Can Europe Make It?

The dream of a new Europe: culture, solidarity and social welfare

The EU must stand for the pursuit of social happiness for its citizens, and an equal chance to compete in the world despite their ethnic, religious or financial status, protected from the risks and fluctuations of markets.

Gael Sirello Olivier Sirello
6 May 2015

Flickr/Eleanna Kounoupa. Some rights reserved.“Europe may be able to shape its own identity only if its people are united; it may be united only if its people share a common identity. This is the paradox that characterizes the construction of a common European consciousness”.

As both the site of several destructive, unjust wars and the birthplace of new ideas, philosophies and cosmopolitan rights, Europe is a unique and complex historical space. The Italian renaissance, the French Revolution, British parliamentarianism, German idealism: all of these, and more, have given Europeans the tools to engage the world in new and fascinating ways.

Unfortunately, this intellectual kaleidoscope has been at the root of the many intra-European conflicts that characterize modern European history, and reflects a continent culturally divided over differences in understanding Christianity, the nation, and the place of man in society.

It has prompted many Europeans to dream of conquering and ruling over the entire European continent, and in doing so building a unified, pan-European civilization. Some of them, such as Charlemagne, saw religion as the main social bond; others, such as Napoleon, fought for their revolutionary ideas; and, even more sadly, others wanted to achieve it by the abhorrent purification of race, such as Hitler. But none of them – luckily, we might add - managed to achieve their dream.

For almost sixty-five years now, Europe has witnessed the birth and realization of a new dream, one substantially different from any other before it. Based on the liberal principles of free trade and democracy, it is first and foremost a dream of peace, hope and economic prosperity. It is also a political dream with the ultimate goal of joining all European people in a common and shared union, united in diversity.

The creation of a European political, economic, and juridical union, now known as the European Union, can be seen today as one of Europe’s most beautiful projects. Despite its internal critiques, the EU today represents stability and peace for its citizens, European integration having enabled the continent’s peoples to live in peace for an extraordinary period of time.

The EU has also granted all its citizens the right to move freely within its unique area of freedom, security and justice, has extended democratic principles over the continent, and has given its citizens the democratic right to vote and decide over EU affairs. But what is the main glue that bonds together so many populations and leads them to have the same European dream?

In the past, this common will was motivated by the desire of previous generations to overcome the cruel realities of their twentieth century and achieve lasting peace and stability. The European Union has been built on these premises, with all of its treaties based on the liberal principles of tolerance, democracy and human rights. This Europe of peace and democracy that we inherit is one we should never take for granted, and, lest we neglect our collective historical memory, one that we have the moral obligation to carry forward.

However, Europe today needs to believe in a new dream. This dream must not exclusively be established through the fear of incurring a war within our borders but should also hope to make Europe a land of culture, solidarity and social justice. Not that addressing Europe’s economic issues is not also at the core of the European project; but a true European vision has to look further. This new dream must be predicated on three elements: a common education to forge an actual European identity and culture, a deep sense of pan-European solidarity, and a project of social welfare.

Like Massimo D’Azeglio, who in 1861 argued for the forging of a common Italian identity to complete the process of political unity, let us say today: “We made Europe, now let’s make Europeans”. It is unbelievable that many educated European citizens – whether they be French, Italian, German or Spanish – lack the information needed to appreciate the cultural roots of citizens from neighbouring countries.

Even more inconceivable is that they knows only a little of their own political history. The solution is clear--we as Europeans need first of all to establish a common educational system in the different countries that constitute the European Union.

Without neglecting differences between the nations that make Europe a cultural treasure trove, national and European powers should in this sense proceed to harmonise the school system, from its foundations, by introducing European subjects from the primary school.  Not that such knowledge alone is sufficient for a sense of European identity. We are aware of the challenge that represents defining “a European identity” or “European values”. But, as Umberto Eco said, “the language of Europe is translation”, a complement of different languages spoken in the 28 member states. So too should be European culture: a collage of national identities and histories. Establishing a common cultural basis in Europe, by providing evidence of European values from the school system and encouraging the mutual comprehension of different nations’ cultural and political values, can constitute only the beginning of a process that will one day forge a common identity.

Secondly, member states should be more united in providing unconditional solidarity. Since Schuman’s founding declaration in 1951, which stated the importance of Europe as a peaceful achievement, Europe can be understood as a construction of solidarity between different peoples. Peace means solidarity: France and Germany, which constituted the heart of Europe at least in the first decades of the integration process, were committed to pursuing peace and avoiding war at any cost, by means of greater solidarity and political integration.

We argue that this founding characteristic of Europe should not be neglected, as it is the core European value. While the recent economic and financial crisis has demonstrated domestic economic and fiscal weaknesses, it has also revealed the lack of European solidarity. In a union of states, like in a family, solidarity should be the response to any form of crisis.

But, as the emblematic Greek financial crisis showed, today’s EU dramatically lacks solidarity, which has led many European states to oppose debt write-down and the mutualisation of public debts between weak and strong economies.

The increasing number of European citizens supporting far-right policies or extreme movements also demonstrates the lack of solidarity of Europeans. The worrying rise of the Front National in France, the Northern League and M5S in Italy, and UKIP in the United Kingdom are only the first alarm signals of the prevailing national egoisms and “legalized selfishness” that could undermine European solidarity. A new European dream must include a real willingness on the part of European citizens to provide help – whether in the form of political, economic or fiscal aid – where it is needed.

Thirdly, we need to build a more social Europe. This means neither socialism nor communism: it means simply seeking the happiness of European citizens by means of social measures protecting them from poverty and market fluctuations. In contrast to other developed countries in the world, such as the United States or Japan, Europe is a welfare state pioneer.

We can distinguish different degrees of welfare state among the European countries, from the more liberal in the UK, to the more socially stratified on the continent, and more inclusive in the Nordic countries. But Europe is unquestionably committed to social equality and efficiency. European welfare policies, like the minimum wage or unemployment protection, are European traditions and therefore constitute one of the elements of the European political identity. So, this needs to be made a goal for the future: dreaming about Europe without its welfare policy is to dream about something other than Europe.

In this sense, EU cannot only pursue “socially useless” policies, such as austerity measures without the supporting investments and growth, and risk undermining the social nature of many European states. The EU can never confine itself to a policy of liberal concurrence and the freedom of the market: it must and shall mean first and foremost the pursuit of social happiness for its citizens, by giving them an equal chance to compete in the world, despite their ethnic, religious or financial status, hence protecting them from the risks and fluctuations of markets.

This dream, at its core, is one of a federal European union of states. This federal union should not only be tolerant and respectful of the different identities that constitute it, but based firmly on the principles of a common culture, a pan-European solidarity, and social welfare. This union won’t build itself--let’s build it now.

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