Europe the gentle giant must wake

In this early 21st century, many commentators compare Europe to a gentle, grassing eating dinosaur. In order to adapt to the new world being forged, it must come out of its sloth, urges Dutch writer Geert Mak.

Published on 8 July 2011 at 15:23

It was winter 1999 and the former Yugoslavia had fallen apart in confusion. The friendly city of Novi Sad, on the Danube, had been bombed repeatedly by the allies; the city’s bridges lay in pieces in the river. Distraught citizens stood on the snowy river banks. They were distraught by the war, by the destruction of their world, by the inconceivable things they had inflicted upon each other. I visited old Alexandre Tisma, one of the greatest Yugoslav writers, who lived nearby. He has died since.

When I asked how he felt in this lost country, he told me the story of his dog, Jackie. One winter day, the animal got loose and ran off alongside the Danube and ended up, no one quite knew how, on an ice floe. Some neighbourhood children came to get him: “Mister Tisma, your dog is drowning!” He rushed to the scene and called the dog several times by name. But the dog didn’t move off his ice floe, as if frozen in place. The animal was in a state of shock. Finally, one of the children managed to grab him by the neck. “That’s how we are right now,” Tisma said, “We are frozen on an ice floe, we don’t know what to do and, in the meantime, the current is dragging us off”.

We live in historic times. We are slowly getting over a nasty and especially dangerous economic crisis. The Arab world is shaken by popular movements that may hold the same place in history as the European Revolutions of 1848 and of 1989. No matter how these democratic upheavals play out, they constitute the greatest challenge to European foreign policy since the fall of the Wall. Meanwhile, the eurozone crisis continues to burn slowly like a peat fire.

Europe does never rush

European leaders and institutions cannot function, especially today, without the solid support, expressed or not, of the voters. Yet, in many countries, under the effect of the crisis, European construction is attacked more and more. And these attacks have reached their target precisely because European democracy is so weak.

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If there is a European problem more pressing than the euro, it’s the deficit of democracy in Europe. It’s just under our noses but it continues to grow and that could mean the end of all of our dreams.

Yet, I don’t honestly think that public opinion is against the European project in general. On the other hand, many people have huge problems because of the path this project has followed. All they want is for politics, and that includes European politics, to reorganise around the reality of their daily lives. They want to have, once again, a little power of decision over their world.

The European Council on Foreign Relations has sometimes compared today’s Europe to the huge herbivores that roamed the earth in prehistoric times: gigantic in everything but lacking in aggression. Let’s not harbour any illusions: Europe is in fact, when it comes to global ambitions, a sloth that will never rush and will never play a major global role if it doesn’t receive the occasional prick of the spur or kick in the rear. At the same time, the current world order is no longer stable or serene enough to allow Europe to be satisfied with being Europe.

Europe must thus become strong. Primarily in its own interest. A new world is being forged; it includes China, the United States, Japan, India, and perhaps Brazil. If the European Union is not recognised as a full player, it will become the prey of the other powers. Instead of being a beacon of hope, an example of international order, it will become a void, the theatre of outbreaks of violence between States and especially non-States.

Sloth is currently our worst enemy

That means that we must politicise Europe. Truly politicise it. And the protest parties are part of that. We must rip it from the grip of institutions, we must love it and detest it, we must become fully involved with it. If we want to save the European ideal, we must look beyond financial or institutional unity. We need to create new public unity at the European level, as was done at the national level in the 19th century. That is where the Union lags behind most, and it's this that absolute priority must be given, since nothing is possible without this public unity.

It is now, more than ever, important to discuss European issues in the national arena. That’s where voters are the most at ease. From there, it will be possible to trace new lines towards the European arena. European democracy, despite many good intentions, has not managed to do this so far. Worse, it has created an ever-widening gap between national and European policies. National politicians are responsible for this, because they are wont to claim as their own facile European successes while blaming national problems on Europe. But we, the voters, also share this responsibility.

We in the West still have a little time, maybe twenty years or so, to adapt our institutions to the 21st century. We still have the opportunity for a European awakening, a chance to deepen the European Union; to become more democratic, to enrich our quality of life, to breathe new impetus into the European project. We still have a little time to review our old mind-sets. Sloth is currently our worst enemy. Nothing is self-evident anymore, but we must get off this ice floe. We have achieved so much. There is so much to lose.

Excerpts from the essay “The State of the European Union” made on May 5 to the Flemish Parliament

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