Mission Europe – Thoughts at the end of a thrilling journey

by Paul Nehf

The idea of peaceful coexistence in Europe is old. As early as the 19th century, progressive thinkers had dreamed of a Europe of the peoples. An institutional Europe was finally established after 1945 – built upon the ruins of the wars which had regularly ravaged the continent previously. “Wherever there is trade, there are gentle customs”, wrote the French philosopher Montesquieu. And thus economic co-operation became the driving force of European integration. And it not only brought along peace, but also a political umbrella, known today as the European Union.

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But at some point along the way, this European pioneering spirit was lost. The idea moved increasingly into the background, it was overtaken by the trends of globalization. More than ever economic interests play the leading role. And since the Eastern Bloc collapsed, Europe has become a global political player. There are therefore often geo-strategic and economic interests today, which are clothed in a robe of values that could be summed up as “European thoughts”, as the “European idea”. The crisis in Ukraine in particular has shown that this is seen with different eyes beyond European borders.

Where is the spirit of Europe today? One thing is clear. It must be revived! The perverseness is, that for our young generation Europe is a reality. We have been born in a Europe where the Schengen Agreement gives us the freedom to travel without a visa, and where we can go and study abroad through the Erasmus programme. Where a European Parliament formulates a common, democratically determined political will. Where, finally, the euro links different national economies together. Europe has become the norm and we must work hard not to overlook the values behind it. Freedom, prosperity and democracy.

Maybe we have a different relationship with Europe than the elderly, who were involved in the process of European integration. Perhaps we are missing the emotional connection, to stand up for this Europe, because we cannot imagine a life without all of these benefits. And this is a dangerous situation.

In spite of all the differences exhibited by the conflicts we investigated for “Generation Separation”, one thing was clear. Europe is not seen by the young as a problem-solver – but in one country as the hope of economic recovery, while elsewhere in contrast the boomerang effect has set in since the financial crisis and Europe is seen as part of the crisis which the nation states had better resolve themselves.

Europe is certainly also to blame for this situation. If policymakers feel that the will of the people is slowing down or even obstructing the necessary decision-making process, it is only too tempting to leave citizens out in the cold from time to time. The system is called post-democracy, where elections lead people to believe they have a right to a say, while the important decisions are taken behind closed doors.

Europe displays such tendencies: The euro was adopted virtually everywhere without referendums. And when the southern countries slipped into crisis, technocrats took over crisis management – an irony of history that, of all places, the cradle of democracy, Greece, was especially affected. When the Treaty on establishing the European Constitution was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2004, it was soon afterwards passed by the Heads of State or Government in the Lisbon Treaty. And to come back to the “Generation Separation”: Those familiar with the problem of non-citizens in Latvia are tempted to believe that the accession of the Baltic States into the EU was probably also carried out so quickly in order to put one over on Russia.

On the other hand, steadily falling election turnouts are indicative of a continually decreasing interest in European politics.

The financial crisis was a turning point for Europe. For a long time material prosperity had hidden the growing internal problems on the continent. This is precisely the above-mentioned difference between norms and values. Now, because prosperity is at risk, and the façade of Europe is crumbling, it is becoming clear that there is a whole series of values which are in a bad way. However because policymakers – both at a national and European level – seem too occupied with the acute problems to not only formulate these values, but also to live them, a vacuum has arisen. And anti-European forces have moved into this vacuum. Forces which are contrary to the values of the European idea, but also forces that would like to close Europe’s political umbrella once again.

It is our generation, which will take the political decisions in future. And for this, there needs to be a refocusing on the bedrock of European values. Only then can political Europe take on a new shape, which will take it forward.