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“Europe! Practice what you preached!”

“Europe! Practice what you preached!”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Speech opening academic year Mathieu Segers

Reconciliation and empathy – these were the driving forces behind the unification of Europe. And these are precisely the values that can pull Europe out of  its crisis today, said Professor Mathieu Segers in his speech during the official opening of the academic year.

“It was a cold and misty day in early December 1991. I was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Maastricht. And I was unusually restless that day. I knew that only a few minutes away from where I lived, the top dogs of European politics were gathering in a one-off effort to rewrite European history against the background of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification. Given this, I couldn’t bring myself to stay at home and do my homework. So I took my bike and headed to Hotel Maastricht, where the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his entourage were staying, only one block away.” Europe felt very close for the young Mathieu Segers – but he quickly found his path blocked by barriers. Hotel Maastricht – and with it, Europe – had never been more distant, he sighed in his speech This side of paradise.

So close, and yet so far. The sentiment will sound familiar to many Europeans. What is Europe, wondered Professor Mathieu Segers, dean of the University College. Is it the seductive, alluring femme fatale so admired by US writers and presidents of the last century? A sensual and exciting woman whose dark side strikes terror into many normal Europeans? Or is it “these men”, as the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher put it in 1988, referring to the fellow heads of state she came across at European summits: “These men. All they do is anecdote away. Never get down to business. It’s so un-businesslike!”

“Being an historian and a man myself, what I will do in the next couple of minutes is anecdote away a bit on Europe’s contemporary history”, Segers tells the audience. He goes on to talk about “that lucky in-between of the history of North-Western Europe, the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, in which we seemed un-European untroubled”. America’s role as foster parent, which the US had played since the end of the Second World War, was over. The old enemy, the Soviet Union, had fallen apart, and the Cold War was coming to an end. Europe was ready to stand on its own two feet.

The signing of the Maastricht Treaty, now 25 years ago, was Europe’s first effort to deal with this entirely new situation. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity, hope, “carefree Western hubris” and “fragile” European dreams – after all, the misery, fear and debts of World War II were not forgotten – about integration, peace, reconciliation and stability. 

In the post-war decades, it was mainly self-aware West Germans who made the case for reconciliation. “It’s language wrapped in speeches and personal letters, and typified by utter non-violence. At these moments of reciprocal weakness, those arrogant German leaders transformed themselves into men of passionate European action”, explains Segers.  Why? “Perhaps because they believed they had noticed a glimpse of realism that overpowered statistics and cost-benefit calculations: the realism of reconciliation and empathy.”

They got their wish, and Europe grew far beyond the borders of Western Europe. “Europe’s victory over history seemed real indeed”, says Segers, and “it was as though Jean Monnet’s dream came true”.

But now, 25 years after the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, the tide has turned. In Segers’s view, it is high time we open our eyes “and cut off the decade-long holiday of history and politics that we, Western Europeans, were allowed to enjoy during the nineties. We must re-engage in the new world of growing uncertainty, bluff, intimidations and geopolitics. And in doing so, do the utmost to rediscover the history of European integration, the history of reconciliation and empathy, as the source of strength that can help us to weather today’s storms.”

“This is the heavy burden of ‘Maastricht’; that we must practice what we preached in the founding decades of European integration and in our European treaties – but now in a world of escalating crisis and growing European vulnerability and insecurity. We must find new ways to safeguard the high hopes of human rights. We have to be creative and be brave enough to rethink and reimagine our Europe in order to prevent it from transforming into a doomed ancient regime.

“European brilliance stems from doubt, and from the hunger for knowledge and insight that accompanies it. It stems from keeping on thinking and searching for roots. The day that Europe becomes lazy or complacent in such matters will be the day that catastrophe comes a step closer again at this side of paradise … where paradise still seems so close in many respects.”







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