Federal Europe best cure for current gloom

For Italian writer Claudio Magris, the only way to dispel the dismay prompted by the European economic and political crisis is to create a strong, decentralised and respected federal state.

Published on 29 October 2012 at 12:39

A few weeks ago, I was in Madrid on a day marked by anti-government demonstrations and clashes with police, whose scope and violence have been extensively reported by the media. Finding myself by chance in an area that was one of the hot spots, I experienced a feeling that was not fear – I could think of many riots that were much more frightening, like the ones that occurred in Trieste shortly after WWII and in the 1970s, or the battles that took place in the streets of Genoa in the 1960s and during the G8 in 2001 — but rather dejection. It was a dejection that little by little gave way to a vague consternation that went beyond the question of my own person and culminated in a full-blown malaise.

The very comprehensible reasons for the demonstration — the increasingly harsh living conditions experienced by more and more people, the growing difficulty posed by the fundamental needs of the population (health, social assistance, pensions, work) — induced feelings of sadness and confusion. There was a sense of the leaden weight of gloomy days in lives marked by poverty and humiliation, of everything that contributes to the experience of insecurity recently evoked by [the Polish born philosopher] Zygmunt Bauman.

The prospect of a frustrating and impenetrable future is not a direct concern for most of my generation. Our universe is the present, and we endeavour to seize the day and to take advantage of it, or to move on when it becomes a source of suffering. People of my age are not saddened by the uncertainty of a bleak future. Most of us have already played the cards in the hand we have been dealt, cards that have given us a good probability of doing reasonably well in the time that is left to us. But those who are entering the stage of life that determines the quality and meaning of existence feel that they are being hindered in their bid to develop, and prevented from building their own worlds or exercising the right to pursue happiness as proclaimed by the American Declaration of Independence.

And their sense of dismay has also spread to others who have no fear for themselves, and who could quite happily be sustained by their personal reserves, which would be more than sufficient if they alone were affected. If we are dismayed, it is not because we fear for those who are close to us — children and grandchildren — but because we all share a measure of responsibility for the destiny of everyone else, and because we cannot expect to be happy if we are to live surrounded by misery. Nor can we be truly alive in a world that is dead.

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Absurd agitation

On that same day in Madrid, the newspapers were full of reports on the growing ferment of separatism in Catalonia, and the consequence of this involution which would be the political paralysis of the entire country — of the great vibrant country of Spain and of Europe in general. There was a sense that we were living through the twilight of Europe. The demonstrations — which were similar to those in so many other European regions — did not appear to be the expression of political rebellion or the demand for an alternative project, which might be controversial or even unacceptable, but which would at least be a project for the future. The demonstrators were not like an army marching towards an objective they were about to attack, but like detachments on their way to a ceremonial lowering of the flag.

The ever cautious European Union with its commissions, its hairsplitting procedures, its requirement for compromise, the tit-for-tat of paralysing member state vetoes, and the endless resumption of near deadlocked negotiations, appeared — and continues to appear — very far away, like the emperor in the Kafka short story, who has sent a message that is always on its way but never arrives. In its absence, we have to contend with the miasma of nationalism, particularism, and localism, which, along with vague desires for shortsighted and rancorous separatism, have been fueled by the economic crisis.

An absurd agitation has taken hold of every nation and ethnic group and convinced them that an economic solution can be obtained by the withdrawal into spiteful separatism and the establishment of an independent state — an argument which implies that Switzerland should separate to form four states, something the Swiss have no intention of doing.

The only possible reality that can guarantee security and stability is Europe. A genuine European state — one that is federal and decentralised, but also cohesive and sovereign like the United States of America — that will bring about a Europe where today’s nation states will be regions that are autonomous, but not to the extent that they have the right to veto the political decisions of an effective central government, or the right to draft laws — and particularly constitutions — that are contrary to the principles of the European constitution. A European state whose authority will be not expressed by warnings and admonitions, but by the application of a universally recognised European law.

Fight the evils of pessimism and weariness

The establishment of a real European state is the only way to ensure that we can look forward to a worthwhile future. The problems we face are not national, they are of concern to us all. It is ridiculous, for example, to have different immigration laws in different countries, just as it would be to have different rules on migration in Bologna and Genoa. Furthermore, a genuine European state would result in significantly lower costs by, for example, doing away with the expense of endless committees, agencies and parasitic institutions.

Europe is a great power, and it is painful to see it reduced to bickering, or worse still, to the timid powerlessness of a building residents’ meeting. If it is to really become an entity that is able to punch its weight, the European Union will have to establish a decisive and authoritative government, give up on wooly ecumenisms, and abandon any reluctance to confront those who keep their own houses in order by dumping rubbish on their neighbours. No doubt it will have difficulty assuming a role of unshakeable authority, but if the European Union continues on the dangerous course on which it is currently embarked, its days will be numbered.

For the first time in history, we are attempting to build a large political community without recourse to the instrument of war. However, the rejection of war implies the need for a functional authority, and it is in this context that hesitancy is not democracy, but rather its death. It is natural for believers in Europe to feel dejected and uneasy, as I did on that in evening in Madrid, when faced with the spectacle of a European unity that is crumbling and fading away. However, that does not mean that we should surrender to melancholy. We have not been brought into the world to indulge our moods, or to give into gloom like so many small-minded sufferers from indigestion. No matter how we feel, we must continue to work for what we believe to be right, or at least for options that we believe to be better, with the stubborn conviction of “non praevalebunt”, they shall not prevail.

We must be prepared to fight against the evils of pessimism and weariness, which are continuing to gain ground. However, that is not to say that we cannot acknowledge the discrepancy between our terrible era and the aspiration for unity in the great professions of faith written by Europe’s founding fathers. As Karl Valentin, the great cabaret artist who inspired Brecht, liked to put it: the future was better in those days.

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