A letter for Europe

Reinhard Hesse
16 May 2001

Dear openDemocracy

I feel very honoured to be asked to open the Europa topic of your ambitious openDemocracy project.

I had a dream (or was it a nightmare?) that my literary agent urged me to write that one ultimate non-fiction book. You know, “the book only you can write”, so that people will stand in line just to get a copy... and I said, taking what’s left of my guts, “I could write a top non-fiction book on the most interesting question of our age: Europe!”

My agent paled. “Europe?” she uttered, struggling for her breath. “Don’t you know that publishers run when they even hear the E-word?”

It's true. In the wakeing world, “Europe” is something which:

- the French know and enjoy, but don’t want to bring to fruition;

- the Germans know and enjoy, but don’t want to talk about;

- the British know and chose not to enjoy, because it seems to raise questions they don’t want to answer.

And now that German leaders do talk about Europe?

As ever our French friends have proved reliable. No one could have seriously expected any French government to agree to making European agricultural politics national again. The Common Market is, to say the least, a very efficient tool to feed the beasts in La France profonde.

So, when French officials welcome the debate only to reject the ideas, it only superficially comes close to the psychiatrist telling his schizoid patient that although what he’s imagining is plain nonsense, “it’s good we talked about it.”

As a matter of fact, we do expect some counter propositions from Paris. Eventually we might even have a debate that takes us a step further than bargaining with José Maria Aznar over “cohesion funds” for the acceptance of “transition rules for new member countries”. Or in plain language we will get past Madrid using its veto to profit from enlargement 3,000 miles away from Spain. But anyway, we love the European bazaar, even when it turns bizarre.

Things are not all that much better in Germany. Although we now have a proposition about European “constitutiveness” – carefully avoiding the big “C…” word that could cause so much calamity in the minds of cohesionists and splendid isolationists alike – the discussion hasn’t really gone that deep.

Opposition parties bemoan a “theft of ideas”. They are busy struggling with their own particular European past, such as corruption charges over the sale of an East German refinery to the French Elf Acquitaine group under Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government.

The general public has recovered from the surprise that the current Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, of all people, should have come forward with a blueprint for Europe’s future. Now, we are all preparing to get back to sleep.

And Britain? Well, the honourable Sir Peter Tapsell, British MP – a member of the House of Commons, mind you, not a military policeman, even though his words might have suggested otherwise – has just reminded us what tunes to hum in our common Europe.

That particular gentleman urged the public to read Gerhard Schröder’s suggestions for a European “constitutiveness” very carefully - that is to say more carefully than people had apparently read Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This time, our Conservative politician continued, no one would be able to say he hadn’t been aware of Germany’s intentions to rule the world.

They do say that a few lunatics once in a while make democracy a worthwhile experience. Thanks, for the reminder that the Achtung!Schtrumpf!HeilHitler! crap of B-movie fame has not altogether disappeared from the public debate.

On the other hand, the absence of any comment on Sir Tapsell’s remarks by the Tory leader, William Hague, has been so obvious that it came close to trumpeting. This against the background of a courageous speech by the former prime minister, Edward Heath, and the tell-tale passive resistance by prime minister Tony Blair, who, instead of commenting, chose not to attend a meeting of European social democrats.

So would a book called “Europa” sell anywhere on the continent it is about? After so very many summit conferences we have come to a point where “Europe” is not, apparently, interested in any idea of itself.

Does “Europe” even exist?

A few months back, we were very happy to see “Europe” represented at the negotiation table in the middle east. Javier Solana, doubtless Europe’s most able diplomat, was trying to speak in Europe’s name with Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Sharm el-Sheikh. Did it matter? Yes, perhaps. But come the Israeli elections and the ongoing intifada – who cares about Europe?

Certainly, this conflict on the southeastern Mediterranean concerns us much more than an American in Nowhere/Michigan, or in Somewhere/Texas. But when it comes down to solving problems, it’s not your European who is asked to help. Europeans pay: there is not a single Palestinian institution without European money, not to speak of Europe’s well founded commitment to Israel.

Somehow, it’s not “He who pays the band names the tune” any longer. It’s “You guys pay for the band, and we name the tune” - even if we don’t know how to sing.

So, once again, where’s Europe?

Europe is a politics, not a geography

Europe’s problem is not, as Henry Kissinger would have it, the lack of a single telephone number. Europe’s problem is that there is no Europe. Politically, continents never match geographical lines; “Europe” does not have geological borders.

It is defined politically or not at all.

Even the idea of a “Europe” had to be brought to us from the outside, from the Muslim onslaught on continental territories. Since then have we made our minds up as to where Europe should be and extend to? The old Berlin wall? The Ural mountains? The distribution of Le Monde Diplomatique?

In recent days, we have begun discussing “Europe” in terms of the “European Union”. And, indeed, the European integration as performed by the EEC, then EC, and now EU is a formidable success story for our continent. All the more so since this integration has been, literally, a common response to a bloody century and a half of massive, industrialised conflict. Europe made wars, and for once, Europe was able to make peace, at least with itself.

