Seeing the Bigger Picture (Part 3)

This is the third and final part of the "Seeing the Bigger Picture" series by Louis Drounau, a journey through history that shows how a more united Europe would benefit us all (read the first two parts here and here).

In this final article, Louis challenges us to recognise how it is only by coming together in unity that Europe will be able to preserve and nurture its shared, thousand-year old identity.

Identity first, administration second

Having read the first and second part of my series, we know that political structures are constantly changing and that this change should not be feared. The question now is: what kind of change should we welcome and encourage in Europe?

The answer: the one that helps us promote our values and reach our goals.

Getting back to our previous analogy, as a child inevitably changes with adulthood, we should welcome any change that makes him a better person. We should therefore welcome change that makes us a better society. But what defines a “good society”? As societies, we must judge our actions by whether they respect and promote our values and goals. So what are our values? And which are our goals?

For the humanist, these would be:

  • Human rights; because, without them, we succumb to tyranny
  • Democracy; because it allows us to choose freely what we want for ourselves
  • The rule of law; to ensure that the previous two are respected by all and for all

In countries where the rule of law is enforced, citizens’ rights are protected and a vibrant democracy can flourish. If proper laws do not exist or are not respected, citizens live in a state of arbitrariness and unbridled competition – a competition that, by default or by design, will favour the most powerful. In such systems, might is right: the weak is left without the shield of the law, while the strong forces his will. This is precisely what the rule of law aims at preventing.

Our anarchic state of international law favours power relationships, tax evasion and terrorism

In recent centuries, most States have made great progress in securing the rule of law on their territory, developing formal judicial and institutional mechanisms and codifying laws and customs.

However, the same is not true of the international system in which we live. While international law continues to grow, it lacks a proper enforcement mechanism from an overarching public authority. Its application relies on voluntary State compliance. And, while States can be invited to comply – through their self-interest or naming-and-shaming –, they cannot be forced. In this system, militarily or economically powerful nations are free to force their will on other, smaller players, regardless of their supposed independence. The nominal sovereignty of weaker countries does little in the face of power-based relationships that play in favour of the big and strong. This global chaos also works as a ladder for non-State actors, including multinational companies and terrorist groups, too happy to pit States against one another − for instance to avoid paying taxes or to benefit from the lack of cross-border law enforcement cooperation.

Reform yourself before others force you to do so

European countries face the inevitable prospect of becoming medium or small players on the global scene and compete against bigger powers. Our representatives and citizens would do well to consider the words of EU High Representative Federica Mogherini: “European countries are divided in two kinds: the small ones and the ones that have not yet realised they are small in the world of today.”

Indeed, the demise of European colonial empires and the progressive development of the Global South has reshuffled the distribution of powers worldwide, and European nations now find themselves in positions slightly more in line with their respective populations and sizes. And we should make no mistake about it: continued efforts to eradicate global poverty and to promote global development, as well as a favourable demography, will continue to help poorer countries catch up on their European counterparts, as they should for the benefit of all. What will European countries do separately when India, Pakistan, Brazil, Ethiopia or Nigeria catch up with their untapped potential? Germany, the most populous of European States, is only the 16th most populous country worldwide; its 1.1% of the world’s population pale in front of China’s 18.4%.

Looking for unity beyond our own borders

Hence, we are faced with the risk to lose not our nominal sovereignty, but our actual capacity to freely choose to the benefit of countries that may or may not share our values. What are our options in this regard?

On the one hand, we could decide that the safeguarding of our national institutions and sovereignties is paramount; that maintaining our nation-States the way we know them and think they ought to remain takes precedence. We aim to stay politically independent, organise our own political life and make our own decisions. And, as others grow, we shrink to sovereign nothingness.

On the other hand, we could decide that our identity lies in our history and in our values rather than in our institutions, and that these can be placed above our administrative and political structures. We could acknowledge that our national military, political and economic powers are insufficient to compete against stronger powers, and realise that our ability to choose freely is slowly but surely eluding us. Consequently, we recognise that we would better preserve our identity and freedom and promote our values by coming together willingly amongst like-minded countries, rather than discard any more of our decision-making power to stronger and potentially hostile powers. In the exact same manner as the various parts of a country stand stronger by belonging to united national structure, so would European countries stand stronger under a unified federal structure. There is truth in the saying “united we stand”.

The key element to understand is that there is no historical predetermination for a people to live together within the borders of the same country − people did not pre-exist their countries, history and life together made them a people. Had history unfolded differently, we would be different people, and it would all seem just as natural.

Today’s nationalist fight for what yesterday’s nationalists fought against

The choice to form a united political community, which for millennia rested upon the fate of battles or the willingness of kings and emperors to conquer or marry, is now open to popular decision. We are free to change our political structure and community. All we need is to want it and get our representatives to do it.

Some say that our national histories are too unique and our cultures too different to ever form a European federation. Saying so, however, would be admitting that we are forever limited by our past and the prisoners of history. If it were so, and if any evolution was limited by where we come from, there would be little to fight or hope for.

Today’s nationalists forget that the countries they wish to preserve or “restore” – the very structures they see as the embodiment of our identities – are what yesterday’s nationalists fought against. Members of the French Front National, who today see themselves as patriots and glorify France’s enlightenment, should remember that, before them, others who also called themselves patriots, resolutely fought against the same enlightenment. They too pretended to defend the true France “as it had always been” and should remain. Of course, future generations will not fail to judge their efforts just as misguided as those who fought to maintain tribal divisions, absolute monarchy, or colonial empires.

By coming together, we safeguard our identities

A wilful decision to come together as a European Federation is by no means a renunciation of who we are; it is not the end of our national histories and identities. It is recognising that we share common values with our European neighbours and that, by coming together, we are better able to preserve them. Just as our shared Roman-Hellenistic roots have not vanished after the disappearance of the Greek city-States and of the Roman Empire, our national histories and values will endure in a unified Europe.

Take a look at the United States: while we usually see them as one identical people, Americans will readily proclaim that the people of New York live differently from the people of California, and that the people from the red hills of Georgia are not those of the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Such diversity in a country the size of a continent can, and should, be enshrined through well-thought institutions. The same way that our regional traditions have not disappeared through the establishment of the nation-States, so will our national differences and characters endure in a unified Europe. It is left to us to design strong, democratic, and representative institutions, adapted to our specificities, that will ensure the respect of our freedoms and differences, and let us live stronger together.

Let’s no longer define ourselves by a line on a map

In this brief review, I aimed to explain that what has changed will inevitably change again, whether we wish it or not. The preservation and affirmation of our identify simply cannot go hand-in-hand with the strict immobility of our socio-political structures. Who we are or what we are is far more than a simple line on a map or a reserved seat at an international conference.

The choice is now ours: we must decide what we wish to make of our future and recognise, as others have successfully done before us, that, before any meaningful reform of the anarchic global system, coming together as like-minded people, with shared values and liberty for all, is the only way to ensure the survival of our European identity.

About the Author:

Louis currently works for the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. Before that, he also worked for the UN in Côte d'Ivoire and New York, and, among others, with the European Commission on political affairs and with the Council of Europe on anti-money laundering activities. He is a strong EU and world federalist and passionately debates socio-political topics. 


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