"Those who say that individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.”
– Václav Havel
It started in Sarajevo a hundred years ago. The war did not end all wars, and Europe´s second suicide attempt came twenty years later. The third attempt, supervised by populist leaders within and nationalist leaders abroad, is already in motion. However, there is still time to act. Europe does not have to give up on the political, economic and social project that has preserved peace for the last six decades. Europeans must resist the urge to look inwards and stand up for their future.
In the name of Europe
Bernard-Henri Lévy emerges from darkness in a hall in Sarajevo. He has one hour and a half to come up with a speech to inspire Europeans to fight back against the collapse of their continent. To his shame – and Europe's – nothing positive comes out - only nationalism, fanaticism and ignorance. The very same mistakes, over and over again, in a continent that forgets every so often.
Looking for Europe is a reflection about Europeanism and an attempt to wake up dormant consciences. It is a debate about the lecturer himself, the past and the present, the audience and its responsibility outside the hall. Jacques Weber staged a previous version in 2014, Hotel Europe, a century after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but this time Lévy decided that it was for him to take centre stage. Someone ought to let Europeans know that the emergence of populism, the unholy alliance between radical parties and political lethargy spells trouble for every person living in this continent.
The French philosopher knows that Europeans are as capable of reaching insurmountable heights as they are to descend into appalling barbarism. It was precisely to avoid making the same mistakes all over again that the European Union was created. It is an idea of Europe that guarantees freedom and democracy. It promotes cooperation and chooses dialogue over conflict. It is a political construction that many believed to be irreversible, but which today is endangered by the active machinations of its detractors, and the passive contemplation of its beneficiaries.
We must oppose fear mongering by recognising our diversity without letting go of our sense of unity. We must oppose mediocrity and ignorance by linking our national identities with our European identity.
This time around, the Sarajevo hall is conveniently located in Lisbon. The author knows the city well and is eager to remind everyone that he played his part in the revolution that opened the doors for democracy forty-five years ago. Portugal is, according to him, an oasis of political tranquillity – no populism, no nationalism, and no social polarisation. Whereas Sarajevo symbolises the chronicle of a death foretold for Europe, Lisbon represents a new hope to promote consensus, disenfranchise populists and defend liberal democracy. Portugal might have saudade, but it surely does not live in desassossego.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is in Lisbon to urge Europeans to rise to the defence of liberal democracy and the European Union. Our continent is in danger from influential world leaders whose aim is to divide Europe. And also from Europe’s far-right leaders who have taken advantage of the austerity management of the financial crisis, the migration crisis and the widespread disbelief in mainstream parties to further their agendas.
Populists and nationalists want stronger borders, fewer migrants and to take control away from the elites. They want to resurrect lost empires. They want to do away with multiculturalism, determine who deserves to be a European citizen and rewrite our history according to their canons.
We are facing an existential threat. However, we do not have to speak louder than populists and nationalists. We do not have to adopt their narratives. As Jean Monnet said, “Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. We have to come up with better arguments and recognise that the European Union can – and will – be improved. We must oppose fear mongering by recognising our diversity without letting go of our sense of unity. We must oppose mediocrity and ignorance by teaching our children about European institutions and linking our national identities with our European identity.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is right to point out that we need European culture and politics. However, we also need decent jobs and economic equality, a sustainable and healthy environment, and participation with representation.
Europeans need institutions that they can call on, that they can put a face to. They need a Commission presided by Robert Schuman, with Diderot and Erasmus in charge of education, Einstein and Curie of research, Dante and Beethoven of culture, Locke and Arendt of justice, Wojtyla of communications, Havel of cooperation, and Mother Theresa of healthcare.
Fighting for our future
A ray of light suddenly flares up on stage, announcing in a whimsical coup de théâtre that there is still time to fight for Europe – for pluralism, tolerance, justice, and solidarity and equality amongst Europeans. The speech has been delivered. The speaker is exhausted. And Europe is still standing.
The audience gives Lévy a standing ovation, a deserved one. Looking for Europe is a captivating piece against conformism. It encourages the audience to take responsibility beyond the theatre hall. It makes a strong case for the idea that it is time to fight for Europe – at the ballot box, in the theatres, in the libraries, in the bars, and in the streets. It is time to fight and make sure that rights are attached to people because of their human condition, not because of where they happened to be born.
It is time to fight not against Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini. Not against Viktor Orbán and Thierry Baudet. Not against Santiago Abascal and Steve Bannon. It is time to fight for Europeans. And for a project that despite its mistakes, its inspirational shortcomings and its recurrent lack of political courage must be defended because it is the only means we have to stop us from turning on each other again.
Which is not to say that we should share Bernard-Henri Lévy's position on the future of Europe, on the military intervention in Libya or on how Israel defence forces treat civilians. His Europe is certainly not the Europe young people want and dream of every night. He bypasses economic inequality, barely addresses climate change, dismisses grassroots movements, and assigns virtue and vice as he pleases. He does not seem interested in discussing how Facebook – a liberal invention – has been used to trigger a conservative backlash. He avoids discussing how China economically picks off weaker states and undermines efforts to confront Beijing’s crackdown on human rights.
The long march for the soul of Europe is not a lost cause. Most Europeans believe their country’s membership of the EU is a good thing, and expect their leaders to promote peace and defend fundamental rights within and outside Europe’s borders. Bernard-Henri Lévy is right to point out that we need European culture and politics, history and philosophy to defeat those who promise to enforce a future devoid of democratic values. However, we also need decent jobs and economic equality, a sustainable and healthy environment, and participation with representation.
Looking for Europe reminds us that the European Union is much more than an international organisation. It is an idea that makes it possible not only for Europeans to live together, but to disagree with one another.
The younger generations have never lived through the horrors of war. They have never experienced dictatorship. They take the European Union for granted and, unsurprisingly, They are less likely to vote in the upcoming European elections than other age groups.
However, they should be aware that tackling inequality and addressing climate change cannot be achieved by marches alone – they also need to go out and make sure to elect the candidates who are willing to do something about it.
We must retrieve our sense of urgency by remembering those who did experience a different Europe, the people who lived in a continent where political dissent was punished by death, where resolving disputes through armed conflict seemed a legitimate solution. People like the Italian poet and screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who wrote that the happiest moment of his life was when the concentration camp in which he was confined was liberated, and he set off joyfully pursuing a butterfly.
We may disagree with Bernard-Henri Lévy’s premises, dislike his style and criticise his intellectual exhibitionism. We can even hold against him that he chooses his causes à la carte. Nevertheless, Looking for Europe reminds us that the European Union is much more than an international organisation. It is an idea that makes it possible not only for Europeans to live together, but to disagree with one another.
As Timothy Garton-Ash recently wrote in The Guardian, our continent needs us. Are we going to sit around waiting for disaster to come? Or will we answer the call and choose our future?