Democracy

History and the Europe of the Citizens

In the run-up to the 2014 European elections, all citizens of Europe had the opportunity to select the two leading candidates for the European Green Party. The winners of this ‘Green Primary’ were Ska Keller and José Bové, both Members of the European Parliament. What links do they see between Europe’s history and its politics?

Ska Keller was born in 1981 in the former East Germany. Her family no longer have any old stories to tell about the First World War. Ska’s German nationality is of limited significance to her: “I don’t like it when people look at me and José and say ‘they are France and Germany’. We are very different. I see myself as European first and foremost, partly because I have been active for a long time in the Federation of Young European Greens and the European Parliament.

It does of course make a difference that I am German: I grew up in a rich country (although the East is poorer), I am a member of the European Union and of a fairly large Green party. But people juggle many different identities. José is a farmer and an activist against the genetic manipulation of crops, I am young and an anti-Nazi activist. I don’t want to dictate to anyone what their identity should be. For some people it is very important to be French, or Bavarian, say. That is not a problem, as long as they don’t use it to disparage others. But I would like European politicians to represent the whole of Europe, not just national or regional interests. And that was the intention behind the primaries: the support of your own party was not enough to get you elected. And all Europeans could vote. As Greens, we are keen to be a European party, with an international dimension and a genuine Europe-wide campaign.”

Contrasting histories

José Bové (born 1953) made his name as the leader of the French farmers’ union that protested against industrialised food production. With grandparents from France and Luxembourg, he heard contrasting accounts of European history from a young age. It all started with Napoleon: “Napoleon is glorified in school textbooks in France, but when I went to stay with my grandparents in Luxembourg I would hear the opposite. When I visited Waterloo in Belgium, people talked about Napoleon as a dictator who imposed his will on Europe.”

In the First World War too, the families’ experiences were very different: “My French family fought in the trenches and some of my grandfather’s brothers were killed, while the Luxembourgers had to contend with a German occupation. In the French village where my farm is, all of the men were killed. The women left, because there were no more men to work the land.”

“The European Union is of course associated with the end of the Second World War, but the slogan ‘never again war’ dates back to post-1918. Although it is hard for young people who have only known peace to imagine what war is like, it is nevertheless vital to keep reminding them if we want to stop it happening again. Now that the old family stories are drying up, novels and literature could help.

In his essay Le Refus d’obéissance, Jean Giono described his experiences in the trenches and how deeply they had affected him. He suggested that, in the event of war, farmers should refuse to produce food. Today we have the European Union’s agricultural policy, its only genuinely common policy. Now that we in Europe supply each other with food, farmers have a different role from that proposed by Giono, but they remain important in preserving the peace. The opening of borders and the free movement of persons within Europe are also of great symbolic importance in this respect.”

Open borders

Ska Keller sees this as crucial for Europe: “Opening borders and overcoming borders, preferably in an everyday way. I come from near the Polish-German border. That used to be a difficult border crossing. You always had to have your passport with you, you had to queue for hours to be allowed across and you had to make a huge detour to the border crossing. Now, no-one asks for papers of any kind. It takes two minutes to walk over the bridge. The only thing that reminds you the border exists is the old customs house that still stands there. One result is that the Greens in Germany and Poland can get to know each other better, and do things together.

Freedom of movement is an important cornerstone of the European Union for me, and not just for me. The Eurobarometer shows every time that the same is true for most Europeans. Many people cross borders regularly. Being able to do that without all of the fuss that used to accompany it has a direct positive effect on your own life. It shows that Europe is integrated.

This is where the ‘Europe of the citizens’ is taking shape. Otherwise, Europe would be just a common market, nothing more. This is why it is so important to repel the many attacks on the freedom of movement. But that does have to be accompanied by social equality: we have always been in favour of the principle of equal pay for equal work in the same place. Apart from freedom of movement, minimum social standards are also important to the citizens of Europe.”

Citizenship

A key nationalist argument against Europe is the assertion that there is no ‘European people’. Both Keller and Bové stress that citizenship is the key.

Bové: “It matters which terms you use. It is true that the phrase ‘European people’ means nothing to anyone. But ‘European citizenship’ can work. It means working together to build a European democracy. Unfortunately, most governments want cooperation between states. They don’t understand that we need to go further in order to construct an economic and social dimension, and for that you need tools, such as tax harmonisation, a shared budget and an integrated European policy. So it’s a process, one that is far from complete.”

Keller: “The main issues for the coming period are ‘how do we get out of the crisis, with or without green development?’, ‘democracy within the Union itself: do we allow Member States to decide for themselves by means of referenda, etc., or do we strengthen the European Parliament?’, and questions such as ‘which issues should or should not be discussed at European level?’ If we were to conduct the debate less at national level only and more within the European Parliament, the contrasts between countries would be much less problematic. Because then it’s just about political majorities in Europe. Besides being a common market, Europe should also be the Europe of the citizens, and in that I include those who are not yet EU citizens but would like to be.”

A European Commemoration?

As to whether the European Parliament should play a role in commemorating significant events in European history, such as the First World War, Keller and Bové take different views. Ska Keller: “Who will notice if the Parliament holds some commemoration or another? And what does that actually change for the EU? But it would be good if schools were to teach not only national history but European history as well. You would have to talk about the interactions between states and try to agree on what actually happened. This is not to say that there should be an official European history book that everyone would have to learn, but it should be possible to gain a shared idea of European history.” Bové does see a role for the European Parliament: “A commemoration by the Parliament could be an important initiative. For example, it could be a way to expose the nationalist madness, all of that propaganda from Germans and French alike, with both of them claiming ‘God is on our side’.

Europe offers the opportunity to transcend differing national histories and national constructions of history but without smoothing over those differences. France still has enormous problems with this. The French have been working on a centralised nation state since Louis XIV, for seven hundred years. Germany as a nation state was not created until 1871. But you can show that it is possible to have a European citizenship that is aware of this complicated history. This is also important for the stateless peoples of Europe, such as the Basques, Corsicans, Catalans and indeed the Scots, whose identity is often constructed around language. Or the Roma, a travelling people who have always posed a problem for the nation states. Minorities especially are facing a difficult time again. When I see the emergence of nationalism and populism, I do worry about Europe.

It remains vitally important to avoid war. The best way to do that is by reinforcing European integration. In creating the Euro, the European countries failed to do their homework. You can’t have a common currency without a federal government. It’s very difficult at the present time, but we need to reinforce European sovereignty at a level above the nation state. More Europe also means more national sovereignty. Membership of the European Union combines perfectly well with national interests. The two movements are not contradictory.”

This article is a report of two interviews: one with Ska Keller conducted in English in Brussels, and one with José Bové conducted in French by telephone. See: An interview with the European Green Party lead candidates José Bové and Ska Keller.

Newsletter

Sign up to the newsletter for handpicked highlights of articles, interviews and translations published each month.

Select the language(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

Select the theme(s) for which you would like to receive notification :

History and the Europe of the Citizens

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and is never shared with third parties.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.