Bernardo Pires de Lima discusses his concept of a ‘European cosmopolitan sphere’ and how it is vital that we must defend what binds us against what divides us.
Throughout 2017, I embarked on a journey to all 28 capitals of the European Union, bearing witness to elections, demonstrations, calls for splits, party conferences, identity celebrations. I interviewed over one hundred people from multiple sectors, I visited newspapers and TV newsrooms, I interpreted news pieces and I reached one conclusion: we, Europeans, don’t know each other very well.
The voracity of successive western crises uncovered a clear lack of preparation to anticipate, master and manage them with minimum levels of geopolitical quality. The European Union went from the Greek crisis to the refugee crisis in a flash, witnessed the Russian invasion in the Ukraine, watched as one of its great member states formally asked to leave it, and saw the decade out stuck in a triangle of testosterone, personified by the figures of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The history of Europe has lived through several moments of panic, many of which were violent and overwhelmingly destructive, trivialising an evil which led us to the political and economic integration which has kept us living in relative peace and prosperity for sixty years. But my generation has no memory of war, and therefore cannot sense that peace is under threat. Its identity is built on what is passed on through family, professional experience, social roots, technological monocultures, truth manipulation, or simply as a reaction against unfamiliar cultures and towards which it is incapable of devoting any compassion.
We are experiencing a dividing moment between open and closed societies, tolerant and angry, rooted in anthropological cosmopolitism or nationalism, beyond the dichotomy between left and right which has framed our society ideologically and socially. In fact, it brings together people from the right and the left, united in a common front in order to defend freedoms. This is where I stand – in the European cosmopolitan sphere. Or, if you will, liberalism as defined by Claudio Magris: “A doctrine on the relations between the individual and the state, not an opportunistic rejection of the state and its laws.” From Lisbon to Helsinki, from Dublin to Nicosia, it’s possible to feel at home thanks to similar urban traits and squares representing the same historical identity, just as it is possible to feel it because of different architectural styles, and ways of looking at the public space while respecting national identities. I made the most of Steiner’s Europe, of cafés as representations of idleness, of time for reflection, of the humanity to be experienced in conversations without mobile phones, but also of theatres as expressions of identity and affirmation of political freedom, where opposing cultures and ideologies converge in the same democratic and civilised space. What I have added to this roadmap is perhaps a type of debate centred around the private sphere, the Europe of businesses, think tanks, newsrooms, party headquarters, universities and NGOs. Along this journey, it became clear that we, Europeans, don’t know each other very well.
Clichés abound, and we group together “Eastern”, “Baltic”, “Balkan”, and “Southern” and “Northern” countries simply because they are located geographically close, using a type of thinking that does not reflect the European chessboard. We are tempted to define an identity as a monolithic concept, centred on ethnicity, when we would do better to adopt Amartya Sen’s proposal when he talks about “plural identities”, an expression of choices, circumstances and priorities which lead individuals, communities and states to act in the political sphere, both internal and external. In this sense, a country may be forged as a reaction to a former invader or create an identity strategy defined by openness to immigration and technological modernity. Another may define its identity as a financial centre, as a facilitator of negotiations, neutral in defence matters, as an intersection of influences from other continents: all under a common grid that respects a set of non-negotiable democratic values and a normative premise which imposes due limits on the arbitrariness of each member state, whether internally or in their relationships with the others. This is what ensures the shared interests that have kept the peace and generated wealth among Europeans. As Tzvetan Todorov wrote, “Europe’s spiritual identity consists of adopting the same attitude towards diversity”. It needs to recognise plurality without becoming disenfranchised with social reality, and avoid turning that same grid of common values and norms into an encrypted and self-destructive bubble. Self-centredness and arrogance have blinded decision-makers, draining the political nature and even integration tactics, responding poorly to the anxieties of those who are already here and those who wish to come here. We need to negate the “moralist” narrative of nationalism, creating a code of ethics for political action where corruption has no place, and to jointly deal much more effectively with immigrant integration. This is where the identity dilemma which strengthens nationalists lies. In any case, none of this can survive without political quality, leaders with some strategic vision and, above all, courage. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of it in this Union.
And since internal crises and external events are the blood that runs through European veins, we need to prepare for the next financial crisis so that we don’t make the same recent mistakes, which have led to serious rifts among Europeans that have not yet healed. We are still underestimating the merits of integration, we rarely or never expose the sunny sides of the member states, we provide disproportionate coverage of extremist phenomena that hold little expression and we don’t value, in the public space, pro-EU and pro-democracy movements which, despite everything, maintain the predominance of that political and social space. We maintain the classic mantra of blaming Europe for failures and taking national credit for successes, at a time when the west legitimises a playbook of narrative violence, disrespect for political opponents, sectarianism, incitement to hatred (USA, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain). Some governments have been strengthened and legitimised by a nationalist president in the White House (chief among them, Poland and Hungary), some parties have seen their agendas validated by the Trump formula (Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia), and many other governments and parties committed to European integration no longer see Washington as an aggregating factor in Europe, which force us to prioritise a more autonomous agenda (especially in terms of foreign trade and defence), promoting a climate of mistrust between all countries which only serves to destroy European cohesion, and that amidst Brexit. Transatlantic relations are at their lowest since the 2003 Iraq War, and Moscow and Beijing are the great beneficiaries of this erosion.
The truths of the triumphalist post-Cold War period are under threat, liberal democracy is no longer the inevitable outcome, and there are other proposals gaining ground. We are heading towards the institutionalisation of several spheres of integration in which member states can opt in or out, drifting towards a concentration of power in Paris and Berlin, if the United Kingdom really does leave. We shall see what Germany’s commitment without Merkel will be, and how Macron will fare when leading the great European debates. In just a few years, we went from Euroscepticism to Euro-destructiveness. This level of animosity needs to be urgently defeated. Today, those who defend the values and cornerstones of liberal democracies have an additional responsibility in all their spheres of intervention and influence: to defend their merits, to fight for their regeneration, and to defeat both through debate and through votes those who want to destroy them. Political parties need to improve their ethical conduct, their transparency and their recruitment processes. Traditional media need to restore their crucial role in democracy and in the search for truth. Those who hold public offices, in politics and beyond, must abide by an ethical code with no room for corruption.
There is not one single good reason to return to nationalist identity, but there are hundreds of good reasons to defend a cosmopolitan approach to European democracies, while safekeeping a renewed integration. A country like Portugal, open to the world as it is, has everything to gain from that.