We have to maximise the extent that Ode to Joy, Schiller’s poem which the Council of Europe adopted as its European anthem 40 years ago, will be music in the ears to Europe’s 500 million citizens.

I’m Flemish, a European and a world citizen. People live in various circles: the nuclear family, the extended family, colleagues, friends, the city, the nation and, yes, Europe – although the last may sometimes seem like an virtual irrelevance. Europe is an unfinished story, a work requiring patience, with stops and starts, grand achievements and embarrassing failures. It is a fascinating project but it can sometimes be infuriating.

The award of the Nobel Prize for Peace to the EU was therefore not particularly strange. There were many cynics who scorned the award as an absurdity in the light of Europe’s current existential crisis. But, firstly, it isn’t the first time the Peace Prize has gone to an organisation or individual as a form of encouragement – for example, to Médecins Sans Frontières, the UN, President Obama and Aung Sang Suu Kyi. And, secondly, it isn’t because younger generations who have grown up in a prosperous Europe have little concept of things like dictatorship or war, that the European Union is no longer considered “history’s most successful global exercise in conflict prevention”.

Fifty-five years have passed since the Treaty of Rome was signed. It came into force at the same time as the Euratom treaty on 1 January 1958, joining with the European Coal and Steel Community which had already been established in 1952. The industries that made the weapons of war were to become the pacesetters of peace. This was how European integration gained its initial momentum.

The Second World War had made it painfully clear that the countries of Europe would have to cooperate closely if they were to banish the demons of the past. Europe lay in ruins and was in desperate need of economic reconstruction. The horrors of the World War II, the millions of dead and the genocide of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, sparked a resurgence of the “no more war” mentality. We experienced that in Flanders too. Our pacifist Frontpartij had arisen from the rubble of the First World War, and tens of thousands of Flemish-speaking Belgians rallied annually for the “Iron Pilgrimage” in Diksmuide, where the message of Flemish autonomy, pacifism and pluralism resounded.

The Raw Reality of War

I am a member of a unique generation. Anyone under sixty-five belongs to the first generation for hundreds of years not to have experienced war on their home soil. My parents lived through World War II as teenagers, and my mother recounts her vivid memories of the occupation and the hatefulness of the Germans. My maternal grandfather had married my grandmother in November 1913 but was mobilised on 1 August 1914. For him, the Great War began in and around the forts of Namur. I found documents in military archives which revealed how my grandfather spent the whole war cooped up behind the front-line river Yser, not to be reunited with his young bride, now unreachable in German-occupied territory, until over four years later.

My generation, and anyone younger, knows war only from television, film and photography: The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and the horrifying photo of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing naked and screaming from a napalm attack. Since the early nineties, war has even taken on a certain remoteness. Who can forget the computer-game like images of the Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq? Since then, CNN has reported every war almost as a virtual simulation.

In the winter of 1998, we again saw the desperate faces of the countless ethnic Albanians fleeing the hell of Serbian actions in Kosovo. Two months after that war, in August 1999, I toured Kosovo, by then completely destroyed by the Serbs, and recorded witness statements of the insanity. But what is now really happening in Afghanistan? What is going on in the Congo, Ruanda or Zimbabwe, in Somalia or Sudan? What is happening behind the scenes in Syria or Chechnya? Where are the witness reports and the widespread indignation about dirty wars like these?

I have been to former Yugoslavia – to Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo – over twenty times in the last thirteen years. I have also visited Albania. And I realise that everyone who lives there looks hopefully towards Europe for an example: cooperation – slowly but surely – concern for liberty, respect for human rights, peace and, above all, economic development. The people in those countries realise much better than the proverbial man in the street the European Union is the best warrantor of peaceful coexistence. Regardless of any crisis of European confidence, the EU remains their magnet.

Besides, is there any other way to get the Serbs, Montenegrins and Albanian Kosovans to live in peace together besides offering them a prospect of EU membership? Is there any other way of rising above the heritage of bitterness, hate, frustration and impotence? Can there be a better way to get the former oppressors and oppressed to work together? Is there a better guarantee of peace? If anyone knows, I’d like to hear about it.

The Success of the European Union

In the book Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, Mark Leonard, the director of foreign policy for the think-tank Centre for European Reform until 2007, offers a masterly description of the incredible success of the European Union:

On any day over the last fifty years there have been news stories of divisions, failure to meet targets, diplomatic wrangles, a perpetual sense of failure. But historians tell a different story from journalists. They describe a continent with one of the most successful foreign policies in history. They tell us that, in just fifty years, war between European powers has become unthinkable; that European economies have caught up with America; and that Europe has brought successive waves of countries out of dictatorship into democracy.

Mark Leonard portrays the European Union as a zone of peace with over 450 million citizens. This “blue map” is surrounded by a second circle of 385 million people who share land and sea borders with the EU. And they are surrounded in turn by yet another 900 million people for whom the EU is the biggest trading partner and their biggest source of credit, foreign investment and aid. “These two billion people (one third of the world’s population) live in the ‘Eurosphere’: Europe’s zone of influence, which is gradually being transformed by the European project and adopting European ways of doing things.”

