Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Stella Ghervas delivers Schuman lecture on the Idea of Europe
Are things getting better again with Europe? After his victory, Emmanuel Macron is accompanied by the tones of what we in Europe have come to refer to as the European hymn – Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude; Alle Menschen werden Brüder – when he walks towards his supporters. Better? That remains to be seen, because recent European history is ridden with crises. And Euroscepticism is greater than ever, strengthened by an “intellectual vacuum” and “memory loss,” says Swiss historian Stella Ghervas, lecturer at Harvard. She wants to fight against this with the weapon of her discipline: historical analysis. In order to retrieve the Idea of Europe.
The Idea of Europe? Could it be any more vague? Undoubtedly, but in Ghervas's terms - in the annual Schuman lecture that she delivered on Tuesday - it is not really that vague. She went back two centuries, or even further, for the reconstruction of what she considers the core of the European idea: striving for peace. This is not so strange for a continent that has known war after war and that, certainly after the horrors of the Second World War, more than ever yearned for an end to the conflicts. This explains the attempts by such people as the French politician Robert Schuman to find constructions to prevent the outbreak of conflicts. What was needed to achieve this? Co-operation, and ‘de facto solidarity’. It would lead to increasingly closer European co-operation, culminating in the European Union, which was effectively created in Maastricht in 1992.
Because peace, says Ghervas, should be understood as something other than the absence of war, which would be too primitive an approach. Was there peace between East and West during the period of the Iron Curtain? They didn't call it the ‘Cold War’ for no reason; it was a frozen conflict, says Ghervas. True peace requires more: reconciliation between enemies, and treaties, laws, institutions, and a system to really keep the peace.
Balance of power
The EU and its predecessors, such as the EEC, the European Economic Community, were by no means the first or the only attempts to bring about peace on the continent. Ghervas places the first articulated ideas on the subject as far back as the end of the Middle Ages, with the arrival of Humanism. It all becomes more definite at the beginning of the eighteenth century, in 1713 to be exact, when the War of the Spanish Succession (as one example, because there were other long-term conflicts too) was settled with the Treaty of Utrecht. The French king, Louis XIV, wanted to unite himself with the Spanish kingdom in order to create a European super power; this urge for dominance, says Ghervas, is time and again the trigger that leads to war. A European coalition managed to prevent this. Subsequently, the concept of balance of power was introduced in Utrecht: no winners or losers, but military blocks that held everything in balance.
Was this an ideal kind of peace? No, more like an armed truce, thought French political philosopher Abbé de Saint Pierre. It would be better to strive for a federative system of kingdoms that guaranteed the boundaries.
Thinking about war and peace did not stop. On the contrary, during the Enlightenment, it held the momentum for quite some time: for an upcoming book - Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union -, Ghervas counted more than 120 plans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to achieve everlasting peace, including plans proposed by Rousseau, who elaborated on Saint Pierre, and Kant.
As we all know, things didn't go so well with this everlasting peace. A hundred years after the Treaty of Utrecht, there was another important congress, in Vienna. This time, however, there were winners and losers, after the Napoleonic wars. It is the second great moment in recent European history that Ghervas places in the list of important attempts to create peace. It was 1815, when the continent was placed under the guardianship of a number of superpowers that would keep the peace. The system worked for forty years, although towards the end of this period there was no peace anymore, because all kinds of revolutions had broken out. The year 1848 was notorious in that sense. After that, the system finally collapsed when the Crimean War broke out in 1853.
A number of armed conflicts later, the First World War started in 1914, which would lead to a new peace system in 1919: the League of Nations. Optimistically started at the instigation of American president Woodrow Wilson, it took no more than twenty years to confirm its bankruptcy. The US no longer supported the League of Nations, Japan and China went to war against each other in 1933, Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1936, and Hitler and Stalin took Poland by surprise in 1939. The Second World War was a fact, again started in Europe.
So in 1945, the conviction - the heartfelt necessity to bring about real sustainable peace - was greater than ever. The United Nations were founded, but in Europe the idea of co-operation and solidarity went further. It became the finest hour for people such as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), one of the predecessors of the European Union. During his speech in Strasbourg in 1949, Schuman spoke about ‘the European spirit’. Key words were cultural family, reciprocity, and no hidden inclination towards hegemony. Where nationalism in all its forms had led to a catastrophe, it was now time for a supranational union. In it, the diversity and aspirations of the various nations would be co-ordinated in the same way as was the case for were regions within the nations.
A clear idea, and yes, why not? Is Limburg less Limburg because it exists in relation to the Dutch state? Is Friesland less Friesland? Why could the different countries not be forged together in Europe in the same way?
The idea, however, summons up controversies, today more so than in the early years. And maybe the expansion of Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, into a Union of 28 members was responsible for that. Ghervas refers to that last phase, starting in 1990s, as the ‘second European spirit’, after Schuman’s. Because only then could Eastern Europe leave dictatorship behind them and join the European system of democratic values.
And today? With all the crises (Ukraine, refugees, Greece etc.) a new, third European spirit is needed, says Ghervas. In particular because some of those crises concern anti-democratic manifestations in those very Eastern European countries that suffered from dictatorships for so long. So, European values are under pressure, many politicians have lost the belief in Europe, or worse still: they live in an intellectual vacuum, suffer from total amnesia, or memory loss.
That is where, according to Ghervas, historians come into play: their role is to fight this loss of memory. Have people lost their way? Then look at what was done in the past to get Europe back on track, the attempts to achieve co-operation and peace, look at the ideas that were proposed in the past. In doing so, you will stand on the shoulders of giants.
She has a few ideas herself, with which, by the way, she strays from the historian's path somewhat. What could be done to help get the EU back on top? The Union, she says, has all the characteristics of a political platypus: the Australian egg-laying mammal with a beak, a symbol of an evolutionary monster. Ghervas feels that Europe must grow organically and to grow in the direction of more simplicity, more power and more effectiveness. This means at the very least thinking about one defence system, one budget, and therefore one tax system, about social reforms and about democratic government, with a stronger European Parliament.
Ghervas ends with an appeal: one way or another, all attempts to unite Europe came about after devastating wars. Let us hope that this is no longer necessary.