Scholar: EU political dimension ‘painfully lacking’

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Europe lacks a “grand design” and must move on from utilitarian concerns by becoming an “ideological project” if it is to have a significant impact at global level, argues prominent author and historian Elie Barnavi in an interview with EURACTIV.

Prominent author and historian Elie Barnavi is a Bucharest-born Israeli citizen. A former diplomat and an historian by training, he is also a professor at the University of Tel Aviv, where he heads the Centre for International Studies. He also works as an advisor to the ‘Musée de l’Europe’ in Brussels. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

The title of your recent book is ‘Frigid Europe’. What do you mean by describing Europe as ‘frigid’? Do you really think this is the case? How frigid is Europe? 

It was meant to be a shock title to shake European complacency a little bit. Europe in my mind is frigid because it does not work, because it does not inspire Europeans anymore. It is a cold reality, perceived as a bureaucratic machine incapable of inspiring love, and I should say lust, in its citizens. 

It has this title which I admit is a bit ‘buffet’-like, but this was the intention. And I do think that Europe as it is now lacks a grand design. It lacks a sort of enthusiasm, it lacks an ideological project and it lacks endeavour. Europe has become this kind of efficient machine, and I do think it is efficient and that it works. 

From a utilitarian point of view, it is quite remarkable what Europe has managed to achieve. But Europe, in my mind, cannot only be that. If it is only a tool, it will remain what it is now; a kind of big market which is in itself not unimportant, but if Europeans want to achieve what the French call a ‘Europe de puissance‘, a coherent and strong political entity, capable of carrying weight on the world stage, then it must have another dimension. 

This dimension is of course political and there is no politics without a common ground of values without a project. This dimension is painfully lacking. Hence, the refusal of peoples to endorse it every time you ask a nation to say ‘yes’ to a constitutional project, they usually say ‘no’. Everybody knows that if the Lisbon Treaty had been submitted to referendum in Germany, for instance, it would have failed, as it failed in Ireland, and this is a very bleak prospect. 

Hence, my appeal for another way of imagining Europe, of working for Europe and of presenting it to the citizens, in order to help it pass what [French ALDE MEP Jean-Louis] Bourlanges beautifully calls “faire passer la porte sacrée de la politique“. That is what we are talking about here. We are talking about “la porte sacrée de la politique“. And this sacred gate of politics: Europe for the time being is standing in front of it without daring to go through it. 

That said, in many respects, Europe is already a federation for all practical purposes, but it doesn’t act like a federation. It doesn’t dare to tell itself that it is a federation. If it advances, it advances under the mask of economics, commerce and so on. 

You quote the EU’s founding fathers a lot in your book, asserting that the European project as envisaged by them is dead and Europe at present lacks visionary leaders like Jacques Delors. How can this impasse be resolved? 

Well, the European leadership made sure that another Jacques Delors is impossible. The ideal head of the European Commission is Santer, from their point of view. Delors was too big, too European. That is why they didn’t want Verhofstadt. 

Yes, the new generations of European leaders are not natural Europeans. It is the generation of Mitterand and Kohl and all those people who were natural-born Europeans, probably because they knew the war. 

I met Schroeder, and we had a long discussion with a very small group of people. From what I understood, this man was not a natural European. Chirac was not a natural European. Blair, who was meant to be a natural European, did almost nothing. It was a huge ‘ratage‘. He did not do anything, just like he did nothing in the Middle East, which is another problem. 

Even Sarkozy is not an ideological European. He is a man who understands that Europe is important and who does a lot. Maybe he will become an ideological European. Sometimes, the job makes the man, I don’t know. 

In any case, this generation of Europeans who try to promote Europe not only because it is a utilitarian thing, but also because of its value as an idea, does not exist for the time being. 

The other problem, of course, which is not just personal, is the method. After the failure of the European Defence Community (EDC) in 1954, Europe as an overt political project was over. From this point onwards, Europe became an economic project. This was the meaning of the treaties of Rome: the treaties of Rome were the substitute for the failure of the EDC. 

Admittedly, the politics was there. When you reach a single currency, it is obviously a political thing and a very important political thing, but by not saying it and by hiding it from the eyes of the public, by not daring to challenge the nationalistic trends which are natural within the nation states, by not proclaiming Europe as an idea, the limits of the method became more and more obvious. 

This dual method of communitarian and intergovernmental [cooperation] has proven its limits now. It is finished. Something else must be invented; otherwise Europe will continue to be an unfinished job. 

