

Whether or not the EU is worth "saving" is likely a moot point; it will roll on, somehow, with or without the UK which has always had one foot in and one foot out. I find it ludicrous that the author is hailing an untried US president as the "President of the World." Haven't you heard? This is the end of American hegemony. Even as Obama extends the "war" into Pakistan (be careful who you choose as your allies Pakistan), American influence is on the wane along with its tanked economy; Along with its policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and the "right" to invade sovereign nations. Still the American military complex (for there is no industry save that) must be fed all costs and especially attractive targets resource-rich nations (look out Canada) will remain at risk. Talk about being on the right. :) I have a feeling the author doesn't know as much about the United States of America, as he does about Europe.

godd in every dayJanuary 15, 2010 19:48 EST

hmm... nice story , knowledge is power right ? and i've got one here ..,

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