Photographer:Fotograaf: Sébastien Huette/archief Mathieu Segers
Inaugural lecture Mathieu Segers on Europe
First: Do we still want to keep the European Union? And second: What will it take? These are two very important questions for the upcoming years, says Mathieu Segers, professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration. He gave his inaugural lecture in the St. Janskerk last week.
With his inaugural speech European Integration and its Vicissitudes - three years later - Mathieu Segers (1976, Maastricht) wanted to tell a literary story. A story that gives a clear field to imagination. Unbelievably important, he says. “All too often, people talk about Europe in technocratic terms, in the language of policies, the eurozone, the Monetary Union. This is too difficult to follow for many. In my inaugural lecture, I refer to writers and novels in order to shine a light on the human side of Europe. That is where the essence lies for me: being understanding of each other’s sensitivities.”
Can that be seen in a novel such as ‘Les Thibaults’, by Roger Martin du Gard?
“I mention this French author because he aptly shows how minor and major history are interlinked in the run-up to the First World War. How it becomes more and more difficult for the Thibault family, but also the European nations, to be considerate with each other. And in the process, people forget something essential: when others become powerless, the same will happen to you. Something else happens too: promises made by politicians become grander, their objectives more ambitious, and their big words become normal. This only increases the distance between them and people in their daily lives.”
Is that the case at the moment?
“Look at the yellow vest protests. Politics is only credible if people feel it in their own lives. If not, big words turn into lies. Or they become mere rhetoric, as is now often the case with human rights. When you look at how many refugees die in the Mediterranean Sea, how their rights are being violated in Greek camps, you can only conclude that we fail to adhere to them on our own soil.”
Future historians will view 2015 and 2018 as totally different worlds, you said in your speech. What do you mean?
“The year 2015 was an annus horribilis for Europe. Bataclan, the refugee crisis, the annexation of the Crimea, Syria, the euro crisis. We looked towards the US for help, but that appeared to be an obsolete reflex, a last convulsion of the Pax Americana. This became unequivocally clear with Brexit and the election of Trump: the Anglo-Saxon world turned its back on Europe. We weren't prepared for that.”
“Yes, too lazy as well. Europe leaned on the British and Americans for a long time. Now we will have to see if we can continue on our own.”
In NRC you said that the EU wasn't an inevitability but one of the options. The British showed us that with Brexit there is an alternative. It sounded rather matter-of-factly.
“What I wanted to make clear was that the alternative that the British are now trying to develop is in itself good news. You can gather from the alternative whether you are still on the right track. This constant self-investigation has been the power of European civilisation since the Enlightenment. But after the Cold War, we have heard more and more: there is no alternative. Ridiculous of course. You must always look for alternatives. Besides, it has also aroused distrust. In the so-called populist movements, a loathing has grown for everything that comes from Brussels.”
The well-known sociologist Frank Furedi recently argued in the auditorium on the Minderbroedersberg that populist voters were often branded as fascists. According to him, this was a sign of the undemocratic spirit of Brussels, which prefers to declass populists rather than entering into a debate with them.
“Furedi's summary is a little too simple for me. Brussels is mainly the member states. The ministers and government leaders ultimately determine what happens. The problem is more that politicians have created a false image in their own countries and have not been honest enough about what they themselves have decided there, and why. They have told an incomplete story for decades, one in which national interests prevailed over common interests. People feel this. Lack of honesty feeds dissatisfaction.”
Where is Europe heading?
“In the coming years, it will be all about the question whether we still want to make the effort for that European integration process, now that the British and the Americans have jumped seat. See it as a crucial test for the Western European member states, which in this case have a larger collective memory than the East Europeans. Two questions are important. First: Do we want to keep the European Union? And second: What will it take?”
Excuse me? Do we want to keep Europe?
“That is definitely a question that is on the table. As far as I'm concerned, the answer is yes, but we must get more support. A kind of ‘re-founding moment’ is required now, in which we declare that we continue to support the integration process in the 21st century and how we intend to do so.”
So the answer can also be no.
“Of course. For a long time, we have acted as if we had reached the end of history. As if we had left all the misery behind us. We haven't. History has returned: once again we have blood on our hands, violence is rearing its head everywhere, and self-interest rules again. Along with it, the political questions have also returned: What do we stand for? Where do our moral limits lie? But we are not dealing with that in Europe at all. We are still in a position of ‘we have left all the trouble behind us’. That is a dangerous misconception. Something important is at stake. The EU must again prove its added value in people's lives. Otherwise it is a failed project.”