We need to know where we come from to know where we are going.
As we enter an important week for the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU), my thoughts are with all my British friends. Whatever the results, the UK remains in Europe and its many structures like the Council of Europe whose frontiers stretch from the Madeira islands to the Bering Straits, from the Nordic North to Sicily, with continental borders with China and many other countries.
Recently I saw a film on the Second World War. It struck me again that Churchill’s uncompromising firmness towards Nazism played a great part in mobilizing the resistance forces, first, of the British people, then on the continent. De Gaulle and other political figures joined him. I wondered whether, without Churchill’s firm stand, the post-war leadership could have pioneered a fresh perspective for peace such as the creation of the Council of Europe? Would the Fathers of Europe have been able to launch the concept of the Coal and Steel Treaty, which was a tool to go beyond hatred and to even create a new approach to global economics? So, I concluded that Winston Churchill is our grandfather. And Irène Laure is our grandmother - whose apology in 1947 to the Germans for her hatred ‘closed the Nazi chapter’, as French Professor Philippe Herzog wrote recently.
When you think of the 50 countries of Europe, each with its own history as conquerors or of being conquered, you realise that it takes more than economics to establish living, healing and trusting relationships. The cultural dimension can’t be ignored. Someone asked why the British people are different? We are all different from each other, due in part to our geographical locations. My few visits to Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall, convinced me that these strong cultural roots helped those countries which were under communist dictatorship regain their freedom without bloodshed.
About 20 years ago, good friends in Britain invited me to visit to help me understand the British attitude towards the then European Common Market. I learned that the British felt that they had been deceived: ‘We were asked to join a Common Market. Later we discovered that there was a political dimension!’ This may be playing a part people’s attitude towards the EU today. People have long memories! Thinking about the debate you have in the UK - In or Out of the EU – it struck me that this could take place in all our 28 countries. But not on the basis of ‘In or Out’ - rather on ‘how best to go forward’.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall the Italian Senator, Giovanni Bersani, then co-president of the African-Caribbean-Pacific-EU joint assembly, expressed his concern in these terms: ‘The European people are confronted with three challenges: reestablishing East-West relations, preserving the North-South dialogue, and adapting to the open market economy. Can they face these three challenges at the same time?’ My response is, we need to try to answer them together. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) said to me the other day.
Connecting the narratives of the ten new member nations in 2004 with that of the 14 existing members was not easy. A tremendous and mostly unreported job was done to adapt structures and mentalities to the new situation. Then why the tensions and mistrust of today? I recall the atmosphere during the negotiations for their accession (1999-2004): ‘Once they (the new-comers) are like us, everything will be fine’. What arrogance! It didn’t leave enough space for an audacious new step together - no followers, but co-creators. I believe this contributed to Polish former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek’s comment in 2005: ‘1989 was the “annus mirabilis”, when walls came down and the possibility of political and economic unity became a real possibility. But a curtain of ignorance continues to separate East from West. The enlargement of the European Union in 2004 has brought in its wake the realisation of differences rather than reciprocal curiosity and happy rediscovery.’
When the election for President of the European Parliament took place, Geremek was a natural candidate, respected by most people. But the attitude was: ‘The Poles don’t know the ABC of the EU well enough’ - so a very respectable German was elected. But with our ‘we know best’ attitude, we missed sending a strong message of trust to our partners in Central and Eastern Europe, a kind of a symbol that ‘we belong to the same family’. We are paying the price of it today with a lack of trust between our leaders.
During that period, attending the European Parliament’s monthly sessions in Strasbourg. I followed the steps which led to the vote on the Commission’s proposal for the entry of these ten countries into the EU. The president of the Parliament, the Irishman Pat Cox, arranged for the debates to be translated into 21 languages. I felt that the ‘Yalta page’ had been turned. But how did our media report on that process? In France, hardly at all.
Last week, as I walked into the Winston Churchill building of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, I realised that the British might not be there anymore. Quel vide! (What a gap!) Many memories came to my mind of the fruitful contacts and friendships I developed over the years with British MEPs. They were hard-working people. Funnily enough, it was two employees of the Commission, British and French, who opened my eyes and my heart to understand the MEPs and find a way to care for them.
The British reformer, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) proposed in 1788 the creation of an International Assembly with the capacity to promote a free press, free monetary and commercial exchange, and even disarmament. Could he be our forefather? Of course, many personalities expressed visions for our continent, such as the Polish General Pilduski (1920) or the Hungarian politician Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi… They are all parts of the jigsaw which constitutes our continent’s narrative. These perspectives help us to evaluate the ‘Changement d’espérance’ (Change of hope) which took place after 1945.
Then I don’t forget in our family, our godfather, Dean Acheson, American Secretary of State, who in September 1949, with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, asked Robert Schuman (‘who knows much about matters in Germany’), to define the broad lines of policy that should be followed in relation to Germany.
‘Let us not forget’, said Louise Weiss, who chaired the opening assembly of the first European Parliament to be elected with universal suffrage in 1979, ‘that we are the inheritors of a vital spirituality and the witnesses to this spirituality for the well-being of generations to come’.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.