Report European citizenship (1/2)

‘We are seeing a fundamental clash’

The EU's biggest challenge, is to acknowledge Europeans’ need to feel at "home" and manage their own issues while pooling their resources to tackle transnational problems, according to Dutch writer Geert Mak in this first part of his speech at a conference organised by Trouw.

Published on 3 October 2013 at 11:17

Each and every one of us is familiar with the feelings that I have for Jorwerd, the small town where I live – even though the sentiment can change from language to language, ranging from the cosy “Home” to the proud “Lieu” to the historically-burdened “Heimat” [due to its associations with Hitler and the Third Reich]. Yet we are all referring to the same thing: the “place” where we feel at home. “Space”, on the other hand, stands for dynamic opportunities, but also for the risks and chaos that go hand-in-hand with venturing down new, uncharted roads.

Place and space, “place et espace”, was once an important theme of the French scholar Michel de Certeau, which was later elaborated upon by the European thinker– also chairman of the European Council – Herman Van Rompuy. Europe has long embodied and continues to embody the concept of space, with its aspiration to achieve the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, the removal of borders, the creation of new opportunities - but this these ambitions also risk causing unrest.

Diabolical, bloody weakness

Europe has for centuries known tension between place and space. A day's drive in Europe can easily take you through at least four regions that are completely different in terms of language and culture. While that enormous diversity has long been our strength, the resulting rivalry has also proven to be our eternal, diabolical and bloody weakness.

You know the story: to escape from that fate, the European Coal and Steel Community – an historical experiment with supranational government – was launched in 1951. And indeed, during at least five decades the European project proved very successful. It still is in many respects. We should never forget that. Just ask the opinion of the Polish, Estonians or other former eastern Europeans. But elsewhere, storms and fires have raged since 2010, with no end in sight, and if the Union survives this onslaught, then it will do so much weakened.

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[[The Europe of today is so closely and deeply entwined that the member states are compelled in various ways to concern themselves with one another’s internal politics and attitudes]]. Let us not ignore the fact that the internal weakness of some member states have on occasion brought the Union to the edge of the abyss. But how can the notion of “space” exert influence on the interpretation of “place”?

Cronyism and patronage

Can one, for example, make the totally distorted relationship between state and its citizens in the former eastern European countries disappear overnight, as if by magic? And does that same principle not apply all the stronger to the deeply rooted traditions of cronyism and patronage in most of the southern European countries? Worded differently: does the European mix of reprimands, subsidies, deductions and rarely imposed penalties exert any control over the phenomenon of “place”? Especially if you, like in Greece, think that you can modernise an economy by predominantly imposing austerity and cutbacks, with the result that the victims once again become completely dependent on the patronage of friends and family.

And how should we view our self-acclaimed debt morality, the morality of punishment and cutbacks that has in the past years determined the public mood in Germany and the Netherlands, the morality that our government parties still embrace with smug ignorance, but which is viewed with disbelief by the rest of the world – including the IMF – as it delays, if not completely blocks, the recovery of the Eurozone.

The price that will have to be paid for this is high, especially in the south. We know this, also here in the north, even if you hardly ever hear this admitted by a Dutch politician. And never mind the enormous moral price of a generation of youngsters who have lost all faith.

Integration, at least in Brussels

So what influence does all this have on our European ‘space’? And on the relationship between “space” and “place” within hard-struck Europe, the relationship between [my home town] Jorwerd and Brussels?

We have in the past five years experienced two large crises of confidence: a bank crisis in 2008 and 2009, followed by, since early 2010, a monetary crisis that, although having calmed down somewhat since last year, is by no means over.

Looking at the consequences from Brussels' perspective, one sees that the Union’s institutions have survived all this adversity amazingly well, responding with measures and the creation of structures that until recently were regarded as unattainable. True, the concluding pièce de résistance, the European banking union is not yet in place, but all in all, the crisis has led to increased integration. In Brussels at least.

Things are very different in the world outside, where a reverse process is underway, a process of disintegration. For example, in the euro economy, where interest rates for an Italian entrepreneur are currently twice as high as for his German counterpart. [[We are witnessing with our very own eyes the emergence of a Europe of two, three or perhaps even more speeds]].

Unstable balance of power

That disintegration is also clearly evident in the European political debate: the differences in opinion on how to tackle the crisis reflect the essence of the different political and economic cultures. The French and Italians, who have always relied on devaluation to whittle away their debts, can't understand the primal fear that Germans have for inflation.

This disharmony is disrupting the European balance of power. The motor of European unification, the Paris-Berlin axis, is sputtering. France threatens to become the next problem hotspot, after Spain and Italy. Germany must lead, a task that it cannot and dare not assume. The burden of its past still weighs too heavy.

In the meantime, citizens are fast losing faith in the European experiment. The outcome of the forthcoming European elections will reflect that distrust: polls show that the already unwieldy European Parliament will increasingly be populated by representatives of anti-European extreme right parties.

In short, what we are seeing is a fundamental clash, not only between political forces, but also between deeply rooted European traditions. Only rarely has Europe - in all its many configurations - witnessed such instability as is apparent now in the balance between “space” and “place”. Would a return to the 19th Century system of nation states restore that balance?

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