If this is your land, where are your stories?
E. J. Chamberlin
The war in Ukraine confronts Europe with the question about the very raison d’être of integration. The courage and the resistance of the Ukrainians have bought us citizens of the European Union precious time to rethink who we are, what is dear to us and how we understand our ideals and values. One of the driving forces behind the European integration was to leave behind the imperial mind-set. United Europe was seen as an alternative to collapsing and warring Empires and as a solution to the brute force. The fear of living in the long shadow of Empires and the dream of anchoring their continuing existence into the European integration explain also why rejoining the Union was one of the first political priorities of the post-communist states back in 1989. When President W. Zelensky talks now about the integration of Ukraine with the European Union, he is driven by the very same fear and the dream. The aspiration of and yearning by the Ukraine to become part of the anti-imperial Union bring to the fore the questions of belonging and identity not just for the Ukrainians, but in equal measure for us Europeans.
What does it mean to be a European AD 2022?
In the ideal world of integration, the symbolic act of setting up the first Communities in 1951 and 1957 and of coming together by the member states would be understood as solidarity and empathy with others not just as strangers, but also as neighbors. The ethos of the membership of the Union would explain that Member States are bound to adopt a certain attitude towards other actors and to the Union legal system as a whole. It would also command that these states abide by the most fundamental rules of the community. Unfortunately, today this idealized notion of membership needs both a credible story-teller and an engaged public interested to listen. Serious doubts persist as to whether the European leaders have indeed enough courage and imagination to think beyond their egoistic interests and calculations. No amount of the rhetoric from the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council, or the German Chancellor for that matter, can obliterate the years of national and supranational cuddling up to autocrats within (Poland, Hungary) and outside (Russia). Where the resolve to uphold the rule of law as a value shared by all was needed, all we got instead was Nord Stream 2, countless letters of good intent and never-ending dialoguing. The most recent infrigement case against Poland hailed now by the EU as a success story, should rather stand as yet another painful proof that the Commission with its spinelessness and wait-and-see attitude of placating the autocrats has become part of the problem, rather than a solution.
And then the war in Ukraine happened.
Searching for a European myth(s)
A successful political myth not only provides an answer to why are we together but also deals with a question what we should be doing once we decide to come together and govern ourselves. A good myth must withstand the test of time and be ready to adapt to the changes that come with the evolution of the entity which it serves. In the European context the original myths were constructed around peace, prosperity and, crucially, democracy. Mindful of states’ innate urge to either wage or anticipate wars, post-war had seen the post-imperial states coming together and recognizing their own demons and accepting the need to change. The greatest strength of the EU, and its greatest challenge at the same time, lies in its understanding that integration must be seen through the prism of actors’ fidelities and loyalties, not just texts. A text is always in need of an interpretation and a practice. It is the practice of doing things that vitalizes a myth. It becomes an element of the story to be told by facts, background circumstances, actors’ self-interests and their understanding of what EU law should strive for and how it should go about achieving the objective of the community of living together.
Where is then the war in Ukraine in all this?
Recommiting us to Europe
The memory of Second World War and the fear of repeating the atrocities wrought on the continent was one of the founding myths for the post-war European settlement. This memory alone and the stories it has conveyed over the years, however, can only do so much for the generations that have never known war and who only came to learn about it through their parents’ and grandparents’ memories. The war in Ukraine is this generation’s war and can be a source of a new myth for the renewed European integration and memory- and identity-building, a new story of what we have done and how and where we were at the moment of trial. The prospect of Accession of Ukraine would be tangible and unifying. Empty words do not build myths. Practice does. That is why the future membership must be contemplated and given serious thought. Such a self-imposed committal would challenge the vision of the European leaders now and tomorrow and bind them to a common future and shared ideals. It would also allow us Europeans to hold Presidents Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel to the standard of not just their words but their deeds to deliver for, and in the name of, the myth.
My Idealism v Europe’s aloofness
If Europe is to have a future and move beyond the petty politics of today, it needs a story that is not just anchored in the past of 80 years ago. Rebuking imperialism must continue to be the founding myths of Europe AD 2022, just as it was back in 1951. However, it must be revisited and retold in the light of present-day circumstances and challenges posed by the dangerous world that surrounds us. How to keep translating the Founding Fathers’ dream of peaceful living together of the European peoples and states? In the name of whom (“we the European peoples”?) do the member states and the Treaties speak? Where are we coming from and where are we heading? What values we live by? Asking and answering these questions is crucial if we want to better understand ourselves today and anchor Europe tomorrow in something more than a market.
Perhaps this is all wishful thinking that can be put down to my incorrigible idealism. My “frontier understanding” of the Union’s role and place in the world have been always driven by both a fear and a dream. A fear of the loneliness of a nation state and its innate potential for cruelty. And a dream of pursuing a certain way of life and attitude towards others based on tolerance and sharing, while rejecting oppression, exploitation and injustice professed in the name of a singular state. And yet despite all this idealism, I firmly believe that this is exactly the kind of message that the elites in the cozy self-referential capitals of Europe must hear and abide. This is the message that comes from the introspection of somebody who knows what it is like to live in the shadows of empires and suffer the brunt of their imperialistic ambitions. For me the story of “never again” is real. It has been told and retold by my parents and grandparents. In March 2022 it rings truer and louder than ever before.
Therefore, in my own little way I thank Ukraine, for giving me the chance to revisit who I am and what defines my Europeanness and then recommit myself to it. And as for my message to Bruxelles, Paris, Berlin: no more tinkering, no more weaseling about, no more self-congratulatory back-patting. Enough red carpets and summits full of empty promises and half-hearted sanctions. Act now in a meaningful way because tomorrow might be too late! Failure in this is the one thing that my generation of Europeans will never forgive.