It was the lucidity of the founding fathers to transform this age-old fight for European hegemony into fraternal cooperation or peaceful rivalries. Behind the Coal and Steel Community, or the Common Market, the project forged a promise of peace, prosperity and freedom.
When Greece, Spain and Portugal entered the Common Market a generation later, these words were not technical. They were the symbol of freedom for those leaving dictatorship behind. When what was then known as Eastern Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria, joined this project a generation later, it was this same hope that drove us. We could finally repair the story which started in 1947. For many countries who had lived through the worst oppression, joining the European Union was an unprecedented promise of emancipation.
Doubtless, we were not sufficiently aware that this much desired Europe grew up sheltered. Sheltered firstly from the rest of the world. Security was not its business: this was performed by America. Its economy already knew the path to follow: catch up with America. Sheltered from the people, too. In its early stages the European project was a mission carried by a few individuals, sewing a torn continent back together by overcoming populist passions.
This remains the crucial issue. But the barriers behind which Europe could blossom have disappeared. So, today, it finds itself weaker, exposed to the squalls of today’s globalization and, surely even worse, the ideas which offer themselves up as preferable solutions.
These ideas have a name: nationalism, identitarianism, protectionism, isolationist sovereignism. Many times have these ideas lit the fires where Europe could have perished, and they are back again today in a new guise. They claim legitimacy because they cynically exploit the people’s fear. We have ignored their power for too long. For too long we were sure in our belief that the past would not come back, we thought that the lessons had been learned, we thought that we could settle into inertia, habit, putting our ambition somewhat to one side, this hope that Europe had to carry because we took it for granted and risked losing it from sight.
Because the sad passions of Europe have reared their heads once more and are drawing people in. They know how to make us forget the concert of misfortunes which it has survived down the centuries. They reassure us and, I dare say, they could tomorrow clinch victory, not because the peoples are gullible! Not because the European idea is dead! But because our weakness, blindness or lack of awareness have created the conditions for their victory. Because we have forgotten that we must stay behind this ambition! Because we have forgotten to defend Europe! Because we have forgotten to stand up for Europe! Because we have let doubt take hold.
What do they say to our people? That they have the solution. That they will protect. But what are the challenges we face? There are many challenges: from climate change to digital transition, migration and terrorism, global issues to which an inward facing country can only hope to offer limited responses.