In The Journey to Reims, one of Rossini’s oddest and most amusing operas, a motley cast of characters from every country in Europe, en route to the French town of Reims for a coronation, get stuck at an inn, for want of horses to resume their journey, and have to share lodgings there. I find this libretto an excellent metaphor avant la lettre for the EU’s present predicament. European countries have no alternative to sticking together in many essential social, cultural and economic respects. Yet they seem incapable of making any headway towards goals that are more ambitious but ultimately no less necessary. They lack significant joint projects and shared democratic values and convictions. Basically, they’re short of horses.
A look at the EU’s top officeholders shows that member states are not prepared to entrust the common undertaking to strong leaders, opting instead for low-profile moderates who can create – or get us to resign ourselves to – consensus. And it is becoming an established axiom that the people of Europe don’t want to form a more forceful and prominent union.
For many Spaniards of my generation, it is hard not to see this attitude as a convenient failure and as a source of frustration. Those of us who were young during Franco’s dictatorship were subsequently carried away with a perhaps naive enthusiasm about Europe, summed up in a dictum attributed to the philosopher Ortega y Gasset: «Spain is the problem, Europe the solution.» But this solution seems to have fallen pretty far short of our greatest expectations. We now understand that Europe, the European Union, is doubtless a solution, but not any old Europe and any old union: the solution is a Europe on terms that now seem seriously compromised, if not cast off for good.
I still believe a worthwhile Europe is one that represents and defends its citizens, not its turf. One that protects political rights (and duties, of course) and legal safeguards, rather than privileges and those hollow traditions used to conceal them from outsiders. A Europe that maintains the integrity of existing democratic, constitutional states against the threat of divisive ethnic demands, which are invariably retrograde and xenophobic. A Europe of freedom and solidarity, not a continent closed to those knocking at its gates to escape political persecution or economic necessity. An open-minded, co-operative, helpful and compassionate Europe, not one jealously guarding its benefits. A Europe of rational hospitality.
This EU is in need of militant Europhiles who are capable of holding out against shortsighted national politicians. Nationalistic leaders and groups are on the rise in every European country: we’ve seen it in the Czech Republic and other eastern countries, but also in England, Ireland, even France. These nationalists espouse tough protectionism against the outside world and extreme neoliberalism at home, with an out-and-out hooligan mindset and procrustean values fixed on keeping out all those dreaded Others. In other words, Europeans who are only uncompromising about whatever benefits their narrow (and very Christian) interests. Their brand of fundamentalism defines European roots selectively, privileging the most conservative and exclusive view of a tradition whose richness lies precisely in the controversies of its contradictions.
But there is another danger, that of the frivolity of the good multicultural conscience that opposes exclusive Christianity – not for the sake of democratic secularism – but to champion other religious dogmas that also claim to be above the civil laws, even above the western version of human rights. A desirable Europe is one in which religious and philosophical views are everyone’s right and no one’s duty, much less an obligation of society as a whole. A radical, and consequently secular (which doesn’t mean anti-religious), political space in which civil laws prevail over any fideist, ethnic or cultural considerations, and in which there is a clear-cut distinction between what some may call a sin and what all of us must judge to be a crime.
A Europe whose academia allows for the professional mobility of students and professors, but whose universities are not in the service of business interests and rapid returns on investment. A Europe of talent without borders, not unbounded pay cheques and profits.
Of course we need horses to pull us, but also charioteers who know where we wish to go. I believe we can still make it in time.
By Fernando Savater, a philosopher.