An alarm-call for Europe

Reinhard Hesse
25 June 2003

A large number of our continent’s leaders are fresh from spending an early summer grand tour hopping from one picturesque European setting (St Petersburg) to another (Evian-les-Bains), culminating in the European summit in the ancient city of Thessaloniki. If the climax of their travels is a reminder that the good old continent is still a favoured gathering-site for the world’s big bands and key players to mix summits and circuses, the rest of us are waking up to the sound of a shrill alarm clock sounded by some of Europe’s finest intellectuals.

This sound is far from the complacent hum of the diplomatic corridors, nor is it yet another emission of that synthesised trash ridiculing O When the Saints… on your mobile phone. No, this one comes straight from the bookshelves, and it is pellucidly clear about the seriousness of its call for “Our Renewal”, “a Greater Union” and a “European Foreign Policy”, and about the choice it articulates – one no less dramatic than: “Humiliation or Solidarity”.

In a joint text published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Libération, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida – supported in a series of essays by Umberto Eco (La Repubblica), Gianni Vattimo (La Stampa), Fernando Savater (El País) and Adolf Muschg (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) – and assisted by a cry for help on behalf of America’s true multilateralists by Richard Rorty (Süddeutsche Zeitung) – combine their efforts in a passionate, ringing clarion-call for a dynamic, cohesive, and forward-looking Europe.

Moreover, these intellectuals are not content merely to sign a joint declaration – the way many “old guard” US-"Atlanticists" like Madeleine Albright and James R. Schlesinger did some weeks earlier, in a call for “Renewing the Transatlantic Partnership” (whose character can be judged by its more or less polite request that the US be invited to assist any decision-making on the “finality” of the European Union).

Rather, our writers and thinkers attempt to launch a series of intellectual salvos and drop them at the front door of politicians and public opinion alike, at the same time claiming a need and right to throw their weight into the political debate about Europe’s future. For, as Habermas and Derrida put it, if an “attractive as well as attracting vision of our future Europe” has not even entered the political agenda yet, “then we as intellectuals have failed.”

A Europe that stands still will be run over

These essays need intense debate, and they will doubtless provoke opposition. Perspectives may differ, but their arguments share a number of common denominators, namely:

  • the urgent need for a common European policy, based on European values and convictions, especially in international affairs


  • the sense that, with EU enlargement imminent and in order to avoid more “letters of eight”, or any other given number, such a policy should be first developed by a “core” of European states more or less grouped around the “founding six” with others invited to join


  • the wish to discuss a European “identity” based less on Brussels institutions than on common experience – one that has overcome national hatreds and rivalries, restrained social division and developed an arsenal of “soft power” in international conflict. With this set of yesterday’s achievements – the argument goes – today’s uncertainties can be faced and visions for tomorrow envisaged in a spirit of tolerance and multi-voiced political culture and ambition.

As if heeding the call almost as soon as it was uttered, Eurocrats from the six “founding states” declared their commitment to cooperate more closely and save the (constitution-making) European convention from imminent failure. A “core Europe” seemed here already in the making, though less an exclusive performance as the inner of a set of “concentric circles”. Yet, even after this, it is too soon for “Europtimists” of all countries to applaud. Common action from the brave six is a defensive manoeuvre rather than a forward step – it comes mainly as a response to quite a strong “no”, “nej” or (in the case of Austria) a “nein” from at least nine other “old” and “new” member states to any substantial institutional reform that goes beyond the rather meagre and most probably inoperable formula reached at the Nice summit of December 2000.

Now, if you have ever been (as I have) close to the bargaining, bickering and negotiating in the final days or even hours before a European summit decision – such as we expect regarding the European constitution – you could bet your last euro on the result that when the process culminates at the grand concluding summit of December 2003 in Rome there will be…a result. European “soft power” does work within Europe, at least.

But perhaps this result could also turn out to be the one drop that makes the whole barrel of Eurosoup spill over. Time is running out yet for more bureaucratic compromise. If there were even a grain of truth in the assumption Habermas and his colleagues make – that the massive anti-war demonstrations in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome and elsewhere on 15 February might be a “signal of the birth of a genuinely European public”, then it is safe to predict that this public will not for much longer tolerate an eternal revolving around compromise formulas on how to shield the egotisms of national governments.

After all, the continent’s young people, unless they aspire to a career in the ever more complicated European administrative apparatus, do not want a common constitution as a set of barriers and exemptions to and from a more unified Europe. They want the will and the rules for clearer, more efficient and more transparent decision-making.

