Can Europe Make It?

Europe: as saviour or of sorrow?

The European Union has long promulgated a narrative of 'Europe as saviour' - from fascism, dictatorship and communism. Today it is the 'Europe of sorrow' which drives a considerable amount of eurosceptic politics.

Ian Bancroft
23 April 2016

Ukrainian students hold an EU flag in Kyiv. SergeiChuzakov/PA images. All rights reserved.

Some twenty five years ago, many in the disintegrating Yugoslavia clung to the idea of ‘Europe as saviour’; paralleled by the Union’s own proclamation that it was indeed the ‘hour of Europe’. Today, those fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, or those in Ukraine seeking closer ties with the EU, are similarly-minded.

For many, however, the continent has become a ‘Europe of sorrow’; a source of despondency, frustrated hopes and shattered dreams. Far from supporting the EU’s break-up, however, many eurosceptics seek its reform. If the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) is to become a successful pan-European movement, then it is vital that such voices - including those beyond the EU’s own borders - be actively mobilized to drive change, not collapse.

One of the impediments to a vibrant and healthy debate about the EU and its future is the persistence of Eurocentrism. This unyielding belief in the predominance of Europe and European culture gives rise to an assertion that Europe’s problems can simply be overcome by more Europe. Europe is not the problem, but an absence or lack of Europe. If we could only Federalise Europe, then all its problems would be resolved. Advocates of such an approach are almost religiously dogmatic in their avowals of the EU as a panacea. 

Such radical europhiles regularly deride eurosceptics as being prejudiced, myopic and insular. Eurosceptics are frequently castigated as anti-migration and anti-refugee. Euroscepticism is deemed to be the preserve of the populist, with anti-EU sentiment whipped-up by those simply eager to further their own political ambitions. Expressed concerns about the European project are rarely tackled head-on, but instead dismissed as irrelevant or simply brushed under the carpet. In effect, the two sides - the europhiles and the eurosceptics - persistently talk past one another. 

Stereotyping all eurosceptics in this manner, however, further complicates efforts to mobilize those who still believe in the potential of Europe. The twin narratives of Europe - 'as saviour' and 'of sorrow' - are not as fundamentally dichotomous as they may first appear. Contained within the narrative of a “Europe of sorrow” is an impatience with the European project itself; what it has become and what it might have been.

Many eurosceptics are deeply-concerned about the EU itself, not about the idea of Europe as such. Yet this impatience is tending to drive centrifugal forces, not change. Whilst opponents of the EU in its current form are not necessarily opponents of Europe per se, this schism within eurosceptics has not been effectively exploited by those advocating for a different Europe.

This impatience is shared by increasingly eurosceptic voices on Europe’s margins, both within and beyond its geographical boundaries. Too many of Europe’s younger generation have experienced Europe as a 'Europe of sorrow' (especially through high unemployment levels), yet remain largely excluded from debates about the Union’s very future. Day-by-day they become ever more detached from the European project.

The youth of Ukraine and other peripheral areas (i.e. north Africa, the Middle East) also have a stake in the EU’s future, and the ideas and energy to reinvigorate debates. Yet having stood-up on the streets of Kyiv to voice their faith in a European future, Ukraine’s youth increasingly feel betrayed by Europe’s regression and the impact it will have on their own country’s transition. 

The Dutch referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine brought these two competing notions of Europe - 'as saviour' and 'of sorrow' - head-to-head. On the one side, those cherishing Europe’s transformative potential beyond its own borders in its contemporary hour of need vis-a-vis Russian manoeuvres in the East.

On the other, those guided by a scepticism about the present European project and its future course, and eager to exploit the referendum to undermine Brussels. The passivity of those believing in the former was outgunned by the passion and populism of those in the latter camp, though only just (the referendum almost fell short of fulfilling the turnout requirements). To avoid this becoming a regular pattern, those who believe in Europe’s potential need to better engage those more sceptical voices.   

The European Union has long promulgated a narrative of 'Europe as saviour' - from fascism, dictatorship and communism. For many of Europe’s citizens, especially its young people, this narrative now has only historical significance. Today it is the 'Europe of sorrow' which drives a considerable amount of eurosceptic politics.

Yet many euro-sceptics remain optimistic about Europe, if not about the EU in its current form. Many are sorrowful about what Europe could have become. Exploiting this dichotomy, whilst engaging Europe’s margins both within and beyond its geographical boundaries, can drive a movement for change that can once again ensure that Europe becomes a saviour for the contemporary challenges it faces.

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