Notions that Europe’s deep and rich cultures would one-day work together has disciples long back in history. It can be found in the writings of St Colombanus, a 9th century Irish scholar, who traversed the waters of the Rhine, and established colleges from Meath, to Milan, to Brigganz. Later advocates included William Penn, who proposed a “European dyet, or parliament” to tame ambition of Europe’s major powers.
Well known is that impetus for the European project we know today, sprang from the devastation of two of history’s most vicious conflicts. Towns lay destroyed from Kadanos in Crete, to Ivalo in barren Northern Finland. The impacts of those conflicts are still underappreciated.
Turning around fortunes
Konrad Adenaur, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Bech and others. These would be the sages that led the stunning land to a humble miracle.
Irreversible economic integration would follow. Absent would be inter-state conflict between those who joined in the project. Surely this evidences the project’s war-preventing function? Basic order and security are a government’s first responsibilities to its citizens. And that has been delivered.
The countries of Eastern Europe later made the journey into the European family, after losing so many decades to communism. Their membership of the club, or steps taken to reach the same, has led to them becoming some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia are the newest members of rich world status. Croatia will soon follow – a country ravaged by genocide only 20 years ago.
Historical judgement today should reflect these realities. Firstly, the European project is the most successful, on-going peace process in history. Secondly, it should be judged as among the most successful processes of economic growth and economic convergence in history.
Judgement to come of the project today will, with hope, detail its resilience, a project in early statehood form: The completion and fortifying of the Euro and of the single market as tools of aggressive economic convergence, in the long run.
Such is the mantle of the Merkel-Macron era. “Nobody in Europe will be abandoned, nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together,” Mrs Merkel has claimed.
Macron’s Sorbonne speech in September of this year detailed plans to shore up the Euro and have the currency drive the continent’s economy to be the world’s most robust and dynamic.
The Balance of Reason
The European Union is a unit for organising the continent. Would not chaos ensue if the continent broke into 28 national parts? Europeans now understand that many things are not national. Integration makes sense. We share the air, sea and the sky and we should share regulations to manage the same. In that sense, the continent is much better prepared than most others to deal with the biggest challenges of our time: climate change and terrorism. Other continents with no such units for organisation will be less well placed to deal with the consequences.
It should not come as a surprise that so many wish to reach this continent. The continent of peace and prosperity is surrounded by continents of conflict and poverty. The crater of the Mediterranean sits as a boundary between those who enjoy freedom, peace and prosperity, and those who seek them.
A central task of today’s European leaders is to socialise younger generations of the project’s worth into the decades and the centuries to come. Lacking the memories of war, they risk taking for granted its achievements.
The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, a Europhile of the old school, said in late 2016, as the union appeared to be cracking,
“I am as young as the European project … I have lived it, worked for it, my whole life. My father believed in Europe … He understood all too well that peace in Europe was precious – and fragile… History will not remember our names… History will remember our mistakes and hold us responsible for our actions in this generation.”
Perhaps communicating to the young may not be so difficult. I am aware of a young man, whose grandparents told him stories of Nazi-occupied France. They told his parents and him to seek freedom. His childhood was enjoyed on the plains by the Moselle river, roaming through the German-French-Luxembourg border area. He studied in the splendid, ancient Universities of Padua, Leiden, and Malmo. He speaks nine European languages. His other half is a Slovakian. Together, they have built a business empire, stretching from Budapest, to Venice and Salzburg. Their second home is in the vineyards of Northern Portugal.
Beyond the continent
Historical judgement should also recognise the achievements of Europeans whilst compared to the disunity of other continents with much more homogeneous cultures.
Latin American countries compete against each other in a race to the bottom for foreign capital. Meanwhile, Europeans have created common standards across a single market. This ensures high standards and that the bottom will not be undercut by the worst. Latin America is also home to some of the world’s most unequal societies. Meanwhile, Europe’s wealthy areas of its North and West contribute funds to those less fortunate, in the East and South of the Union.
Fragmentation is also found in the Arab world. Regional power struggles unravel as some states take sides in their neighbour’s wars. Such a scenario played out in Syria. In Morocco, border walls are built through desert sands. Roads lead to nowhere in the desert, stopping at an abrupt wall before Algeria.
Meanwhile, Europe’s Schengen area has largely erased national borders. Cities close, yet separated by borders, are allowed to flow into each other, forming economic powerhouses. Citizens pass into the next country unnoticed. Borders run through parks, forests, rivers and restaurants, oblivious.
And to what end?
Across the world, the European Union is highly admired by many. It is held as an example that their countries perhaps one day will work together, and not against each other. Europeans have built this in a kaleidoscope of cultures, mind-sets, mentalities and histories. Perhaps they have realised that working together is the only way. Now, the burden of European countries is to assist other regions to follow in the same direction, to build a more settled world order.
Faced with destruction, it is as though Europeans have re-built their civilisation from the beginning. It should be remembered that the continent we enjoy today has been nobly crafted by architects of a unique experiment in harmony, stability and progress. The integrity and destiny of the continent is tied up with the project.
You managed not to mention Brexit, highly commendable. However, it is part of the picture. You specialise in Latin America, I once did in my own discipline, but back then there were more dictatorships and military regimes than any kind of democracy. Where there was supposed democracy it tended to be corrupt to the core. Whilst it is many years since I worked in South America, nonetheless I keep contact with people in my specialised area very, very closely. What they have seen, thus I know, is that the extremity of corruption has reduced, nowadays people caught are punished rather than buying their way out. It is improving. That includes politicians.
There are countries included in a book I co-wrote that was up to date to 1988, long ago in socio-economic and political terms. A lot has not changed, granted, but change is happening nonetheless. One country is now a successful wealthy nation, others and midrange economies, but all were poor developing countries back then. Before the dictators and generals faded away there was already talk among economic intellectuals and forward thinking politicians about something of the nature of what the EC was and in time no doubt something akin to the EU. I suspect progress to that stage will be far slower than the people I met in the 1980s, but nonetheless will happen in time, perhaps another 20 years.
The large trading blocs are the best bet for competition with the might of China and the USA, also for trading with them and the EU or any other union far more seamlessly. The history you describe that leads into the EU and justifies its existence has parallels in the Southern Cone at least, simply without the modern wars unless the almost permanent state of civil war, usually called terrorism, is used as that standard. So, the basis is there, the ambitions of some of the countries bringing them on and in time pulling others in. At that point in time the EU would probably be their idea partner since it is made up of a diversity of nations, cultures, economies with both constitutional and legal differences that are unlikely to change, thus with the ability to comprehend difference within unity. Above all else, economically, not meaning specifically financially, there are sectors like agriculture that need that unity to sustain rapidly growing populations. China and the USA are to politically homogeneous to fill the criteria.
As for Brexit, having mentioned it, the UK will lose out badly. What I know from working in Latin America and living in the poorest communities up to meeting people with a far more worldly experience, is that the UK’s imperial past, the sometimes distorted but impressionable knowledge of the colonial world that to an extent penetrated their countries too, has created prejudices I suspect the Uk will find difficult to overcome. The EU brings together nations, somehow ‘neutralises’ Spain and Portugal, at least plasters over them, making a relationship with the EU as a whole far more palatable.