François Mitterrand (left) and Helmut Kohl commemorating the French and German soldiers who fell during the two world wars, Verdun, France, September 22, 1984.

EU can no longer play the war card

European leaders have used the threat of war to justify policies undertaken to save the euro. But this argument no longer works, argues Dutch philosopher Paul Scheffer. The hearts and minds of Europeans must be won with valid arguments.

Published on 19 January 2012 at 15:44
François Mitterrand (left) and Helmut Kohl commemorating the French and German soldiers who fell during the two world wars, Verdun, France, September 22, 1984.

They make for such enduring images: a repentant Willy Brandt on his knees in the Warsaw Ghetto; Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand side by side on the battlefield of Verdun; and recently Vladimir Putin and the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the mass graves of Katyn.

These gestures of reconciliation evoke the guilt and shame associated with the wars in Europe. And, contrary to what many imagined, these emotions haven't faded over time.

In the past months we have heard words of warning from Poland, France and of course Germany, with Angela Merkel stating that: “History has taught us that countries with a joint currency don't go to war with one another.” President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, provided the most concise version of this sentiment: "Together with the euro the Union will fall, and with the Union our greatest guarantee of peace.”

It isn't easy to put forward arguments against this “never again”. For a long time I swore by the notion that the memory of previous wars should be central to the European idea. But now, “never again” is no longer effective. Nightmare images of a possible return to previous violent conflicts serve only as a distraction. In fact: the practice of instrumentalising the war to construct a European narrative has been completely exhausted.

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"Never again” leads to democratic deficit

One important lesson to learn from the eurozone crisis is that there has not been enough democratic debate about Europe. This was already evident during the [Dutch] referendum on the European constitution in 2005. Citizens intending to vote “no” (in the end, they were 61%) were continually asked the question: “But have you in fact read the text?” This question was never put to those in favour, because they were on the “right side” of history.

“Never again” thus leads all too easily to a democratic deficit. Europe stands or falls on the consent of its citizens. During the referendum on the constitution there was very little objective talk of costs and benefits, ends and means. Not once was it made explicit that with the creation of a European Union, Berlusconi would also be one of our politicians, that Greece's budgetary deficits would be ours to carry, and that immigrants legalized in Spain are our future citizens as well.

To put it another way: in Europe we are exporting stability, yet importing instability at the same time. We can weigh up the benefits and disadvantages, but it is imperative that things be given their proper name.

Beyond “never again”, there is a need for a renewed justification for European integration, which should start by taking into account the global power shift. The huge debts of the West and China’s trade surplus point to a fundamental global change. More than three quarters of developing countries have enjoyed a higher growth rate in the past ten years than the US or Europe.

A form of eurocentrism

In order to recount the history of “Europe” we should thus not start with Berlin, but with Beijing; not Paris, but Sao Paulo. In other words: we cannot understand Europe at a national level if we do not conduct a new assessment of the world beyond it. The “never again” doctrine is in fact a form of eurocentrism. Unintentionally, it directs its focus inward, while the essential imperative for integration lies outside the continent.

“Europe” is the only standard by which a societal model within a global economy can be established. For this to work, European integration will not be about a loss of sovereignty, but a common endeavour that will increase our collective influence. In principle, the euro could contribute to this.

Another motive lies in our joint external borders. The enlargement of Union has been a great accomplishment, but one that has come at a cost. Because of it, the Union now borders unstable regions on all sides. We are surrounded by countries in North Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, which are some of the unsafest in the world.

Sooner or later, the Union will have to become a community in terms of security and the maintainence of its external borders. In this field there is also an important deficit. It is not just in offering greater openness to its members but also security that the Union can renew its goal of greater integration.

A plea for “more” Europe is far outweighed by a desire for “more” democracy, particularly now that a new budgetary union is being hastily cobbled together behind voters’ backs. This is a very risky business indeed, repeating the same mistakes made when the euro was launched.

The eurozone crisis is not fatal as such, but an invitation to assume one’s responsbilities. If the euro can be saved by transferring essential budgetary competences to Brussels, then support for this proposal should be sought with great conviction. And if a currency union also implies a transfer union, then we should strive for and defend a redistribution of wealth from richer regions to poorer ones.

Politicians relying on the past

If a majority of member states ultimately decides that the budgetary union is a step too far, then such a decision will be binding. The most extreme consequences possible would be the exit of countries from the eurozone or the unviability of the euro. No, it's not a pretty picture.

Which is why politicians such as Merkel and Van Rompuy drum up fear and speak of war. But if the collapse of the euro entails dramatic economic and political consequences, then why is there so little confidence in seeking to persuade the majority of this? Why this dependency on the dissuasive events of the past, rather than the compelling elements of the near future?

This quest for a new European raison d’être, beyond the mantra of “never again”, should not consist in kneeling before the realities of costs and profits or the lowest common denominator. On the contrary: the ideal is a market economy ruled by justice, sustainability and openness. A union of social democracies is by far the best example of what Europe could show the world. If this is the end, the means will be subordinate. It is for this reason essential that we remember the previous war, but never again use it as a pretext.

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