Being part of the "European club"

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Is there a common ideal?

An idealist like Václav Havel would answer differently than an economist, if you asked him what it means to be an European. He would appeal to values. He would wince at allusions to economic indicators (the way he'd put it, of course, is that "chasing profits" is not the way to live[1]).

Havel observed very early on that the EU had a perception problem, writing in 1994 that "[s]een from a distance, the European Union looks like a very technocratic body dealing solely with economics and money."[2]

He would appeal to us to come up with a vision. He would prod us to think deeply about our aspirations. He said explicitly, in the same speech: "I think it would be splendid if, sometime in the future, there existed a short, intelligible and readable European Constitution, understandable even to schoolchildren." He continued:

I believe that the EU should place greater and more evident stress on the things are truly of foremost importance, namely its spiritual foundations and values. After all, this is an unprecedented attempt to build a large and original supranational community on the basis of respect for human freedoms and human dignity, on a foundation of genuine and not simply ostensible or formal democracy, trusting in common sense, decency, and the power of equal dialogue within this community and with anyone else.

For other people, the "fundamentally European" trait is diversity, and the ability to work and study together despite the persisting differences. In 1995, a German think-tank recommended: "All Europeans should learn foreign languages as early as possible. European citizens must be able to understand each other."

What if members show limited commitment to values?

To become an EU member, a country must meet the Copenhagen criteria.

Nobody really knows what can be done when some political criteria are eroded.

There is no formal mechanism that would allow the members with stable institutions to force a less stable member to leave the club.

With regard to the recent developments in Poland,[3] Guy Verhofstadt writes: "The EU Commission should use all instruments at its disposal to insist on the full respect of fundamental European principles and the rule of law, to support Polish civil society, it's democratic media and opposition. At the same time, the mechanism which the European Treaty envisaged for serious breaches of fundamental European values - switching off of the Constitutional Court clearly qualifies as such - should be activated, to clearly demonstrate to PiS government the risks and costs connected to the undermining of democracy."

Communities are not created by committees

Many people believe that economic links must lead to tighter bonds. Still, as Jean Pisani-Ferry recently pointed out, “it was a mistake to believe in the euro’s spontaneous community-creating power”.

A vivid description of the backlash in the Czech Republic shows that the eurocrisis created substantial ill will in some EU countries, even those that have not yet adopted the euro:

Alexandr Vondra, ex-dissident and now defence minister, declared to the congress that the current crisis had been caused by "the permanent heterogeneity of the national traditions, cultures and economies of Europe, on which a false solidarity has all too often been imposed". Vondra urges for national cohesion above all: "Concepts of multiculturalism are worthless today. On the contrary, the word 'homeland' ought not to be considered a dirty word but a value worth defending, for which we must be prepared to suffer."

Forgotten geography

The adjective "European" is typically linked with "civilizational", economic and other abstract concepts. The geographic question ('where does it end?') only came up a few times, when the status of Turkey was discussed over the years.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the "importance of land" will be brought up more often, as the distinctions between "us" and those on the other side of the border will be emphasized in the months to come.

The mishandled eurocrisis weakened internal relationships inside the EU. They need to be urgently repaired.

  1. Speech of Vaclav Havel in the European Parliament, 1994: "What I have in mind is the shift away from the cult of profit at all costs and regardless of its long-term and irreversible consequences, a shift away from the cult of quantitative growth and “growth of growth”, a shift away from the primitive ideal of catching up with or outstripping America or China or anyone else, as well as a shift away from the perilously haphazard settlement of the Earth and the mindless plunder of the planet without regard for the environment or the interests of future generations. I’m referring, of course, to the ingenious saving of energy, when the success of a state is not measured by the growth of its consumption but its reduction." ↩︎

  2. To be fair, he also said: " That never-ending quibbling over the budget, quotas, customs duties, trading rules and the various regulations is probably necessary and I do not disdain it in the least. What is more, I actually think that the proverbial recommendations or standards regarding the cooking of goulash – the usual target of Eurosceptic scorn – are intended more as protection of something Czech or Hungarian, rather than an attack on a given member state and its identity." ↩︎

  3. FT: Poland’s president defies critics to change how top court operates: "Last week, Frans Timmermans, European Commission vice-president, wrote to Poland’s foreign and justice ministers to request that the law be delayed until questions regarding its legality were fully assessed. ... Mr Duda on Monday signed the amendments into law, ending a near month-long parliamentary quarrel over the composition of the tribunal and changing the system by which it can block new legislation. Both changes appear to favour the ruling party." ↩︎

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