Europe’s strength is all too easily mistaken for its weakness. When Russia signs the Kyoto Protocol to maintain good relations with the EU; when Poland does something at last about its minority problems because it wants to join the EU; when an Islamitic government in Ankara, following pressure and protests from the EU, distances itself from its own party’s proposal to treat adultery as a criminal offence because the Turkish government has no wish to attract the opprobrium of Brussels, we can no longer speak of weakness. We must, rather, reformulate our definitions of strength, power and weakness.

If we were to stop viewing the world through American spectacles for once, we would observe that every element of the supposed Europe weakness is actually one of exceptionally transformative power. European unification is in my view principally a peace project. It provides stability, prosperity and above all welfare. I do not see Europe as a sharp-tongued mother-in-law who is consulted only when things goes wrong.

Does That Mean I Am Shutting My Eyes to the Problems?

Not at all! That is why wrote the Echo’s voor een ander Europa [Echos for a Different Europe, 2004) Voor een ander Europa [Towards a Different Europe, 2009] and De onzichtbare hand die ons wurgt [The Invisible Hand That Strangles Us, 2012]. In these books, I explain that I am not blind to the fact that Europe can be very arrogant, that it often talks over people’s heads, and that it takes its lead from a certain class of technocrat: civil servants and policymakers who live far away from the real world and understand little of the concerns of the man in the street. All too often, the technocrats look down on the national democracies. I explain why I want a more social Europe, one that does not opt for neo-liberalism as the be-all and end-all of political action. I want a different and better Europe. Both inside and outside the European Parliament, the Green faction and I speak up for a more democratic, social, environmentally sustainable, healthy and transparent Europe. It is in this solidary Europe, a Europe which commits itself wholeheartedly to a different kind of globalisation and to peace, that my core message lies.

That too is the implicit duty placed on the officials and politicians by the Nobel committee. If the EU does not become drastically more social and more sustainable, the peaceful capital it has saved will evaporate. We can now see this happening very clearly in Greece, for example, where the war demons of hateful nationalism, xenophobia and violence are already rampant.

Against the background of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and the crisis of the euro that followed, the struggle to achieve a more solidary Europe ought to claim all our attention. This struggle is not one against Europe itself. It against the neo-liberal stance taken towards Europe by the heads of state and government leaders, and by the European Commission, which consists mainly of Christian democrats and liberals plus a stray social democrat here and there.

There once was a time when heads of state and of government gathered twice yearly. Now they meet every month. Despite this, they cannot keep pace with the facts and hatch one fiasco after another. This technocratic, intergovernmental approach contributes to the widespread loss of confidence in the European Union.

The last remaining dregs of belief in European democracy are disappearing for some observers. Following two years of crisis in the euro, the Euro Pact, the new fiscal treaty agreed by heads of government in late 2011, was another fine example of intergovernmental botchery. It lies outside the framework of the European Union and has quickly proved inadequate for ensuring the long-term stability of the euro zone. It is an approach that makes it very difficult to impose an effective economic discipline on the currency union or to strengthen democratic control. Measures such as an effective banking union take a long time to develop and they face resistance from the member states due to the loss of sovereignty. The EU can justify that alleged loss only if it is compensated by a general interest. In other words, European citizens have to be persuaded that “more Europe” is really in the interests of their children.

There is one matter on which all the governments of Europe seems to be in total agreement: that the sole remedy for an impending recession is rapid, drastic expenditure cuts. The idea that the draconian austerity plans are imposed under pressure from “the financial markets” is a misapprehension. The financial markets do not ask for them. The pressure comes, rather, from neo-liberal dogma. To blindly cut expenditure on the grounds of budgetary orthodoxy, as European governments have been doing, is economic suicide. Without investment in sustainable European projects (the Green New Deal) financed with euro bonds, a Tobin tax (yielding 50 billion euros per annum) or a genuine European war on fiscal fraud (estimated 250 billion euros per annum in Europe), trying to eliminate a budget deficit would be utterly counterproductive. Even the IMF admits to that now!

The Greek economic tragedy proves my point: growth becomes increasingly negative as a result of the austerity measures that are slowly strangling the country. The budget deficit and the debt-to-GDP ratio climb unsustainably. Yet they march on relentlessly down the same dead-end road.  Incorporating a balanced budget as a “golden rule” into the constitution is absolutely the wrong direction for Europe to take; it is the way of technocracy, which takes us ever further from solidarity. Europe must regain the confidence of European citizens – for soon we will have rescued the euro but lost the European public.

The only way out is a policy of hope, which is not blind to poverty, economic insecurity and zero prospects; a policy that places importance on a sense of responsibility and better governance among all the administrative and business elites. A European recovery would therefore require firm regulation of the financial markets, a coherent European fiscal system, a European Monetary Fund and improved monetary supervision. Also required are investments in the form of a Green New Deal: investments that offer answers to the financial crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis and the climate crisis. That is the different Europe for which I strive.


Mark Leonard, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, PublicAffairs, 2005 [21.]
Bart Staes, Echo’s voor een ander Europa, Houtekiet, Antwerp/Amsterdam, 2004
Bart Staes, Voor een ander Europa, Houtekiet, Antwerp/Amsterdam, 2009
Bart Staes, De onzichtbare hand die ons wurgt. Hoe de poenscheppers van de financiële sector de Amerikaanse droom kaapten en nu de Europese unie gijzelen (e-book), Brussels, 2012

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