Europe

Commentary

Does Europe Really Exist?

pendulum
European politics in an equation? (Diagram:  University of South Carolina Dept. of Physics)

According to the dictionary, a pendulum is a “heavy body which, suspended by a thread or a bar, can oscillate.” But what the dictionary does not say is that this could also be the definition of Europe today: a heavy body that oscillates, suspended by many threads and numerous rods, moved by many forces, both internal and external.

The fact that Europe oscillates is, unfortunately, no novelty. A look at its complex history shows that much. But the drama is that it continues to oscillate now that it has entered into a position in which there is little room to move forward, and even less room to move backward. In the end, one reaches the point of asking whether Europe actually exists as an entity, or whether we continue to live at the end of an Asiatic peninsula, divided socially, politically, and linguistically into a thousand different pieces, and without any solid, truly European leadership.

Throughout history, European territory has been a prime arena for struggles for hegemony, fighting that reached its dark apogee in the 20th century, now so far and so close at the same time. In no other century has there been as much political, economic, and racial violence as occurred in the wars of 1914-18 and of 1939-45. Europe disintegrated into a combat zone, the scene of terrible fighting among Hitler’s Nazis, Mussolini’s fascists, Stalin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Pétain’s France, Churchill’s Great Britain, and the United States under Wilson and then Roosevelt. And nothing was so sad as seeing Europe then divided into two antagonistic zones following World War II.

The attempt to create a unified Europe after the immense catastrophe of World War II was a cry of alarm by the more sensible survivors on both sides. In the beginning, the idea encountered thousands of obstacles, but it succeeded little by little, and new concepts and institutions arose, such as the Council of Europe and the European Union. They not only marked the road Europe should take, they began to construct it. However, since the postwar years, many things have happened. Insecurity and the lack of solid leadership have left gaps, and the past—which we thought was forgotten—has re-emerged to fill them, with antiquated leaders like Le Pen and others who suddenly spring up when fear blinds people to the future. And it is well-known that the distance between fear and violence is short when people feel uneasy and their hopes seem unrealizable.

It is possible that the concept of sovereignty is at the point of collapse under the pressure of other concepts that seem more open, such as globalization. But it is also possible that the public and private sectors are trading places, outside the historic rules of contemporary democracy. Right here, in our own country, we have watched and continue to watch as public and private spheres fuse, as the state becomes a business, with banks or oil companies passing into the hands of a politician or the friends of a politician.

Following the immense catastrophe of World War II, Europe began to think seriously about unification, and after many years, leaders emerged whose ideas made them seem equal to the task. But today we are at a dead end. We see no leaders such as Kohl, Mitterrand, or Felipe González, nor ideas that would move us ahead. And when the attacks of Sept. 11 made it clear that we now face new international violence, all of the hidden fears rose to the surface and all of the more or less controlled conflicts re-emerged.

The gulf separating political power and society has widened; one needs only to see the immense security measures taken before any European summit meeting, side by side with demonstrations by European youth. What looked like a highway leading toward European unification has become a path full of holes. Along this path, signs of a stale nationalism suddenly appear or reappear. They may point toward an old man like Le Pen, or a not-so-old one such as Haider in Austria, but all of them have the same slogans: Our nation first, no to a unified Europe, expel immigrants, and open war on any religion other than Christianity and any ethnic group other than whites.

In fact, postwar Europe has never been comfortable with keeping governments in power for long, and it has oscillated from center right to center left, and back again, with a few splinter parties at either extreme. This is, in and of itself, healthy enough if it reflects the public’s desire not to have an over-powerful government, or rulers who respond only to themselves.

But at times, this oscillation comes from other factors: the desperate cries of workers without jobs, the anguish of immigrants exploited by native citizens, the silence of the powerful who enrich themselves across all borders, and the uncertainty of a society that tends to reject its neighbors and which, above all, fears distant or historically hostile cultures. At such times, this Europe-under-construction stagnates, and each society tends to look for refuge in its own past. The result is that every step back destroys a step forward: And these are precisely those steps that we need to create the Europe of the future.

The author is a Socialist senator. 

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