Where is the Union headed? (5): The European project should not falter now

L'Espresso (Rome)

Confronted by economic crisis, European governments and citizens are increasingly succumbing to the temptations of nationalism, selfishness and mistrust of foreigners — a trend deplored by writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, who emphasises the integral role played by immigrants in modern Europe, and modern European identity.

In the 19th century Victor Hugo dreamt of a utopian future for Europe: "A day will come when cannonballs and bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the people, by the honoured arbitration of a great and sovereign senate… A day will come when when we will see the United States of America and a United States of Europe reach out in friendship across the ocean to trade and exchange products, industry, works of art and the inspiration of genius… "

Europe is peopled by spoiled children

That is the Europe we have now, the one that is currently enduring its first major crisis. And regardless of the outcome of this crisis, Europe is no longer a utopia, or a virtual place, but a real entity that is still in the process of construction, which still needs our determined support and good will. Europe is a blessing. The idea that several countries should join together to form a union based on geography, history and on the values of democracy and freedom remains the positive legacy of the Second World War. But does anyone spare a thought for the early years of the union that grew from seven to 27 countries?

I have the impression that the European entity, which has yet to come of age and is still threatened with implosion, is peopled by spoiled children. Some young Europeans appear to be wholly unaware of the good fortune that led them to be born on a continent where political freedom and freedom of movement are universal norms, where all the countries have adopted a single currency (with the exception of the UK and Sweden), where war and famine are unknown, and where the unemployed are subsidised by the state.

Life different in Africa, Asia or the Arab world

Take for example France, which is the European country I know best: notwithstanding any criticisms we may have, France still has the world's best health care and social welfare systems, though admittedly there are some ongoing difficulties with regard to pensions. But it is a country where any citizen can be admitted to hospital without being asked for a credit card, and where he or she will be provided with appropriate care regardless of his or her level of contributions to the social security system. The French hospital system does not distinguish between patients. They are all given equal treatment. And all this is worth saying and worth repeating, because it remains an essential quality of the country.

Some Europeans who take these privileges for granted believe that their situation can only improve — and without any effort on their part. They cultivate selfish attitudes, and refuse to look at themselves or to consider how life is lived elsewhere on the planet: in Africa, Asia or the Arab world. To quote a seasoned observer of French society, journalist François de Closet, these are Europeans who "always want more," and they have increasingly abandoned any notion of solidarity.

Something beautiful has been lost

In the 1970s, Europeans took to the streets to demonstrate against dictatorships in Latin America, the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa, and against racism and discrimination in Europe itself. It was a time when intellectuals were in the vanguard of the protest movement: J.P. Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jean Genet, Claude Mauriac, Maurice Clavel… Today, we are living in a period where philosophy is ignored, where great demonstrations are a thing of the past, and where solidarity with suffering peoples has all but disappeared.

Something beautiful has been lost. Europe inspired by compassion and a sense of brotherhood has been replaced by a Europe enfeebled by the selfishness of its states and citizens. Politicians, especially politicians on the right, build careers on appeals to xenophobia. And in so doing, they conveniently ignore the significant contribution that foreign labour — that is to say immigration — has made to the European economy. Hardly anyone in power takes time to acknowledge the positive impact of communities that came from abroad. And today, the children of millions of immigrants are perceived as a problem. What shall we do with all these dark skinned, black and mulatto Europeans? How can we cope with the challenge of living with other cultures and other religions?

Is an all-white continent a viable proposition?

It is time for Europe to take a look in the mirror: to recognise that it is composed of a human landscape that is not completely white or solely Christian, to acknowledge the benefits that result from difference. And it is time to take issue with those who say that immigrants are passengers in Europe, who should be rerouted to the countries and villages from whence they came. No, these people are Europeans, and their right to European citizenship, European nationality, and recognition of their double or triple cultures must be respected. They are the human face of a globalization that is not simply industrial and financial, which is not ethically ambivalent. They are proof that humanity is the the true global capital.

In his recent book, La proposition de l’égaliberté (A proposal for 'equaliberty') French philosopher Etienne Balibar argues that "Europe is not an end in itself, but should be recognised as a means for the transformation of globalization." But what should we think of the transformation of Europe? What form should it take in the future? Is an all-white Europe dominated by traditional European culture a viable proposition? I do not believe it is.

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