--> -->

The notion of a ‘European promise’ and why it matters

The starting point of most histories of the European project is post-WWII, with the Schuman declaration and the establishment of the European Steel and Coal Community. Indeed, one of the main justifications for the continuity of this project — now as the European Union — is to avert the horrors of inter-European war.  In the context of what one could call ‘folk historiography’, one could say that the European project is commonly presented by Europeans, and by almost everyone around the world with an interest in the matter, as the result of the war, and of WWII particularly.

It is worth noting, however, that Schuman himself put it the other way round. “Nous n’avons pas fait l’Europe, nous avons eu la guerre”. In his sense, it is not Europe that was born out of the war, but the war that was born out of the non-Europe of the past. In this way, the justification for the European project harkens back to the inter-war period, the collapse of liberal democracy and the rise of authoritarianism in the 1920s and 1930s, and even before that, to the <periclitant> stasis of pre WWI Europe.

Shared narratives, myths of origins, collective memory matter because what we take to be the genesis of our projects — whatever one calls it — encapsulates justification and legitimation to what we strive for and achieve, or fail to achieve, in common. Such causalities are easy to understand and disseminate. They grant reasons to act and grounds to enact and establish. The justification given by declarations of independence, liberation movements and wars of reunification has begotten constitutions and states, possibilities for political action that may be narrower or broader in scope. Sometimes these geneses succinctly appear in the preamble to constitutions; sometimes they provide a context for interpreting the latter; sometimes they come to the rescue when voids in fundamental laws need to be filled.

One could say that before the social contract there was a communitarian promise. And that actuality of the contract will depend on the kind of promise made. In the European case, there is a subtle but crucial difference between possible justifications for the genesis of the European promise, and they have real consequences for the kind of Union one will have in return. In the simplest form, the ‘war begets Europe’ narrative leads to a project of peace and cooperation between states. If, however, our narrative is the richer (but admittedly more recondite) ‘it was non-Europe that hath begotten the wars’, one would need to go beyond a project of peace and cooperation among states as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the fulfillment of the European promise, and forcefully go into a project of shared citizenship among all Europeans, juxtaposed to but not substituting their national citizenship status. The reason for this is that one need not only have peace as an antidote to war, but citizenship as an antidote to the preconditions that made the war(s) possible or, better still, as a vaccine against future wars.

Seen from this perspective, wars were a result of the collapse of the European promise: shared prosperity, fundamental rights and democracy (or democracy and popular sovereignty), on the bedrock of l’État de Droit. The onset of WWI, the centenary which we currently commemorate, can be seen through the lens of imperialism, militarism, dynastic angst and ambitions of territorial expansion, or through the prism of the collapse of the European promise — widespread misery and rampant inequalities, disrespect for  the exercise of fundamental rights, self-rule and constitutional democracy, etc.

Until  now, the European Promise has been at best an implicit and intermittent notion. Implicit, because differently from its transatlantic cousin, the American Dream, it has never been clearly stated by politicians and institutions, nor has it been adopted by the wider public discourse and popular culture. As a result, European citizens have been comparatively disempowered, because they cannot invoke the European Promise to make their rights and aspirations to be at the forefront of political action in the European Union. And why do I say the European Promise has been intermittent? Because in fact there have been periods where that promise was made in a more-or-less concrete way: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, or during the accession periods of candidate Member States. In these occasions, citizens of Eastern Europe or acceding countries from elsewhere were led to believe that the European integration was about the three main elements of shared prosperity, fundamental rights and being a ‘normal’ democracy (i.e., rule-of-law, self-rule,
separation of powers, etc.). Beyond that, one could dream more: becoming a highly developed ‘knowledge economy’, for instance, as put forward by the Lisbon Strategy. But the European Promise of shared prosperity, fundamental rights and democratic values is the minimum threshold on which the integration project can thrive.

In my view, there is a great advantage in bundling the values of the European Union that we find in the treaties — and the Charter of Fundamental Rights — into a single European Promise, for the purpose of public and political discourse. That is, first and foremost, the advantage of succinctness. Most people would have a hard time in listing the full range of the EU’s values (art. 2TEU) objectives (art. 3TEU), and the rights in the Charter. But referring to a European Promise that is owed to all European citizens is a straightforward way of reclaiming what these values, objectives and rights are about.

A second advantage is that the mere fact of distinguishing in discourse that there is indeed a European Promise allows citizens to invoke this promise politically and gives them leverage over institutions. Whenever a violation of rights or principles occurs, people already ask ‘Where is Europe?’ suggesting that there is a Europe that is much more than a geographical concept. If it were common for one to ask ‘why isn’t the European Promise being fulfilled’ in this or that case, then this Europe that is about more than geography would finally appear explicitly shrouded in the language of a moral commitment to real people instead than just a set of more abstract and sometimes technical legal concepts.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the explicit stating of a succinct European Promise would give a purpose and a direction to the mission of EU institutions and to the dynamics of European integration. Instead of having, for instance, rule of law and the fight against corruption as a byproduct of institutions creating a European project, this would put institutions at the service of values, establishing them as a means of delivery of the European Promise to all Europeans and the fulfillment of a positive EU mission in the world. EU institutions and their workings, directives and regulations, rulings and reports would finally become about something other than the mere proceduralism that now predominates in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxemburg and Frankfurt, or the plain bargaining and self-serving rules that emerge out of discussions among Member State capitals.

I’m sure many will object that one cannot just ‘invent’ a European Promise, and that such a notion would never work as ‘naturally’ as its counterpart, the American Dream. Well, it may come as a surprise, but seldom does this type of political discourse and tradition come naturally. The American Dream was invented in 1931 by a popular historian called James Truslow Adams. People started using the concept mainly in post-war America, and once it spread in popular culture it became politically potent. I am proposing quite the same thing for the European Promise. I don’t know if one should say that it is ‘invented’ or ‘discovered’, as it has its roots in history and its collapse has given cause to many European tragedies. I don’t know if one could call it a ‘natura’ or ‘artificia’ concept (are there really ‘natural’ concepts?). All I know is that it could work for many practical purposes: fighting youth unemployment, eradicating child poverty, suppressing systemic corruption, preventing climate change, and so on. Or, for all that matters, just making good on the three elements of the European Promise: shared prosperity, fundamental rights and a deep realisation of the democratic ideal.

Click here to download this article in PDF-format.

This article has been categorized in Democracy and is tagged wi , , .

Leave a comment