In your book, you make Europe face up to its history and its responsibilities. Do you think that we as Europeans are capable of assuming our history, particularly in the wake of enlargement? Do you think we can look at the past in order to move forward? 

Yes, we can look at the past if we are told how to do so and if doing so is a policy. What we are trying to do with this ‘Museum of Europe’, what we are trying to promote in Brussels, is precisely this: to show Europeans that they have common roots; that they are a civilisation. 

There is nothing to be invented here. There is a lot to be shown. People simply do not know. When I talk about history and the past, I am not talking about communism. I am talking about very long and profound roots of Europe. It is a very ancient, old story. 

It is not just Athens and Rome, but the Middle Ages too. All of this gave Europe a peculiar configuration of civilisation per se. It is not an invention of the historian. Historians can prove and show this. It is a whole European education that must be promoted. You do not have to invent it: it is there. 

Tackling the past is extremely important in order to build a future. By failing to tackle the past, you cannot really build the future and enhance this petty thing which is daily Europe, which is so boring in the eyes of its own citizens. 

So, I call upon the opinion-makers of Europe to promote Europe as an historical reality and as a project. The two, of course, are closely linked. It cannot be a project for the future if it is not a reality of the past. History is not an antiquarian thing. It is something lively and should be promoted as such and thought about as such. 

Do you think that we made a mistake by not retaining historical ties and references to Europe’s Christian roots in the constitutional project? 

I think so. I think that the whole business was a failure not only because the French and the Dutch voted against the treaty. They voted against because it was a miserable document. I read it. It must have been a handful of people who wrote that thing. It is not a constitutional text. It is a long, heavy, technical and boring thing, which was missing the most important things if you compare the text to the American constitution. 

In fact, that is what Giscard had in mind, the American constitution. He couldn’t do it because it is of course a compromise. Like Clemenceau said about defining a horse but at the end we have a camel. The camel is a horse made by the Commission. That is exactly what they did. They wanted to give birth to a horse and they made a camel. 

So the historical dimension was lacking. The symbols completely disappeared. The second time, in the preamble of Lisbon, the British demanded that the symbols of Europe be scrapped and the Europeans agreed. So, the lack of historical consciousness and the lack of respect for their own endeavour, for Europe as an entity which must have some ‘esprit de corps’, otherwise it is doomed, led to the reality we know now. Nations are willing to join the Union in order to take from the Union whatever they can but not pay back in any kind of solidarity whatsoever. 

Hence, these pages I wrote about what I see as the most scandalous aspect, which nobody pays attention to: the neutrality of certain states. Nations joined the European Union with this principle of neutrality and they were admitted as such, which is unbelievable. 

Ireland is not alone. There are also Austria and Sweden. They are neutral. Nobody thought about this oxymoron, about this contradiction in terms. You cannot join a community of destiny while remaining neutral. This is what Europe is meant to be: a community of fate. This means that I join a family. I get a wife and marry into a family and am prepared to get all the advantages, the solidarity, the family, but if my wife is right, she’s right, it is not my problem. I am neutral. This is the meaning of neutrality. 

And now, we are looking for a means to enforcing the neutrality of the Irish so that maybe they’ll be willing to vote in favour of the Treaty of Lisbon. This type of attitude makes Europe what it is now: frigid. 

You emphasise European values such as freedom, solidarity, equality, democracy and rationality. Do you think that the motto ‘United in diversity’ does enough to make people understand their rights? 

It is a good slogan. It is the same as the Americans: e pluribus unum. It is exactly that: ‘United in diversity’. The problem is not the slogan itself, which is perfect; the problem is where do you put the stress? What is the most important thing? What is the common discourse of Europe today? It is diversity. Listen. Europe is a daily festival of diversity. Diversity here, diversity there. 

I see that diversity not as a fact, but a kind of fantastic idea. We are not here to enhance diversity. It exists. Europe is here to stress what the Europeans have in common beyond diversity, which is obvious. So in this slogan, ‘United in diversity’, which in my eyes is perfect, if you stress diversity instead of stressing ‘united’, you are lost. 

2008 was the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. How successful do you think the European year was in improving intercultural relations in Europe? What are the challenges facing intercultural relations in EU countries? 

I think that it was a failure from the start. I am not for uniformity, obviously. Nobody wants to live in a world of clones. We want to be diverse. National history, national culture, national language; all of this is very important. 

I do not want to scrap all this in favour of some kind of indistinct melting pot. This is not the intention. Nations do exist. Do you want to build, with these nations, something which is unique in the history of mankind, something that never existed? This is a united Europe, in spite of the diversity of peoples and their legitimate willingness to keep the diversity, which is okay. 

