Welfare and Social Issues

How to Mend the European Heart?

The issue of the future of the continent seems like a never-ending story. In Central Europe we can see a damning critique of “overreaching” and “bureaucratic” European institutions. The politicians ruling in the Visegrad Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) declare their support for a more inter-governmental approach.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, seems to promote an odd mix of being in favour of a common EU army whilst being opposed to a common policy regarding borders and migration. One should not be surprised considering he dealt with the refugee crisis by erecting fences last year.

On the other hand we see a more federalist approach. Questions regarding adopting the euro re-emerge among public intellectuals in Poland. The idea of a more intense cooperation amongst Eurozone members, such as a distinct Eurozone Parliament or a dedicated budget, promoted by the likes of Thomas Piketty, is being revived.

And it gives goose bumps to some. A communique of the foreign ministries of France and Germany, suggesting more EU cooperation on security issues or harmonisation of the tax base, was presented by the Polish public TVP Info news channel as a dangerous idea that would strip member states of their sovereignty by creating a new “super-state”.

Can we have a different conversation, please?

Ideas new and old

The good news is that there are attempts  to show that “a different Europe is possible”. Some of them, such as laying the foundations for a truly socialist? Europe or creating an EU-wide constituency for at least a small part of the seats in the European Parliament, have been promoted by progressive political forces for years.

But do we just need a reform of the institutions? Or maybe we need a new way of thinking about our continent – one in which we feel not only attached to it, but also pursue a common goal?

This seems to be the case promoted by a Dutch author known for his work on populism, Dick Pels. In his new book, “A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism”, he tries to get to the European mind from another angle – by using practical ideas for change to promote a vision of an updated “European dream”.

We know that one of the founding stories of European integration was about creating a common space free from war, want and suffering. But after so many years the end of World War II the “No more war!” slogan seems to be too abstract for common Europeans – not only because it seemed to be a mantra, that some  Eurofederalists used to cover up the defects of the European project pursued by politicians and the elites.

Pels promotes an upgrade of the slogan. In his view the aim of the European project should be to fight all forms of violence – be it physical or economical. In such a view poverty, social exclusion, all sorts of phobias (xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism) need to be challenged not just by national, but European institutions, as the continent’s challenges go beyond national borders.

In his view the economic, refugee, and climate crises, as well as the Russian aggression on Ukraine show that there is no return to sovereignty  contained only within small, European nation states. There are also deep divides within Europe itself, such as the struggle for survival of impoverished communities such as the Roma in Bulgaria, as the author describes in his book.

Battle for the Fatherland

Yet the yearning for “the good old times” of national sovereignty that is supposed to shield from any foreign problems and allow for creating a homogenous, cohesive society is still alive. Such a call creates an unexpected alliance between different, populist right-wing parties from across the continent, united in the fight against the European project.

Such an alliance for years seemed improbable due to differing territorial aspirations of some of the nationalist parties in Central Europe, amongst other reasons. Right now they seem more united in scapegoating “others”, such as the Muslim community or refugees.

In the West they often blend emotional messages regarding national culture and heritage with protecting welfare for “true Finns/Swedes/Frenchmen” etc. They are also, as Pels points out, keen on using some of the libertarian rhetoric of the 1968 movement, pointing out the need to, for example,protect women or the LGBT+ community from risks related to political Islam.

The strategies regarding a progressive counter-narrative differ from country to country. In Poland, where the right-wing is more “traditional” than the New Right in the West some propose using “left-wing patriotism” and its rich traditions in a joint fight for independence and social justice to create a new political language.

There are also suggestions that a new division is arising – a one in which a traditional left-right divide is being swapped for a one in which nationalism and cosmopolitanism are the new dominant forces.

Such a division – as Danijela Dolenec and Mislav Žitko recently pointed out in the Green European Journal– risks jeopardising the progressive alternative narrative and forcing it to make a difficult alliance with political forces defending the status quo which perpetuated the rise of the populist right in the first place.

One does not need to look far for examples of problems with such alliances. A broad left-of-centre, nebulous coalition of political forces failed to dent the popularity of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party in Hungary. A wide opposition alliance in Poland, glued but not by much more than the fight for the neutrality of the Constitutional Court, fails to propose an attractive alternative to PiS’s right-wing rule.

Agreeing that pure cosmopolitanism and “the love for mankind” may seem too abstract, Dick Pels proposes to his readers the idea of Europatriotism, arguing that common cultural references can mend the divided continent. Although such an idea seems promising, as with every idea it has its faults.

What pillars for Europe?

Pels promotes ambitious goals regarding fighting inequality and poverty in Europe, such as a small basic income paid by the EU or harmonising the minimum wage levels in the EU. This would allow Europe to create a new, egalitarian common ground amongst its peoples, inspired by the Dutch vision of a “socialist humanism”, where more equality would lead to more liberty.

It’s a nice refreshment after initiatives that are either not ambitious enough (such as the underfunded European Youth Guarantee) or – even if unimplemented – are being watered down even at the theoretical level (European Unemployment Benefit).

