The European Union: concrete idea or elusive hope?

By Harry Hagopian
February 27, 2016

My late maternal grandparents liked London a lot. As I was growing up, my grandfather would often recount stories of their visits to this bustling capital in the very early 1970s when travelling was not so easy. He would also add that no trip was complete for them without a meal at the Angus Steak eatery, a shopping spree at M&S and a visit to Fleet Street. My grandfather would tell me about the – predominantly white – English men with their bowler hats, Burberry’s raincoats, pointed umbrellas and brogue shoes.

But I suppose that was the London of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan well before the bust and boom cycles that made the country more cosmopolitan and in a sense more European too. This was a time when ‘exotic’ restaurants mushroomed everywhere and people started talking about the EEC. The what, some readers might well exclaim at this stage? Yes, the European Economic Community was the predecessor of the EU that we are hearing a lot about these days as the UK readies itself for the ‘in-out’ referendum on 23 June that could well decide whether we stay in this expanded Club or else opt out.

But a little bit of history about the EU as we know it today.

The Second World War wrought havoc to the European continent. Coventry, Dresden or Warsaw are only three examples of much wider destruction across Europe. As a result, the Council of Europe set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1950, followed subsequently by the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. The process then led to the EU in Maastricht (The Netherlands) on 1 November 1993.

Key European names that were involved in this pioneering process included Konrad Adenauer, Joseph Bech, Johan Willem Beyen, Winston Churchill, Alcide De Gasperi, Walter Hallstein, Sicco Mansholt, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and Altiero Spinelli. Men of different nationalities and backgrounds strove to come together, put their differences aside and labour for a European project that was meant to put an end to the wars between neighbours and establish a cooperation system between populations as much as aim for the ultimate long-term aspiration of political unity.

Mind you, the founding fathers were not all veteran politicians. Those builders of Europe, men who believed in dialogue rather than in war, were also lawyers, businessmen and resistance fighters – in a nutshell, a motley group of people who sought a European Dream (as it was dubbed at the time). They had all experienced the horrors of war and they shared the same ideas – ideals I would add –for a peaceful, united, stable and prosperous Europe.

Yet today, a few decades later, Europe has painfully lost its way. It has mislaid its compass. It does not have a proactive vision. Perhaps this is because it is much harder today to manage 28 disparate countries than the nine that existed in 1973. After all, states have competing national interests, let alone dissimilar understandings of nationalism and plurality. Or it might simply be that some countries disbelieve that closer integration is good as it dulls their own identities and costs them too much financial capital. Economic ties: yes! Political union: no!

The European Union is a relatively young institution but it is already going today through choppy times. It faces social, political and economic crises with high rates of unemployment (especially among the youth), increasing socio-economic inequalities, a weak political unity, and an inability to reflect the dream of those founding fathers. Euro-scepticism is rising in some quarters and amongst some political parties. But if the EU is no more, the alternatives become truly frightening. The dream of so many decades could fragment rapidly and take us back to jingoistic tendencies and modern-day equivalents of Fascism or Nazism.

Indeed, this tension could not have been made clearer than during the past year. With over a million refugees from Syria and few other countries crossing into Europe by land and sea, some of them really desperate refugees whilst others merely economic migrants, the sense of solidarity amongst ordinary Europeans collapsed almost dramatically. Some Visegrad Group countries conveniently forgot their own experiences under Soviet rule and started erecting physical and psychological walls. Others turned their backs on Germany, Austria and Sweden as the leaders of those countries attempted to show compassion and welcomed the refugees into their own countries. Indeed, xenophobia has been rearing its ugly head anew as we witness a rise in extreme right political parties and populist tendencies are prevalent in many mainstream parties. The statements coming out of officialdom in Brussels remain couched in positive and reassuring terms, but the reality on the ground has been turning decidedly sour.

Closer to base, we in the UK have had a hangover with Europe ever since we voted in the first referendum in 1975. Today, PM David Cameron has called for another ‘In-Out’ referendum to decide whether the UK stays part of the EU or opts out. The outcome of the Brexit referendum remains unpredictable. If those who wish to take us out of Europe succeed, they would expose the UK to the cold winds of its insularity and in my opinion incur the loss of a number of social, institutional, economic, fiscal and legal rights enjoyed by British citizens.

In a global world, I would argue that the EU brings with it potential political and economic stability, no matter the Eurozone differences, setbacks or idiosyncrasies of culture and history. But to achieve such goals, we need a vision that surpasses fingerprints, hotspots, barbed wires, emergency legislation or Calais Jungles. In short, we need bold statesmen.

However, to keep Europe cohesive today, we might have to consider what Enrico Letta, former Italian prime minister from 2013-14, suggested as two circles within Europe – the euro circle, moving towards greater integration, and a looser circle of countries with different goals. This idea is different from the much-touted two-speed EU since the two circles can move in different directions whereas the two-speed momentum presumes the same direction.

So where are we today? I would suggest that many unknown unknowns beset Europe and our fears are overtaking at times our good sense. We should not blame the EU for trying to harmonise those rules that benefit ordinary Europeans. Nor should we blame refugees – Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans or others – for that matter. After all, our demography of 508 million European citizens and our geography of 4.325 million km² would allow us to show hospitality to those in need. Besides, is this not what Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are doing by hosting so many millions of refugees despite their flaccid infrastructures? And the problem after all is in Syria, not in the EU, is it not? So should we not work for a better future that does not always descend into petty squabbles and self-serving interests?

Let me go back to my grandparents. London today is nothing like the city they visited in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. The bowler hats, pointed umbrellas, trench coats and brogues are no longer the trademarks of this city. Many Brits are not fair-skinned either. Today, the global nature of the word and the impact of our fundamental freedoms – the freedoms to move, work and speak – across the continent have cross-pollinated the European cultures and changed the nature of the UK let alone the outlook of a whole continent. Do we really wish to regress to those yesteryears of long wars and rampant nationalisms? After all, state sovereignties no longer work in an absolutist form as they did a few decades ago.  Or do we choose to seek a Europe of peace that undergirds the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law?

Europe in 2016 risks losing the ability to dream big, and anybody who does not dream stops regenerating and becomes otiose. We should put our phobias and scepticisms aside and help recreate a European vision that lifts up and celebrates our hard-fought values. We Europeans – men and women, whether politicians, institutions, think-tanks, churches, grassroots and individuals – can transform an elusive hope into a concrete idea but only if we have the guts for it … as did the Founding Fathers despite formidable odds some 70 years ago.

*Another version of this article appeared as Opinion in Al Jazeera on 24 February 2016.

*This is one of a series of articles and analysis Ekklesia will be publishing in the run-up to the EU referendum on 23 June 2016. 

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net - follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

Further resources from Ekklesia on the EU referendum: *What kind of European future? (Ekklesia, 13 June 2016) – http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23160
* Assessing Christian contributions to the EU referendum debate (Ekklesia, 20 June 2016) – http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23188* Ten principles to guide voting in the EU referendum and beyond (Ekklesia, 21 June 2016) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23194
* Ekklesia’s EU referendum briefing and commentary: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/eureferendum

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.