But if you have a whole festival about diversity, you will miss Europe. It is as simple as that. You do not have to persuade the Czechs that they are Czechs, they know that. You do not have to persuade the Poles that they are Polish; they know that all too well. 

What you need to persuade them of is that beyond this, they are part of something bigger and this thing which is bigger is called Europe. Do you want to join it or not? Nobody is forced to do so. 

I always compare Europe to a sports or social club. There are rules of behaviour. It is a ‘coalition of the willing’, as [outgoing US President George W.] Bush used to say. If you want to join, you are most welcome, but you play by the rules. If you do not want to join, it is okay, we will remain friends, nobody will wage war on you. But you can’t be here and there at the same time. It is as simple as that. 

So what Europe allows to happen nowadays is to be ‘in’ and ‘out’ at the same time. If you want to take, you take. If you do not want, you do not take, and you take whatever you think is good for you. You are not going to take what is not good for you. This is not solidarity, it is a joke. 

Nothing can persist and become stronger and warm, and not frigid, with this type of behaviour. What the Irish did is a scandal. But what the Irish did is less of a scandal than what Europe allowed them to do. The culprits are not the Irish. The culprit is Europe, which is an amorphous thing with lots of rules, not the essential ones. 

For example, the acquis communautaire features thousands of pages. Who knows about this? Is this important for the citizens? Not a bit. Maybe it is important. They don’t think so. What do you give them in order to feel that this is important? That this is something that belongs to them? 

Why do Europeans remain blind to the ‘unité profonde‘ that you suggest? What is an ‘unité profonde‘ exactly? How do you give Europe a soul? How do you inspire people? Who does the inspiring? How do you go back and change a project that has gone wrong? 

Well, it obviously must be a joint venture. No-one can do it alone. It must be a collective effort, if they want to. I am struck by the lack of enthusiasm. European discourse is done. It is not inspiring. How do you do it in practical terms? You do it with education obviously. And you do it by symbolic gestures. 

Imagine that you have a festival once a year; on 9 May, you have a European holiday. Everybody in Europe would get a day off work, except for the schools, and this day would be a day when children would learn about Europe. Not about diversity, but about the project of unifying the nations of Europe, which had been waging war against each other for centuries. 

Europe was the continent of war. And all of a sudden it is not. And not only that, they did something together which was unthinkable. They pooled together their sovereignty for the benefit of a supranational entity. This is a revolutionary endeavour. Explaining this to the kids, you can imagine the impact that this could have. 

The second thing, which is quite easy as you do not even have to change the text for it, you have decided that the European elections will be held the same day everywhere. What are the European elections now? They are national elections around national topics, with national politicians – usually second-rate politicians who can’t compete for a slot in their own parliament, so they are sent to Europe. It’s a disgrace. 

Look at what somebody like Daniel Cohn-Bendit is doing. The only transnational lease. Imagine if you have several like that. All of a sudden, you discuss the problems of Europe. You take them out of the national arena. These are very simple things to do. I am thinking about rules, ‘les règles de bonne conduite‘; good European manners. 

You submit a text to a referendum, which personally I am not very fond of. I don’t think referenda are generally a good idea. We live in representative democracies. First of all, when a referendum fails, it is as if nothing happened. The same people stay in the same place. The whole European machine, in the name of democracy, in the name of half a billion people, comes to a standstill because a few people decided, for different and contradictory reasons, to say ‘no’. 

If you say, “okay, ‘no’ it is. Suspend us”. Again, no-one is obliged [to take part in the EU project]. These are very simple rules of behaviour that should be implemented in order to have something that respects itself. If Europe does not respect itself, why should others respect it? 

There is a list of very simple things that could be done. If you want to have a referendum, just to go back to this referendum business: yes, you can ask people a very simple question. They can answer with a ‘yes’ or with a ‘no’. Not complicated institutional and economic things that few people understand. 

You have the prime minister of Ireland submitting a text to referendum and admitting that he did not read it. What can you expect? The commissioner, who was probably off hunting or fishing, God knows what he was doing. Like this, they do not deserve to win. And of course, we don’t deserve them. 

So the only referendum that I can imagine for the Irish, but also for the French and the others: Do you want to belong to the European Union with the duties and the rights that such belonging entails? ‘Yes’ or ‘no’? If ‘yes’, then you know that you have a set of rules to abide by. If not, then you don’t. It is not a catastrophe. 

“The day you decide that you will join us, you can join us. We will always be willing to welcome you back.” These are not very difficult things to understand. I am pretty sure that if this question was asked, the Irish would say ‘yes’. 