But even though such ideas are worth applauding it needs to be remembered that even they do not necessarily guarantee long-term warm feelings towards the institution that puts them into practice.

The Polish love for the EU seems a good point here – the centre-right Civic Platform (PO) used European funds to develop a national road network, but it did not guarantee it a third term in the government benches as people quickly got used to the new reality as started aiming for more, Such as better wages or higher quality of public health care.

This, of course, is not to say that social transfers on a European scale are not necessary – on the contrary. The problem is how – in a world of overflowing information streams – to create a new institution, seen as a bedrock of a European society, such as the NHS in the UK.

Such an example shows that European institutions – even when they promote modernisation – still seem abstract and distant. In Central Europe it is seen in the sense of entitlement towards EU money, combined with scepticism toward the Brussels interpretation of fundamental rights. It’s easy to portrait Eurocrats as undemocratic and intrusive, and even scapegoat them for the failures of national governments, as was the case during the Brexit debates in the UK.

This needs to be remembered because the European Commission and other bodies are not without their faults. TTIP negotiations or problems with creating a new circular economy strategy for the continent show that – as with every other institution – they are vulnerable to lobbying of different interest groups and are prone to a lack of transparency. Any defence of European integration forgetting to mention these shortcomings risks turning into cannon fodder for the populist right.

One cannot buy the love of the electorate with money – at least in the long run and if no further improvement is being observed. It (what?) is a potential threat to the PiS rule in Poland if it will limit its pro-social reforms to the 500 zloty (ca. 120 euro) payment for every second and later child. It may also become a problem for European integration, if the UE basic income scheme would turn out to be the sole effort in creating ‘Social Europe’.

The Language Issue

It is here the idea of a common European cultural sphere is supposed to come to the rescue. It is meant to bind us beyond borders in love with Sofia Loren, Harry Potter, and cheap air flights. This emotion – if protected and promoted – would in Pels’ view be able to form a convincing alternative to narrow-minded nationalism.

A suitable tool to make this dream come true would be to accept Euro-English as the working tongue of Europe and its institutions. More “stubborn” countries attached to their own national languages, such as France, in this concept risk being seen as inward looking.

But the problem is that if European institutions aren’t seen as having agency or being democratic, then the language of discussions seems a side issue. The amount of money poured into translating official documents into national languages seems negligible.

Multilingualism also helps in transnational campaigns –it seems doubtful that the “Stop TTIP” initiative would have collected as many signatures if it had just been in English. Simply saying that modern languages spoken by all of the citizens of a nation-state are an invention from just 100-150 years ago does not seem to address these facts.

Common culture taken for granted?

The cultural backbone also seems like a problem. While we of course can invoke Shakespeare or Moliere as its part, who in the European North-West, seen by Pels as places with more tolerance and welfare, could easily mention any Romanian painter or Estonian poet? And how exactly can we create such a common canon in post-modern, data-filled times?

It seems that a better idea than just simply to use English as a sole language of Europatriotism is to try to create some sort of a Pan-European cultural, lingual and civic curriculum. It could involve minimum standards of learning English, a trans-national set of school lectures, financing of school exchange programmes (along the lines of the successful Erasmus scheme), and book translations or basic knowledge about the European institutions, and social and economic realities as well as human rights education.

Such a common curriculum seems important not only because of a need to truly promote European diversity (including often side-lined issues such as the influence of early Arabic Islamic culture on the continent), but also because the European youth – contrary to many popular views – is not always necessarily progressive and forward-looking.

Such a discovery came when the first opinion polls in Poland showed an increase in the electoral appeal of Law and Justice in this group. Pundits tended to view such a shift as an effect of a small sample of young people in the polling.

Later on, the parliamentary elections confirmed such a shift to the right, fuelled by insecurity in the labour market on the one hand and years of religious and nation-centred education on the other. It now seems a cautionary tale not only for Poland, but to all of the countries in which right-wing populism is gaining ground.

Forward Europe!

To sum up – ideas put forward by Pels at first glance seem sensible, but at times seem to be driven by an overly optimistic assessment of the situation on the continent.

Europatriotism is a nice idea, but in the end the risks that it will be taken up just by the liberal, cosmopolitan elites in big cities remains big. It may strengthen the progressive camp vis-à-vis the populist New Right or the more “old-school” conservatives in Central Europe, but still does not guarantee electoral success.

That is not to say that it needs to be thrown to the trash, but it needs much more work than just to call a European fight against violence and wait for the results to emerge. It may also want to take notice of language practices other than the nationalist Flemish-Walloon standoff in Belgium, such as the more pluralist take in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy in the XIXth century, that had some role in lengthening the life of a crumbling empire.

Even taking into account the weaknesses of the vision presented by Pels it seems there is some potential in reinvigorating the progressive camp in Europe. After failed experiments with “the Third Way” and with an uninspiring, technocratic vision of the continent which failed to gain popular support, a new, progressive fuel for the EU integration would be more than welcome.

Europatriotism as an idea looks like a nice starting point, but is not an ultimate answer.

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How to Mend the European Heart?

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