“Part of me would like to turn the clock back to 1913” – Brendan Simms

1913 postcard view of the Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest

1913 postcard view of the Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest

When Gustav Heinemann was asked, shortly before he became President in 1969, whether he loved the German Federal Republic, the candidate famously answered, ‘No, no. I love my wife. Full stop.’ Such statements were not unusual in the young Republic. Leaving aside the question of whether one should have loved the FRG – one should – it is striking that one thing Europe does no lack today is protestations of love from its politicians, including Guy Verhofstadt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Martin Schulz, Danny Cohn Bendit and many others. Now, the project for Democratic Union has decided to add to this chorus with some declarations of its own.

There are, of course, many reasons to love Europe and my colleagues have already listed some of them, which I do not want to simply repeat. My affection is partly historical, partly current and partly for what lies ahead (I hope); it is part whimsy and part aspiration. Let me begin by saying that there are many things that Europe could have done without in its long history: slavery, oppression, anti-semitism, genocide, and aggressive war. The list is by no means exclusive. All the same, there is a part of me that would like to turn the clock back to 1913, when one could travel to every corner of Europe, except for the Ottoman and Russian empires, without a passport or at least serious impediment. I would love to have experienced the diversity of pre-First World War central and eastern Europe, with its majestic cities of Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Czernowitz, Budapest, Lvov, Odessa and many other metropoles. I would like to see the return of the Jews everywhere, the Germans back in their historic eastern lands, and the Poles back into the territories from which they were expelled in 1945 – the list of desires could be greatly lengthened, without of course suggesting that the fates of these populations was always directly comparable or morally equivalent. Of course, what happened in 1933-1945 is not reversible. The old cliché that it is possible to turn a goldfish bowl into a fish soup but not the other way around has a terrible resonance here.

There is also much to love about ‘Europe’ today. If it was NATO which kept the peace during the Cold War, the European Union certainly helped to make war between its members unthinkable. The free travel between members, often without passports is, greatly to be valued. The humane values of Europe, for example its abolition of capital punishment, are a source of pride. The Eurozone is a magnet not just for economic but also for cultural migrants. My love is complicated, however, by he fact that the object of my affections has terrible weaknesses. Europe has taken several political wrong turns, beginning with the failure of political-military integration with the collapse of the European Defence Community in the 1950s, to the botched common currency project which neglected to put in place the necessary political union. This means not only that Europeans are once again at each other’s throats, if only verbally and economically, and that Europe is not playing the global role it deserves to.

So my real love is for a Europe to come, in which the Eurozone – following the lead given by Great Britain and the United States – creates a union capable of addressing the sovereign debt crisis and any international challenges. A Europe in which welfare goes together with responsibility, not merely towards neighbours and society but the interests of the union as a whole. A mighty union which would cooperate closely with cognate polities to the west: Great Britain, Canada, and the USA, and – on the far side of the world – with Australia and New Zealand. A Union which would encourage the establishment of similar structures in Africa and Latin America, though its positive Bolivarian incarnation, not its distorted xenophobic Chavist variant. This union does not yet exist, but it will be our own fault if we do no create it.

Image “Budapest – Elizabeth Bridge (1913 Postcard)” courtesy of Roger Wollstatdt via Flickr, released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

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