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<nettime> Fintan O'Toole: Has Europe lost its hold on our collective
Patrice Riemens on Mon, 6 Jul 2015 17:52:00 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Fintan O'Toole: Has Europe lost its hold on our collective


Original to:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/05/europe-fictional-construct-legacies-of-war


Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination?
by Fintan O'Toole
Sunday, July 5, 2015.

Europe never existed. It was a story made up to deal with the legacies of war


When I was a teenager in Dublin in the early 1970s, the phrase "Were into
Europe!" gained a peculiar currency. It was half-jokey but not really
sardonic. You used it for good things that promised even better things  -- 
when a girl you fancied smiled at you or your team scored the first goal.

It came from what was (in retrospect quite amazingly) a popular TV show
called Into Europe that the state broadcaster put on to educate the
populace of a peripheral nation that was going to join the European
Economic Community in 1973. I remember documentaries about farm
consolidation in Denmark or students sitting around some castle in Germany
discussing "What does it mean to be European?" It seemed terribly exciting
that we, too, would soon be able to discuss that question with the same
earnest enthusiasm. We were into Europe.
Live Greek referendum: finance minister Yanis Varoufakis resigns  --  live
Investors reflect fears for the stability of financial system after Greek
voters overwhelmingly rejected further austerity measures by creditors
Read more

But what did "Europe" mean in this sense? It was not a physical place.
Ireland had, after all, always been part of Europe. And the EEC was not,
in any case, Europe  --  it was a small fraction of the continent. But it
wasnt a mere set of trading and institutional arrangements either. It was
a story, an imaginative fiction of the kind that Yuval Noah Harari evokes
in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He makes the point that
the capacity to believe in fictional constructs is a defining element of
what makes us human, because without it we cannot co-operate with people
we do not know: "At the heart of our mass co-operation networks, you will
always find fictional stories that exist only in peoples collective
imagination... There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human
rights, except in our collective imagination."

One of these enabling fictions is "Europe". It is a story that most of the
central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and
each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and
the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly
with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief. The
question now is whether it still exists at all, whether "Europe" has lost
its hold on our collective imagination. All the evidence suggests that it
has.

In a remarkable outburst reported last week by the Observer, the Italian
prime minister, Matteo Renzi, denounced the failure of his fellow EU
leaders to agree on more than a voluntary plan to deal with the thousands
of refugees and migrants landing on his countrys shores: "If this is your
idea of Europe, keep it for yourself? you do not deserve to call yourself
Europe. Either we have solidarity or we waste our time!"

In recent weeks, too, the appeals by leaders of Syriza in Greece to "our
shared European values" have come to seem not just desperate but naive. It
is as if the Greeks were appealing to medieval codes of chivalry or
expecting Premier League footballers to respect 19th-century Corinthian
values. "Europe" and "European values" seem, even as rhetorical gestures,
entirely hollow. They are evoked now only to underline their absence.

One by one, the elements of the Europe story have fallen away. Democracy?
European leaders, especially the Germans, have been openly canvassing the
idea of "regime change" in Athens. The free movement of people? Hungary is
planning to build a fence along its border with Serbia and David Cameron
is hoping to build a metaphorical fence around Britain. The welfare state?
The recent elections in both Finland and Denmark suggest that even in its
Nordic heartland, it is no longer seen as a European value but as a
national, even an ethnic, possession, to be kept for "our people" alone.

Solidarity? Who now believes that the average person in Frankfurt or
Helsinki sees the pensioner rummaging in a bin in Thessaloniki as a fellow
citizen? Thresholds of decency? Formulaic expressions of sympathy aside,
there is little sense that the European Union as a whole finds it
intolerable that hundreds of thousands of Greeks are living without
electricity or that millions have no access to public health care.

The "ever closer union" envisaged by the EUs founders has been replaced
in effect by a deeply incoherent mixture of one-size-fits-all thinking and
double standards. On the one hand, there is the absolute insistence that
there can be no challenge to the technocratic formula for solving the
eurozone crisis: austerity plus massive bank bailouts plus privatisation
and the dismantling of social and labour protections.

On the other, there is a sharp moral and political divide between the
creditor states and the debtor states, with a supposedly virtuous, prudent
and righteous core beset by a feckless, reckless periphery. Or, if viewed
from that periphery, between victimised citizens and a European political
elite bent on punishing them for sins they did not commit on their own.

There is no "collective imagination" of the crisis  --  in one Europe, it is
respectable, hard-working people being exploited by chaotic layabouts from
the hot south; in the other, it is hard-pressed and equally hard-working
people being sucked dry to feed foreign banks. The stories Europeans are
telling themselves about whats going on around them are not just
different but mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

Nor is this collapse of the collective imagination just a product of the
eurozone crisis. It has deeper roots. The idea of "Europe" that animated
the EU depended on the conflicts that gave it birth. The Second World War,
fascism and the Holocaust created a deep appreciation of the fragility of
peace, democracy and human rights. The Cold War made it imperative for
western democracies to compete with communism on its own terms by showing
that market economies could deliver, not just prosperity, but social
justice, equality and security.

But the Cold War ended, the rivalry with communism ceased, and the
generation of leaders with memories of the Second World War  --  the likes of
Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt, François Mitterand and Jacques Delors  -- 
passed on. With them has gone the urgency of imagining a European story,
not as an abstract fable, but as a necessary alternative to the other
European stories of Hitler and Stalin.

Their benign fiction also had a powerful subtext  --  the need to contain
Germany. It is not accidental that it was Schmidt, who was 14 when Hitler
came to power, who issued what he called "a serious and carefully
considered warning" to his compatriots three years ago: "If we Germans
allow ourselves to be seduced into claiming a political leading role in
Europe or at least playing first among equals, based on our economic
strength, an increasing majority of our neighbours will effectively resist
this. The concern of the periphery about an all too powerful European
centre would soon come racing back. The possible consequences of such a
development would be crippling."

Schmidt was right  --  and he was also ignored. No one watching the German
finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in recent weeks can have picked up
the slightest hint of anxiety about being "first among equals". There is
only the absolute certainty that, whatever the evidence to the contrary,
Greece can and must be beaten until it learns to become more German.

In the technocratic mindset that has filled the vacuum where "Europe" used
to be, the old story is just a sentimental romance. But theres always a
story  --  the old fable of democracy, solidarity and decency hasnt been
replaced by simple dull reality. What has taken its place is a narrative
that poses as hard-headed realism but that is actually much more
fantastical than the one that was constructed by the postwar generation.
It has a wildly improbable plot in which years of austerity magically
produce economic growth; mountains of public debt are paid off by
shrinking economies; unaccountable experts know more about other countries
than their own elected governments; and everyone lives happily ever after.
The good are rewarded. The bad are punished but they repent in the end and
return to the fold. Theres certainly a lot of imagination in this story.
But its ability to sustain a collective enterprise among 28 stubbornly
individual nations is negligible.

It is not entirely true, of course, that no one at all believes the old
story of Europe. The last true believers are on rickety boats in the
Mediterranean, trying to make their way to an imagined continent of
compassion, solidarity and security. If they ever get to shore, they will
find at best a grudging welcome. But those who purport to share their
belief in what Europe means badly need some of their desperate optimism.


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