A heart for Europe

EU flag

In his new book A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism, Dick Pels postulates a new Europatriotism in times of doubt and uncertainty. Politicians and intellectuals should take responsibility of charismatic and visionary leadership to oppose the politics of fear by rising nationalist movements.

European civilization is the never-ending quest for a more gentle, more relaxed, more trustful and less dangerous society: a society in which people are no longer afraid of each other, of their institutions, or of themselves. But Europe currently finds itself in the eye of a ‘perfect storm’, being chased by the multiple dangers of populist nationalism, Russian revanchism, neoliberal financial havoc, religious terrorism and refugee chaos. Facing these violent challenges, we urgently need to rethink our European ideals of peace, freedom, democracy, sustainability and the good life. It is urgent that we regain the original passion which lay behind the European project, in order to rescue the idea of a civilized European patriotism from the politics of fear which is conducted by both rightwing and leftwing nationalists.   

This is what I attempt to do in my book A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism. First, we need to follow the Austrian left-liberal politician Matthias Strolz, who has learned something important from compatriots such as Haider and Strache: ‘Politics should be done from the heart. Voters first of all follow emotions, then personalities and only after that rational arguments’. We cannot leave the field of political emotion to populist opponents who successfully monopolize people’s passions against the EU by playing on frustration and fear. To counter it, we need a new ‘Project Hope’ as well as new visionary leadership by politicians and intellectuals who are able to give progressive Europe a charismatic face.

The European Dream

Secondly, we cannot let them monopolize the idea of patriotism, of love of country and feeling of home, and allow them to shut up these feelings in a narrowly provincial nationalism. We should favour a lighter, more generous, outward-looking and self-critical brand of patriotism, both for our individual nations and for Europe as our future aspirational homeland. I close the book by quoting the American philosopher Richard Rorty in Achieving Our Country (1998): ‘You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning.’ This European Dream is none other than the dream of the Good or Just Society, of the beckoning ‘land of opportunity’, which the broken American Dream is no longer able to fulfil.

Now I am sadly aware that these days Europatriotism is somewhat of a tall order, given the state of disarray, moral weakness and political incompetence the EU finds itself in. Indeed, the idea of Europe appears currently to be loved more by outsiders (such as the millions of war refugees and economic migrants, or the majority of Ukrainians) than from within (where we have Brexiters and other insiders desperately wanting to get out).

Never Again War

This makes it all the more important to recover some of the original emotional idealism which was invested in the European project. ‘Never Again War’ still occupies the heart of this original mission. What may be called Europe’s ‘primal scream’ carried an emotional resonance which was self-evidently shared by all. Today this sentiment is often dismissed as a nostalgic admonition, or opportunistically invoked as a scare story. But the European ideal of peaceful stability has once again become acutely relevant, not least because, after seven relatively quiet decades, the threat of ‘hot’ war has once again returned to Europe, as a result of Russian revanchism, the Syrian civil war and the Islamist terrorist attacks on our capitals.

But there is another, more forward-looking and uplifting reason why the European peace project retains its abiding significance: it still offers an inspiring vision of our European identity and a glance into our common future-in-the making. ‘Europe’ stands for the most momentous civilizational ideal of our time. Civilization means that violence, cruelty, harassment and humiliation are as much as possible banned from society. It demands that the power of the strong cedes before the right of the weak, and that fear gives way to trust.

‘Freedom from fear’ was the fourth and most important one of the ‘Four Freedoms’ enumerated by Roosevelt in his famous 1941 speech. A decade earlier, in 1932, the Belgian socialist thinker Hendrik de Man identified ‘the conquest of social fear’ as the primary mission of his brand of liberal (or what he called cultural) socialism. In his conception, fear of the state had to a large extent subsided following the establishment of liberal democracy. Economic fears were expected to recede by putting social restraints on capitalism. As a result, he thought that cultural and psychological fears would also tend to diminish: fears of the unknown, of strangers, deviants and dissenters.

European Idea of Civilization Against New Nationalism

Evidently, such high ambitions are far from being realized within Europe itself, let alone in the harsher, more violent world beyond its borders. But if the aspiration of ‘never again war’ can be broadened, turned positive and ‘futurized’ in this way, beyond the eradication of direct physical violence among nation-states, in order to include the gradual diminution of institutional, moral and mental cruelty within them, a direct continuity is forged between the mission of the European founding fathers and current visions of Europe as a zone of physical and social security in which citizens feel at home and have equal access to the means of living a good life. As said, this still presents an immense task within Europe itself, where economic, political and cultural violence are still rampant, not to mention the sexual violence perpetrated against women, children and gays, the ‘entertainment violence’ committed by soccer hooligans, and the verbal or symbolic violence which is indulged in by those who identify the freedom of speech with the freedom (or even the duty) to insult others.

Hence the identity of Europe is intimately bound up with combating the politics of fear. The Copenhagen criteria of representative democracy, the rule of law, social justice and respect for human rights all crucially depend on it. The ‘conquest of social fear’ necessarily precedes and preconditions everything else which makes the good life possible: freedom, democracy, prosperity, toleration, sustainability. In this regard, the European idea of civilization stands directly opposed to the absolutism, self-righteousness and verbal violence which form the current staple of nationalist rhetoric all over Europe. The true soul of Europe is one that nurtures self-reflection, self-doubt and even self-mockery. Cruelty and terror, on the other hand, require an absolutist frame of mind. Being able to laugh about yourself tendentially drives out all violence.

We therefore need to reclaim progressive ideals such as liberty, democracy, equality, solidarity and tolerance from the populists, who have effectively nationalized and absolutized all of them, and reinvent them as European ideals. How can we promise freedom, equality of opportunity and the good life to all European citizens? How can we turn Europe into a genuine home where citizens feel secure, but are also challenged to grab the available opportunities to make something of their lives? That is the great wager which will determine whether this century will be a truly European one instead of another century of the nations and their mutual strife.