In popular imagination there is a lack of story about Europe. Europe disappears from the map after the end of the Second World War, then surfaces again at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and emerges once more with the present question as to whether the UK should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of Europe.
This lack of perspective about our place in Europe plays into deeply held prejudices. The Empire, the Commonwealth – the English speaking peoples. This has meant that Europe, generally called the ‘Continent’, has never been a priority. Today there are few EU flags flying on our public buildings, unlike in other European cities.
Moreover, the European question is complex. Most politicians and economists are unable to write in plain English about Europe which makes it easy for the Far Right to make xenophobic statements about ‘immigration’ and ‘sovereignty’.
Our place is in Europe. One of the most trenchant advocacies for the UK remaining in the EU was expressed by Geoffrey Howe, a former foreign secretary during Margaret Thatcher’s administration, in an article in the Observer on the 18th May 2013. I will not repeat his arguments except to say that if the UK turns its back on Europe we will be diminished in every way – become a little England.
Because of the complexity of the institutions which have grown over the years and which make up the European Union, I will write about what I know and what I have experienced of the European Commission in Sarajevo, Pristina, Belgrade and Brussels over the last sixteen years, bearing in mind that Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo are seeking to become members of the EU.
Philip Pullman states: ‘Stories are the most important thing in the world; without stories we wouldn’t be human’. And that is why, lacking a popular story, I write about what I know.
Commentators about Europe are gloomy about Europe’s future. They catalogue the disillusionment with political elites. Europe is losing respect for its politicians. And leaders from the Far Right are emerging with their dangerous rhetoric about racism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism; and inhumane treatment of minorities like the Roma and refugees is becoming acceptable as part of the public discourse.
There is a structural problem. All the EU states operate independently. There is no common treasury. So when it is said ‘ Europe’ must do something about migration, there is no agreement. Each state has its own policy on migration, and each one differs markedly from the other. Some like Sweden have a liberal open policy; others like neighbouring Denmark are strictly exclusive.
The EU is perceived as an old people’s club – middle aged men (mostly) – getting in and out of cars ready for more talks in Brussels. Yet, those in their twenties and thirties take the freedom to travel in Europe for granted – ignorant of Europe’s story, of its scarred history.
Meanwhile the Russian bear is stirring. Europe has not found a way to curb these disturbances. Is Russia exploiting Europe’s weakness?
When there is talk of Greece leaving the Eurozone, analysts go into overdrive: the Eurozone will collapse, the EU will fall apart, and Armageddon will have arrived.
Lastly in this gloomy scenario there is the threat from Islamic State. If Christians and other ancient religions are being wiped out in the Near East, will it be our turn next in Europe?
Recently the Times and Financial Times reported that each member of the European Parliament will be receiving an additional £18,000 a year to spend on assistants. Each MEP has a budget of £275,000 for staff. This means taxpayers will face a million pound bill for a five year term. It will bring total potential spending on assistants for seven hundred and fifty MEPs to more than £206 million a year. German MEPs, vociferous in their call for austerity, particularly for poorer countries, have also been the campaigners in favour of these increases. On average, assistants in Brussels earn about £7000 a month.
Given that Greece and Spain are in melt down, it is incredible these proposals are on the table: incredible and also wrong.
Why is this? Simply because the EU headquarters in Brussels and Strasbourg are too large. They devote more attention to themselves, their positions and offices than to the purpose for which they exist.
Furthermore, the European Commission headed by unelected Commissioners, who are effectively unaccountable and control large pots of money, operates on an old fashioned model: hierarchical and patriarchal, even when women are employed in top jobs. New ways of working in smaller groups, where the lap top becomes the office, have not arrived in Brussels. The working environment needs to be more like a plate than a pyramid.
In the Balkans I have met many officials – trying to interest them in my work, and seeking advice for funding. More often than not, these officials are withdrawn and disinterested. They operate in a working environment where they are not appreciated. I doubt if they begin meetings with: ‘And how are things for you?’ So their energies are focused on preserving their jobs.
I cannot recall one official who is passionate about his or her work. On my first visit to Kosovo I was told by a leading local NGO that at weekends internationals
depart for Vienna or Thessalonica, and return on Monday.
So when a Commissioner appears and makes a statement he or she seems to come from another planet.
Here is a story from Kosovo. The tone, the style is what I want to draw attention to. The story might be different in other countries like Bosnia, economically dependent on the EU, but the tone and style are the same.
Dmitris Avramopoulos is the EU Commisioner for Migration. Avramopoulos was minister for foreign affairs and a former mayor of Athens. He came to Pristina on March 10 this year. He met the president, the prime minister and a couple of ministers. The purpose of his visit was to discuss the mass exodus from Kosovo which had been taking place over a period of months. At its height a thousand people a day were travelling to the Hungarian border via Serbia. He also came to discuss the process of the liberalising of visas. At the end of his visit, he held a press conference. His statement can be found on his website under Announcements.
