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What’s Holding Europe Together in a Changing World?
1 August, 2018
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The European Union has been shaken by internal conflicts since the eurozone crisis in 2009, and more recently by the unmanageable influx of migrants from Africa and refugees from the Middle East. Yet this strain from both within and outside the E.U.’s borders is also what impels member states to work together.

Dutch political theorist and historian Luuk van Middelaar was in Kyiv last May for a presentation of the Ukrainian translation of his prizewinning book “The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union.” The book looks at key events in the E.U.’s history, while also acknowledging the role of chance and improvisation in shaping the union of diverse states.

“What is so peculiar and so fascinating is that within the European Union we [have] two flags – we have the European flag and all the national flags – and that makes for permanent tensions because there’s always the risk of division among member states,” van Middelaar said.

According to the Dutch historian, the interests of America and Europe have been drifting apart since the end of the Cold War. The recent unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iran nuclear deal is a signal that the transatlantic alliance is weakening.

“And that makes it very important for European countries, including Ukraine, to have a stronger sense of their own autonomy – the need to organize themselves – to be able to defend their own interests and values in the world,” said van Middelaar.

The historian sees the war in eastern Ukraine as decisive for Europe’s future.

He believes that only in the past decade have Europe’s citizens begun to see themselves as E.U. citizens, and they are wary of the centralization of power they see in Russia, China, and the United States. “Perhaps they’re not always at ease with the way Brussels is run, but at the same time they know that the world is changing and that they have to adapt to that world.”

Hromadske sat down with political theorist Luuk van Middelaar to discuss the fundamental duality of the E.U., the challenges of populism and shifting alliances, and what holds Europe together despite increasing internal and external pressures.

Do you see that today we have a crisis in trans-Atlantic relations and leaders on both sides are going in different directions?

I think they are, but really the interest between America, which is on the other side of the Atlantic, and Europe is drifting away since the end of the Cold War. And Trump is merely expressing that. He is a symptom, not the disease. And that makes it very important for European countries, including Ukraine, to have a stronger sense of their own autonomy – the need to organize themselves – to be able to defend their own interests and values in the world.

Photo credit: EPA/FELIPE TRUEBA

What I try to do in my book is not the usual story – we’re all going to be one, we’re all going to cheer for the European flag, we’re building the United States of Europe – because I do not think that is happening and I do not think it is a credible story. What is so peculiar and so fascinating is that within the European Union we still have a union of member states – France, Germany, Spain,  others – and at the same time they learn to work together. So there’s now two flags – we have the European flag and all the national flags – and that makes at the same time for permanent tensions because there’s always the risk of division among member states. On the other hand, if you look at Europe’s centuries-old history, with all these nations, with their political cultures, their languages, on such a small space, it is not a sound idea to think that that can disappear into one centralized organization run from Brussels, as others run their states or empires from Washington or Moscow. It’s not going to happen like that. There will always be this plurality as a union. That can work but it is more difficult.

Do you think that Europe has a natural tendency toward enlargement or that the enlargement has stopped?

I think there is still an inbuilt driving force for enlargement and it is not only the treaty, which says that any European state can become a member. (So if you’re a European state you can apply, and that clearly is the case for Ukraine, unlike for, say, Morocco.) But it’s more than the treaty, I would say. In the end it is the underlying idea of the European civilization, which holds us together and to which all along European integration history people have appealed. I think that’s also what on the Ukrainian side Ukrainian people and leaders are feeling very strongly – that it is also by appealing to that European identity, the underlying identity and values, that you prove that you are a European state, not only by pointing out the letter of the treaty.

In the end of your book you talk about different strategies – the German strategy, the Roman strategy and the Greek strategy – what do you mean by that?

This is my way to describe three ways by which European institutions and states have tried to convince their citizens that they are Europeans and that Europe is good for them. I call “German strategy” the appeal to a common identity, a common history, a bit like 19th-century German nationalism (think of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte). Hence the idea, for instance, to have a European flag, to have symbols, or history books. It’s very complicated, you can also have backlashes – it’s perceived as propaganda – but there were some successes as well.