Of course, they did not ask this question. They put to vote a complicated, baroque text that nobody understood and one of the main slogans in the campaign was, if you remember, “we are okay as we are, why change it?,” which means that we took from Europe whatever Europe could give us, now, we are asked to give and in our turn, we do not want to and they say ‘no’. It is as simple as that, although they did say ‘no’ for different reasons. 

If you look at the coalition of the ‘yes’, it is quite a coherent coalition. If you look at the coalition of the ‘no’, it is completely heterogeneous. There are people who voted ‘no’ because Europe is not social enough, others voted ‘no’ because it is not liberal enough, some voted because it was for abortion, others fear that it will forbid abortion. 

It is a complete confusion and this coalition of the ‘no’ decided the fate of the text for half a billion people. Is this reasonable? Not really. Yet we act as if it were reasonable, as it this is the way to manage Europe. 

I know that my explanation of this is not very sophisticated. Europe is much more sophisticated, but I think that a bit more simplicity would be greatly beneficial to Europe. It is not clear, people do not understand it. So when they don’t understand, they say ‘no’. 

I think that mostly they need a leader. The Lisbon Treaty provides for a figure to lead the Union as president of the European Council. 

Yes, of course. It would be great if a President of Europe could be elected by all the citizens. But this is a constitutional evolution and the text would have to be changed. One day, it will be. What I am suggesting is that for the time being the system should not be changed dramatically because Europe is obviously not ready. But these simple measures could make changes in the minds of the Europeans. That is the most important thing. It would be a very good start. 

Do you think new media could play a role? 

Yes, of course. I think that our museum could play an important role. But you know…it is very difficult to create. It is a lack of political will again. Doing one exhibition about the history of Europe was hugely successful. Europe is supposedly a boring subject, yet we managed to attract 150, 000 people, including thousands of youngsters. 

We published a pedagogical dossier that the children could prepare and discuss afterwards with the teacher. And this museum will move to Madrid and then to Paris. This should have been set up by Europe itself. They do not do it because it is very difficult to do something like this. When civil society creates such a project, it is not really helped. 

So yes, these are the means: cinema and Erasmus, which is of extreme importance to European universities. All these measures work, but they are the grassroots. The grassroots are very important, but without the political will, things will not go very far. We also need an impulse from the leaders and from Europe itself. Yes, we must convince them that this is something to be done. 

What do you think about the Europeana initiative that the EU launched recently? 

Well it crashed, supposedly because it was very successful. Then I read that most of the books that were downloaded were pornographic. 

Returning to the issue of political will and European leadership…in the US, Obama was only elected senator in 2004 and he was only just emerging. Do you think we are capable of letting new minds emerge in Europe or are we too old for that? 

Well, the United States is a nation state. It is not Europe. Europe is far from being that. But even within the nation states of Europe, allowing someone like Obama [to reach high office] is very hard to imagine. European societies are by and large much more conservative than in America. 

The Americans have this fantastic capacity to renew political personnel, or to imagine solutions. It is an extraordinarily dynamic society. Europe is old. It is very difficult to move things around. The Sarkozy phenomenon is quite interesting because he’s a kind of white Obama, but it is not exactly the same type of experience. 

I do not think that we should expect anything like that from Europe. Europe is made – and necessarily so – by compromise and consensus. When you have a generation of leaders who understand the historical outlook, it moves forward. When you have politicians who are mainly concerned with their own political arenas, it doesn’t go very far. 

But in any case, you have to go like this, step by step. It is not America where you have a revolution. You have Bush for eight years and then somebody like Obama. After the Europeans buried America, all of a sudden they are swept up by enthusiasm. I do not think that we should expect anything like that here. 

Do you think the EU institutional set-up even allows for such a person to emerge? 

I think we should be modest in our hopes. After all, we are not building a nation state. That much is obvious. We are a coalition of states and nations, and I think that we should strive to turn this coalition into something as coherent and powerful as possible. That is the idea: to extend as much as possible the field of shared responsibility, to give this coalition the power to act in more and more fields of political responsibility. 

That’s what we should aim towards, not turning Europe into a nation state. Nobody is prepared for that, and I am not sure if it would be a good idea. 

Again, I think the nation is a very important level of collective consciousness. But we could go much faster and imagine something much more coherent and powerful than what we have today. 

The family is not succeeding in making Europe what she cannot be, but it is transforming Europe into something she can be: a power in this world. And this is something achievable, in my opinion, but of course, it depends on the political will of Europeans themselves. 

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