The EU is 50. Time to think afresh – 1

March 30, 2007

In this month of March that is coming to a close we celebrated the 50 years of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundation for today’s EU. 50 years already?

Why I chose to talk about the EU’s fiftieth anniversary in a blog dedicated to economic globalisation and its politics? First and foremost because of the economic weight of the EU: about 20% of world trade extra-EU, about 40% of world trade in total, the biggest exporter of services in the world, the originator of modern globalisation with European expansion starting sometime in the end of the Middle Ages, the giant that has not found its place in a world where China, India, and other rival giants are catching up economically. Second: as I am a “European”, this matters to me. Third: As I am a a political observer first and foremost, who likes to look at economics, well: Europe is a topic of choice.

Back to the initial topic: taking stock of the EU. These 50 year-celebrations come in a period of crisis. The Economist published a special survey on the EU on the 17th of March. The cover of that week’s edition was entitled, quite tellingly, “Europe’s mid-life crisis”. Yes, in a sense Europe is having a mid-life crisis. The Dutch and French no-votes to the proposed EU constitution in 2005, the resistance to the Services Directive and its ultimate watering down are only the tips of an iceberg. But crises are also a window of opportunity for renewal, and often something good can come out of them.

Under the auspices of an academic of the London School of Economics, Maurice Fraser, and in collaboration with FT Business, a booklet was published for the occasion entitled “European Union – The Next Fifty Years” Its subtitle: “50+ top thinkers set out their ideas for Europe”*.

As it includes contributions from such eminent people as Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolene Royal and David Cameron, the term “thinkers” is I think somewhat exaggerated. However, these fifty contributions of people [the list of which you can find here] who have something to say, and generally some agenda to further, do, I think, reflect the state of the current debate. First impression when browsing through the book: “help, what a cacophonia”! Second impression: “aha, there are recurrent themes”.

There are indeed, at the moment, in Europe: 1) one obsession, 2) a genuine concern, 3) two methodological approaches, and 4) one real problem.

In this post, I will concentrate on number 1). I hope in the next posts (1-2 more) to be able to cover the others, as all are interlinked, and I really want to discuss number 4). But, let’s start with the beginning.

The Obsession:

“Identity, Culture and Borders”.

The book is full of it. It represents the conservative view, the”progressive” view, and the naïve view.

Conservative view. To start with, the very German-conservative view of Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament, and member of the conservative German party CDU. His message:

“honouring our values that are rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage”

(i.e. Christian Club thesis);

“avoiding cultural overstretch” and “privileged partnership with Turkey”

(i.e. “Keep-those-Muslims-out thesis”),

“a strategy for the Mediterranean region”

(i.e. “control-and-dominate-those-bloody-Muslims thesis”)**.

My current “tête-de-Turc”***, as the French would put it, Nicolas Sarkozy, joins in and adds: “Borders”. No Turkey. “We must be cautious about how we accept immigrants”.

The “progressive” view

A very lucid contribution of Constanze Müller, Director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, on the contrary says:

“For the harsher [the EU] tries to limit its membership, the greater will be the pressure of illicit movements of people and goods into the Union and the more embittered its neighbours become”. “If (and only if) Europe is generous in defining citizenship, it can also be rigorous in enforcing its rules, and excluding those who hold its freedom in contempt”.

Freedom? A recurrent theme in the book, generally defined as “democracy”. Yes, the EU is very much about freedom and democracy. But identity-wise: the EU is also a result of the Cold War and the rejection of totalitarianism after the traumas of the World Wars. The European Community and the EU are also a rejection of what Europe used to be and no longer wants to be: Inquisition and religious persecution, dictatorships and repressive monarchies and empires, war, war, war, anti-Semitism, racism, colonialism, totalitarian ideologies and regimes. What a legacy! But, as a European, I am proud to announce that, with Enlargement, the EU has fared much better then George W. Bush in exporting democracy. The method: Inclusion. And if you include, you must expand. When and where to stop? But why stop? There is no solution to the question of borders. Dostoiesvsky is European heritage, but will Russia be member of the EU? It is about wanting to join the adventure. Although not generally a fan of over-televised philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy, I really appreciated his contribution in this booklet (he is Frenchman, better: Parisian, of Jewish ancestry born in Algeria…so much for the cultural heritage of Europe: where are those bloody borders???). For him, the good thing about Europe is exactly that it is

“not source of identity”.

“All human communities have a border (…) with the exception of Europe (…) Only Europe has freed itself from that fatal obsession with which earlier communities of women and men had with frontiers****.

The European community is

‘undeclared, or ‘imaginary’ or‘paradoxical’. We can (…) give the name that we like to its intrinsic restlessness”.


“If we were starting all over again, I would certainly not begin with culture”.

The naïve view. There’s a lot of “unity in diversity” kitsch in that booklet. But the contribution that really made me burst in laughter was the one by Gérard Mortier, who heads the Paris National Opera:

“It is through the understanding of European theatre from Greek tragedy, passing through Elizabethan theatre, the bourgeois drama of the 19th Century and the musical drama of Verdi and Wagner, up to the films of Bunuel, Pasolini, Fellini, Bergman and Kubrik, that parliamentary debate takes on its meaning and that democracy can be fully understood”.

Oh, yeah? Explain.

….Long live Europe!

*Although published by one of my employers, no sponsoring going on here. I even think it is not worth buying. Too expensive, in the first place!. Try Ebay.

** May I make a provocative personal commentary: Islam is a “Judeo-Christian heritage” too. One just needs to be aware of a bit of history and you realize that Islam takes on most of the Jewish heritage. After having read the Classic “History of the Arab peoples” by Albert Hourani recently, I realized Islam, when born, was strange mixture of wanting to go back to genuine monotheism considered to be disrespected by the idea of the Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) defended by Christians, and in a strange symbiosis-cum-opposition to the local Jewish communities…). We’re still making an “Other” out of a religion that is close to “Europe”.

*** Literally: “Turk-head”. In fact it means something like a scapegoat, or a person you get onto easily.

**** Err, not so sure.


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