Yet even if our philosophers are over-optimistic in respect to the anti-war movement, the idea that one can have “more” Europe by having less of it is a treacherous illusion. A Europe of twenty-five member- states (with more to come) that contents itself with being not much more than a common market for national states that pursue a 19th century idea of sovereignty would be not only a missed opportunity; it would be a failure in international politics and, eventually, in economy. And it would rapidly lose public support.

For Europe, there is no future in disunity

Let one country or another opt out of the single currency (it is not hard to think of prominent examples). There may be reasons for that, good or bad, but the national economy will pay the price (or collect the fruit) of such a decision. But if anyone can, by right of veto, opt all the others out of a more harmonised taxation system, it is the European economy as a whole that will suffer. Now, the common market with easy access to goods, services and infrastructures in all the member countries is one of the major assets that secure popular support for the EU. The demand here is for fewer regulations and more comparability, not the opposite.

The same goes for free travel. Already, “Schengeners” feel mildly uneasy if they travel to an “opt-out” destination and have to show their long-forgotten passports again. Without progress in that field, the dangers of international terrorism and other security risks mean that there will be mounting pressure from non-Schengen states, in and outside Europe; in that event, the odds are that Schengen would not be able to survive for long.

But it is, of course, the question of a common foreign policy that pitches the highest notes in the European cacophony. There are four points to make on this vital matter.

First, it is not yet proven that divergences of European governments over how to deal with the US-inspired war against Iraq were an expression of “different national interests”. If these “national” differences exist on a deeply rooted scale then apparently lots of Europeans who voiced their opinions in the polls or on the streets did not decipher them.

As for the German, and, for that matter, the French government, they certainly did not raise their voices against war in Iraq out of national economic interest or ideological principle, be it “pacifism” or “Gaullism”. They were just as little convinced as apparently Colin Powell was, in light of the conversation he allegedly had with Jack Straw before making his fabulous presentation of so-called “evidence” on weapons of mass destruction that could only be disarmed by means of an invasion. Now we must hope, for better or worse, that it is not only these nicely-arranged facts that – in Powell’s words – “explode in (the Europeans’) faces”.

Second, division leads to diminution (and keeping the prerogative of a unanimous vote on foreign policy issues means “division” because no one will adopt an earnest common position if each can obstruct consensus). Perhaps some of our allies in the “new Europe” (of Donald Rumsfeld fame) can now pride themselves that the US will “never forget” what they have done in siding with the coalition attacking Iraq. A piece of good advice to them from one of their western neighbours who heard this tune after 11 September 2001 and “Operation Enduring Freedom”: it is true that this United States administration will “never forget” – until you want to have a different opinion, that is.

Third, there are principles at stake here. Multilateralism is not a goal in itself. Multilateral nuclear disarmament is. Non-proliferation is always the second-best choice since it will leave weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who already have them. An overall preventive polity of shared wealth, fair trade, cultural security and environmental provision is by far preferable over “the silly and costly alternative of war and peace” (Habermas). International legality must be reformed, not dismissed. Europe, “old” and “new” alike, knows what security is about; and it knows what insecurity, unequal relations and domination are about. Those lessons learned must not be withheld from others in a world of growing conflict.

Fourth, if Europe does not get its act together, new alliances are already in the making. That precisely is the eternal mistake of the nation-state apologists. Maybe this US administration thinks it should “go it alone” and not have any permanent alliances any more. Maybe this administration is indeed pursuing, as one of Britain’s finest intellectuals (and a classically Atlanticist figure), Oxford’s David Marquand would have it, a sort of “messianic utopianism” – not to be confused with liberal internationalism. Maybe some of America’s European allies are nonetheless convinced you need to follow Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and cherry-pick your friends along with them. In that case, the others will, no doubt, try to form new alliances, let alone hammer out different “axes”.

(And speaking of “axes”, evil or not: the world would be a better place without them, be they on a horizontal or a vertical line, in the hereafter. No one is served well by the re-emergence of competing lines of tactical preference: Madrid-Warsaw-London on the one hand, Paris-Berlin-Moscow on the other.)

Of course, it would be foolish, insensible and lacking strategic vision to want to build a Europe “against” the United States. But it would be just as utterly stupid for Europeans not to recognise the need to have good relations with Russia, and the opportunities that lie therein.

So, here’s to you, the writers and philosophers who are waking us up with this deafening, necessary alarm-call, and focusing attention where it truly belongs: on our European civil societies. After all, it is within our own lands that we are challenged with the need to solve the burning questions of conviviality and progress in a modern world. Now, mind you, a reassertion of what Europe is about and a common foreign policy does not rule out Spanish siesta, English teatime, Italian catenaccio or, unfortunately, German Ladenschluss. But if we don’t do what needs to be done now, it will certainly be done to us.


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