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A European Aspiration

, by Tom Vasseur

Europe is divided against itself. While the migration crisis has taken the spotlight, the rift between Northern Europe and Southern Europe is still a very real problem. What do these two halves of Europe share aside from a geographic continent? And how should European Federalists try to fight the divisions in Europe?

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In Dutch and German there is a saying: “to live like (a) god in France”. In short it means “to live the good life”, but there is much more behind this short phrase. It says something on what the good life is perceived to be.

Stereotypically to live like a Frenchman is to live like a Parisian. However, “to live like a god in France” means something else entirely. It is to live in a big house in the countryside, to have dinner on a veranda on a summer night with your family. It suggests going to sail with friends from port to port across the Mediterranean. It stands for eating together on a terrace at a square with local residents playing music for themselves. It means to enjoy one’s life in nature, with culture, and in the company of others.

So in essence, the Northern European view on what constitutes the good life is essentially the (very Southern European) idea of la France profonde. This might come as a surprise. Since the beginning of the crisis a cesspool of derision has opened up where Southern Europeans have been accused of being lazy, incompetent, parasitic, corrupt, and so forth.

This can be accounted for by the connotation of settling in France as part of the essential promise of the Northern European social contract: if you work hard, you will have a good pension at the end of your working life, and then you may live like a god in France.

However, this social contract has long-since been broken. Already since the dawn of this century The Netherlands and Germany have been put under a programme of permanent austerity. It was 2002 when the Dutch Prime Minister argued in favour of austerity by making the promise “first the sour, then the sweet”. Since then citizens of Northern-Europe have become over-worked into structural mental illness, at the cost of family life, with their pensions squandered along with the rest of the welfare state.

In Southern Europe, on the other hand, the social contract offered a slightly different prospect for citizens. Here the goal was to offer citizens the possibility to achieve the European aspiration throughout life instead of at the end of it. This social contract has also been annulled in the wake of the crisis years. It has become apparent that in a Europe of permanent austerity in the North a modest attempt to offer the European aspiration in the South has become an economic impossibility. Instead Southern Europe is now also forced into the austerity applied elsewhere in Europe.

The result is a Europe unable to be European. In this Europe where one moves to one standard only, the standard of destructive competition between both member states and citizens, there is no room for the good life. There is only envy and vindictiveness. Europeans bitterly blame each other for the problems they face and the promises which have been left unrealised. This is, obviously, a disconcerting state of affairs for European Federalists.

Nevertheless, even Federalists have had difficulties in deciding on a common response. Instead, there was an internal division which largely mirrored the larger political division in Europe with Northern European Federalists insisting on the need for discipline and Southern European Federalists insisting on more solidarity. Only when austerity hardliners ruthlessly forced through their position in July 2015 a common position took shape against this style of politics. The deal had already been struck though, but the division hasn’t disappeared. Thus the eternal question posits itself once more: what is to be done?

A start is to decide our attitude towards the situation. Inspiration can be found in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – in part adopted as the Anthem of Europe. After a violent opening the fourth movement makes an appeal: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” Europeans have to break the violent rhetoric of North against South. [1] Instead we have to adopt freudenvolle Töne and insist on being Freundes Freund, the friend to a friend. Federalists should emphasise Joy as Europe’s purpose, because, as Schiller explains to Joy, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt." [2] The Ninth Symphony inspires us to turn Europe itself into an Ode to Joy.

Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom once gave as advice for Europe “that the South shouldn’t imitate the North in the drive for a soulless modernity…” He was half-right. Soulless modernity should indeed be avoided, but this cold way is not of Northern Europe. As we have seen, Europeans, North and South, are already united in their aspirations: to enjoy their lives in nature, culture, and company. Nooteboom’s “soulless modernity” is something alien to Europe altogether; European Federalists should realise this and instead insist on a Europe where citizens can pursue the European aspiration of Joy, of the good life as understood by the Dutch, French, British and Germans alike.

Europe ought to be an ode to that aspiration, and Federalists ought to help create that Europe. This means speaking out against demagoguery which tries to pit Northern against Southern Europeans, critically evaluating the policy mixes advised by all parties in European politics, but also more specifically it means defending the Erasmus Programme as to keep it well-funded and accessible or advocating for the expansion of European cultural policies. On a more fundamental level it requires a re-examination of the very basis for our federalism: are there other reasons to be a European federalist than instrumental “rational” advantages? This is a question which needs to be dealt with if we want to mend the rift between North and South and if we want European federalism to spread.

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Footnotes

[1“O friends, not these sounds!” Note how in the performances of the actual European Anthem where Schil-ler’s text is sung this opening is usually left out.

[2All men become brothers, where your soft wings rest.

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