The “Roman strategy” I call an appeal to bread and circuses, the Roman empire, meaning that a political order has to provide advantages, goodies for people. And show that you get money out of it, like with agriculture – regional funds, that you have rights and freedoms you can exercise, you can travel around Europe, students can go on Erasmus, and all that. So that is also a “Roman” advantage of being an E.U. citizen. And the third one I call Greek or Athenian strategy, which is to give people a say. It’s about democracy, it’s about making people aware that... It’s also about creating new institutions, like the European parliament, which was built so that European citizens can have a place where they are represented as Europeans.

While this distinction is a bit of a small historic joke, I think any political system, any political order, uses various strategies to build a bond with the citizens. Europe is also doing it. But in the end you need all three, of course. You need to appeal to identity, to “we, Europeans” and not “they, Europeans.” It may surprise you in Ukraine, but within the European Union, Brussels is perceived – even in my country, the Netherlands – as something far away, almost as a foreign occupying power. Of course, Europe also has to provide advantages and be democratic.

Talking about today’s populist crisis, what is moving it – lack of identity, lack of material resources, or lack of participation? The populists are saying that the people are no longer governing. In particular, could you discuss the Italian case?

The Italian case, especially with the Five Star Movement, the political startup movement, is really an appeal for more democracy – they have internet voting among members. And it is an attack on the Italian political class, which has lost some of its credibility. But I think it’s both against the Italian state – incapable of providing enough jobs and security for Italian citizens – and the European Union at the same time. Indeed, Europe is blamed on both accounts – for migration because many African immigrants and refugees from the Middle East are coming in via Italy, and Italy feels left alone by the rest of Europe. Because Africans going to Italy, in their mind, they’re not arriving in Italy, they’re arriving in Europe. And still they’re stuck in Italy, and it’s difficult to organize a redistribution of asylum seekers across Europe. And then there’s the Euro, which is blamed for a lack of growth in Italy since 20 years. It’s a nuanced story because yes, it is more difficult for Italy to be competitive if you are in the same currency union with Germany. At the same time, they have done worse than anybody else, including Greece, if you look at the figures for the past 20 years. So there clearly is also a domestic Italian problem, which Italian politicians should attack.

When was the moment that Europe was really present for its citizens [as a concept]? Do you think we can count this moment from the early ‘50s or did it happen recently?

No I wouldn’t take it from the early 1950s. When Europe was only a market, it was only interesting for businesses, perhaps for farmers, people who had something at stake there. And it was for experts. It is only, I think, with the Euro, on the one hand, and the crisis over the currency, and with migration, with free movement between borders – basically the past 10 years – that for ordinary citizens, when they read the newspaper it is front page news – often the crisis, Greece, Italy, Germany, elections. All over Europe they’re talking about the same stories more or less at the same time. With the Euro crisis, since 2010, the migrant crisis, since 2015, all of a sudden Europe became very concrete, and people realized it makes a difference whether you are inside or outside the eurozone, whether you are inside or outside the Schengen [area] borders. And that is a new experience. Many people disliked it, some liked it. But I think it is normal that it takes time.

Photo credit: Roman Shalamov/KHYZKOVYI ARSENAL

I’m a historian by training, so I think five or ten years is not a very long time if you look at long-term trends. And that this new experience of what it means to be in Europe, what it means to share a border, a southern border, to share an eastern border, is relatively new. I think citizens in Europe are not fools (even if some of their politicians take them for fools). They also look around. They see what’s happening in Russia, in China, in Washington. And perhaps they’re not always at ease with the way Brussels is run, but at the same time they know that the world is changing and that they have to adapt to that world. And I wish for more political leaders, like Macron in France, who would give that message – that we are facing a new world with new challenges, new conflicts maybe, and that we can master them.

You wrote about these pivotal events – the Suez Crisis and then the fall of the Berlin Wall. Do you think something very substantial is happening now that can also drive Europe in a different direction? If yes, what is it?

I think the combination of Trump in Washington and Putin in Moscow puts a lot of strain on the whole European state system. It’s a strong outside pressure on European states to defend their own interests, their own values in the world, to realize that if we want to survive as a civilization in a way – from Iceland to Ukraine, and from Finland to Portugal – we have to work better together. The war in eastern Ukraine – there’s an element of truth in there. I see it and it is clear to outside observers that there also the future of Europe is at stake.

/By Volodymyr Yermolenko