Reading his statement, ten words come to mind:
ALOOF, DETACHED, TIRED.
He comes across as a head teacher reprimanding an unruly pupil.
The president of Kosovo was singled out for some good work she had done. She is a model for a head of state – shrewd, calm and unruffled. I have met her. She did not need to be commended for just doing her job.
‘Unless you do this, I personally will not be able to recommend, etc…’
He said we had to find out why this mass migration had taken place. The commissioner has fourteen full time advisors in Brussels. The Exodus had been widely commented on and analysed. But the advisors failed to notice, or failed to brief the commissioner. He also gave no indication that he knew about a long tradition in Kosovo of migration from impoverished rural communities.
The commissioner implied that unless Kosovo cleaned up its act about corruption he personally would not support the process for the liberalisation of visas.
The EU sets itself up as a moral tutor. But Europe is in no position to do this. In a wide ranging article in the London Review of Books, The Italian Disaster, Perry Anderson describes the pervasive corruption of the political class across Europe (LRB 22 May 2014).
In the course of his statement the commissioner said the EU is assisting Kosovo in its economic development. I turned up the EU plans for 2014-2020. I read three pages and then gave up. I could not understand what the writers were trying to say.
The people of Kosovo deserve better than this. Kosovo has been invited to integrate with Europe. Then a tired, tawdry and sclerotic way of managing puts every difficulty in its way.
The Kosovo story is an illustration of how Planet Brussels functions in the Balkans, and I guess elsewhere.
Two other matters are pressing. One is how illiterate many internationals are about religion in the Balkans. Religion is not just about what people believe and do, but is an expression of people’s identity.
The second is the way in which Europe has become ‘marketised’. Rowan Williams in a review of David Marquand’s An Essay on Britain Now writes: ‘ The issue is whether public service or public good can be so completely translated into the language of market provision that nothing remains that cannot be rendered in business models – no goal without profitable outcomes.’ (New Statesman 30th May 2014).
No wonder that the debate about the Referendum perpetually focuses on the economy and business.
To address this matter requires a huge intellectual and spiritual effort.
REFORMING THE EU COMMISSION.
The commission needs reform. It needs to be accountable, more flexible and less managerial. Its officials need to seize opportunities and not miss them.
A story from Bosnia: in February 2014 Bosnia erupted. Across Bosnia people gathered, set up what became known as ‘plenums’ and expressed their frustrations, sometimes violently, against endemic poverty, hunger, and resentment against politicians. The EU was alarmed. Stefan Fule, then Commissioner for Enlargement, flew into Sarajevo, lectured the politicians and flew out. What he should have done was to take time to meet the leaders of these citizens assemblies – even though they were not elected but self-appointed, and listen – listen as if his job depended on it. This was a missed opportunity.
The European Commission needs to scale down its headquarters in Brussels, and become local. Its officials need to learn to listen. They need to move out of their fortress-like offices. They need to stay close to the ground listening to the cries for help, the demands for justice and the growing protest movements. The European Commission should be advocates for all the marginalised, the forgotten and unwanted, and so find its role as THE CONSCIENCE OF EUROPE.
A PROPOSAL – DOWN TO EARTH
‘So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming, and let us speak
The unstrange word, as it behoves us here,
Move life, move minds and make
New meanings flare’.
(From the Beacons of Bealtaine by Seamus Heaney – written for the occasion of admitting ten new member states in Phoenix Park Dublin, when Ireland held the Presidency of the EU, 1st May 2004. Bealtine is a Gaelic holiday marking the start of summer.)
So what will it take to ‘move life, move minds, and make new meanings flare’?
As I was preparing this paper, I reread Pope Francis’ speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on November 25 2014. I realised that what I was writing reflected the Pope’s critique of Europe and how especially his understanding of the human person, not as a cog in the economic machine, not even as a citizen, but as one who is endowed with ‘transcendental dignity’ – so everything must be done to recognise and enhance that dignity.
So a programme for the CONSCIENCE OF EUROPE will have at least four elements.
A first is to establish a network across Europe of those groups who are already struggling for change.
A second is to ratchet up inter-faith activities, some already well established across Europe, so those in synagogues, mosques and churches stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with each other for the benefit of their communities.
A third is to honour artists of every sort, and particularly film makers, who recognise and tell the stories of the migrant, the displaced person, thus reminding us of the human face of those who are labelled as this or that.
And fourthly there is the intellectual and demanding task of dismantling the marketising of the state, and looking for new ways of organising our affairs.
For myself I have always been inspired by the words of St Irenaeus, inscribed on the plaque honouring Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury: The Glory of God is the living Man, and the life of man is a vision of God.