Call it pathetic, but Europe, or the European integration, is in fact the European peoples’ answer to war. A common statement applying to bigger and smaller nations alike, expressing a Dutchman’s aspirations for peace and prosperity, just the same as a Greek woman’s. And, after we have overcome that unnatural cold war division, it is only too natural that Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and the Baltic peoples should share these hopes.

But do the Europeans still remember what they have promised themselves?

This Europe has been able to re-integrate Germany into the family of peoples – despite all the crimes that were committed in Germany’s name, by German people and soldiers.

This same Europe has been able to make an enormous effort of reconciliation. To treat as reconcilable conflicts of interests what were once irreconcilable clashes of sovereignty between sworn enemies. Our peoples conceive themselves as Europeans without asking; they cross borders without showing their passports – unless they enter Britain, that is – and since the fall of the “Iron Curtain”, they have a down-to-earth idea of what Europe could be, from Dublin to Dubrovnik.

But something is not happening.

We are Europeans on the ground. We are Europeans in our stomachs, as a succession of food crises has shown, but we are not Europeans in our heads.

There was the “Nice” conference. It wasn’t a failure. Bearing in mind all the conflicting interests, governments came to a fair conclusion that would allow the so-called “candidate states” to join once they had carried out their economic reform program.

But will enlargement make a better Europe? Some disturbing figures spring into my mind. Although German-French relations remain good, only 14 per cent of German schoolchildren learn any French. And less than 10% of French students venture into German. Let’s not ask about how things are in this respect in Britain…

We do have a certain “cultural penetration”. Kids in London might know about Einstürzende Neubauten, long gone over here. German adolescents will be aware of the Trainspotting image and way of life. Intimacy, filmed in London, based on Hanif Kureish’s stories, by a French director who is renowned in Germany, was awarded the “Golden Bear” of the Berlin film festival.

In politics, nothing, so far, corresponds even to this. Given the, at best, technocratic results of the Nice conference, political hopes are now focussed on the “post-Nice-process” - another conference, in 2004, and between now and then a “constitutional debate”.

A constitution for Europe

Now, a “constitutional debate” is about as funny as a baby’s funeral. Unless perhaps, it strives for new principles, which express and respond to feelings of powerlessness, which is what new constitutions ought to do. Instead, our governments intend to discuss the division of competences between Brussels, the nation-states and the respective regional governments.

This needs to be done. But will it enhance people’s enthusiasm?

It is true that European policymakers still need to explain the limits and advantages of truly European decision making to the likes of you and me. “Subsidiarity” may be a ugly word but it describes pretty well what we are all after: A common will on the highest level, best practices for everyone on the lowest level he or she is concerned with. In other words: let a “strong” European government make our voice heard in the world – and let’s make an effort to achieve that – and let a democratic, free Europe come up from its roots.

A European “constitution” brought about from above by the governments of our national states would not, I’m afraid, help a lot. At least it would not be enough to convince European women and men to seize the grand opportunity we have within our reach to build a common continent, free and democratic, modern and creative, with strong institutions of justice and, yes, a place where people feel “at home” in their homes.

Instead, a vague sentiment of alienation takes over, and a lot of concern: concern of those in the smaller states worried not to be taken over by the “big three”, concern of those living in border areas over the influx of cheaper workforce from tomorrow’s new member states, concern over how to safeguard internal and external security.

Enlarging Europe

The greatest challenge for our generation is not so much to build the European “superpower” Tony Blair envisioned in his Warsaw speech, but to make sure that the process of European enlargement leads to a good and prosperous end.

To my knowledge, French people are much more enthusiastic about enlargement to the east than the French political class. The opposite holds for Germany, where politicians want the opening, and people are rather afraid. And Britain? Britain has not even joined the Eurozone. Do you hear me there at all?

There is too much rationality about European enlargement and an obvious and dangerous lack of popular concern with it. Fears, yes, but commitment, no.

Maybe, we ought to listen a bit more closely to the sounds from the chamber orchestras of the “smaller units” – possibly, but not necessarily equalling the smaller states. Maybe we ought to remember that “Europe” is also a common space and a history of values other than slaughtering sheep and cattle for the sake of regulating market prices.

Once again, recall that “Europe” is not a geographical imperative. “Europa” is something designed by the will of peoples who feel and know a certain common interest. An idea of European life.

Do we have this idea? Can we charm non-EU-European people with it? And, if the peoples want it, will we speak of it with one voice – without losing our mother tongues?

The other day, a German friend teaching in Washington DC passed by. He was curious to find out about the “Europa” debate and anxious, like most German intellectuals, that perhaps it ought not to be Germany to push ahead for “final status” discussions. He wasn’t then aware of Sir Tapsell’s narrative, but fears of that sort prevail.

And then, this friend added a striking remark. “You know”, he said, “the only place where I feel genuinely European is the US. Over here, you can be German, English or Italian. But over there, you quickly find out that you represent a different, a truly European culture and tradition.”

Maybe we should all propel ourselves across the Atlantic and learn a little “recount” about our home continent from over there.

So I can't answer the question you have posed - how to become European, and what it will mean when it happens. But the last few years have taught me that it is necessary to try and find an answer, and that it won't come from an intergovernmental meeting.

Yours truly,

Reinhard Hesse

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