Antoine Ripoll / Nov 2016
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Europeans know what they want, what they are passionate about, and who they are. But they don’t know they know it.
The debate following the election of Donald Trump and the trade agreements with Canada and the United States have vividly highlighted this: 508 million Europeans know what they expect and what kind of society they are building. A cohesive society, respectful of others, transparent, secular, and proud of its human, social, and environmental standards.
They have been passionately debating for months about the risks of a sub-par trade negotiation resulting in their markets being flooded with GMOs or chlorinated chicken. They have sworn not to sacrifice their intrinsic benefits on the altar of CETA and TTIP.
Following on the heels of the success of a Europe reconciled with itself, it is a pithy lesson for anyone looking for Europe's narrative to be a cut above the perceived inhuman, consumeristic and selfish globalisation.
Many are asking themselves what the point of Europe is; what goals it aspires to; what its identity is; what makes it indispensable. Older Europeans will argue it is peace. Never before throughout Europe’s modern history have our countries experienced such protracted and visibly durable peaceful times. But peace is a given to millennials, and they find it a stale argument. Others will argue it is the economy. The millions of unemployed looking for lasting jobs, and those who think that tomorrow they will be worse off than yesterday and for whom Europe is a synonym for rampant globalisation, don't find it convincing.
This irritates the élites, who still hope that rational pro-European arguments can convince their citizenry. The backlash favours populists and nationalists, who take advantage of the unscrupulous lies national leaders and the media have been spreading about “Brussels”; a convenient scapegoat for any and all unpopular yet necessary decisions that they are seldom brave enough to own up to.
When all is said and done, as long as the goals of the European project remain muddled, we all suffer the consequences. Our political system has changed with the rise in power of new political parties who postulate being “against”, and who capitalise on the inevitable anger and frustrations. Our economy is shapeless because it is nigh -impossible to adopt the necessary measures to foster education and innovation; the only policies able to sustain jobs and growth, but reviled by devotees of the short-term. Our common plot has become incomprehensible and Europe, traditionally the champion of human rights and humanitarian aid, is becoming a solipsistic fortress.
Is Europe destined to crumble after sixty successful years? Is the European Commission truly its last chance? Will the concomitant crises of terrorism, migration, unemployment, Brexit, the Russian menace, and the Euro mean the end of Europe?
It will depend on what narrative we choose for the European adventure. Unless Europeans have an ingrained feeling of sharing a common destiny, if they believe the drawbacks of shared sovereignty are greater than the benefits of a common identity in a globalised world, then the European edifice will splinter.
But if they understand what makes them unique as Europeans, what differentiates them from other people and motivates them to defend and promote their unique vision of society, then their common history will only just start to take shape.
Is there a glue, in one word, a powerful tie that unites us, like war and peace did in the 50’s, and if so, what is it? Absolutely: what differentiates Europeans and makes them unique is a conflation of their fondness for collective solidarity, respecting differences and minorities in matters of traditions, expectations of political transparency, avoiding interference between the religious and public spheres of life, and a visceral attachment to their high standards.
More than anybody else, we feel that society must provide a chance to those who are less fortunate because of their health, social position, age, or political circumstances. We have already built a legal and financial arsenal to make this solidarity a reality we can all be proud of. More than anybody else, we have gradually moved forwards together to calmly debate vital issues such as abortion, divorce, same sex marriage. More than anybody else (but still imperfectly), we have given ourselves the means to reduce corruption and increase transparency within our political system. We don’t spend much on election campaigns, and those we elect to office don’t have the pitiful task of raising money for their next campaign.
More than anybody else, we Europeans believe that religion and politics do not belong in the same league; they should live separate lives whilst remaining mutually respectful. More than anybody else, finally, we take ourselves for the world champions of rights and standards. Human rights, the fight against global warming, social rights, transparent consumer protection; nothing is too exacting.
Combine all this and let it simmer, and the resulting dish will be the European plot. It never really left our kitchen, but we began taking it for granted because we got so used to inhaling its wonderful aroma. When are we going to sit again around the table as Europeans and recognise - and fully savour! - the quality of our dishes?
When are we going to realise that our ingredients are among the best and healthiest; we have cultivated them for hundreds of years, yet adapted them to today’s tastes and used in recipes inspired by our national cultures, the latter certainly different, but more than compatible?
If we do this, we will realise that our standards are remarkable but very expensive, and that to defend our high quality social model we must first of all acknowledge its existence and then make it sustainable in a world less concerned than we are with solidarity and high standards.
Europeans, Molière would say, are unknowingly writing European literature. They animatedly defend their soils, they are careful landscapers, they are the defenders of human rights, they speak 24 languages and yet understand each other, they are passionate about defending and promoting their quality of life, they care about the well-being of weakest amongst them. They know what they want and what they expect. They distrust those who don't hold their principles in the same high esteem. But they believe their value base to be “normal” and universal. It is not.
We Europeans have things to say and a story to tell. It’s time for us to became fully aware of it and give ourselves the means to do so. It is within our reach.