The Indispensable Continent: Why the World Still Needs Europe

Europe as a continent and a society didn’t just teeter on the precipice of destruction, it fell off — twice. It is from this history that the European Union has become a living dream of nonviolence and proof of the possibility of redemption, created from a cry for harmony and the necessity for coexistence. It is an effort born of the blood of the countless millions slaughtered in two devastating and senseless wars; an attempt by a continent finally spent of violence and strife to reach its ancient hands out past enmity and towards peace; the idea of those who said never again, and believed with the full conviction of their hearts that they could make war in Europe nothing more than a faded, fragile memory consigned to the depths of history.
Yet even with the legacy of war so stitched into its very fabric, the EU is just as much a product of the vision of forward-looking thinkers like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, and the magnanimity of a France willing to learn from, and not repeat, the failed history of its last great treaty. It is this simple beauty of Franco-German reconciliation upon which the EU rests. That a continent responsible for the grievous crimes of war, colonialism, slavery and oppression today often fills a new role as the world’s conscience should give us all hope in the prospects for progress and rebirth.

Forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered a grave warning: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” However it was Europeans who chose to invest more of their resources in their people than in their arms. Europe’s social “workfare” systems — as author Stephen Hill terms them — have brought its peoples incredible shared economic prosperity; that they are to fault for the Euro crisis is a myth. Europe, the world’s largest economy, boasts some of the lowest inequality among advanced nations, greater social mobility than the United States, and routinely tops world rankings for quality of life and the best cities in which to live. Social Darwinism was banished in favor of flexicurity, concrete actions like mandated vacation time, sick leave, maternity leave, childcare,and affordable education were put behind true “family values,” and those who fall ill are not forced to choose between bankruptcy and health.

Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Even as Europe has steadily disconnected itself from the church that preaches those commandments, it has gone further than the rest of the world — and certainly further than evangelical America — in recognizing them not as mere sentiments of charity, but as fundamental societal institutions.
While for far too long the world dithered and accomplished nothing regarding climate change, Europe has acted. It has acted with the realization that the consequences of global warming are not limited to textbook hypotheticals but will manifest in tragic ways for some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. With the average European responsible for less than half the emissions as the average American, Europe’s nations already lead the way in safeguarding the environment and shepherding sustainable use of natural resources. But the E.U. has gone farther still. In a fantastic display of its hallmark “soft power,” it has courageously chosen to prod the world into action by requiring that airlines participate in its Emissions Trading System, using access to the world’s largest market as leverage for compliance, even in the face of intense pressure from a multitude of other nations, including the U.S. and China.

Economic, social and environmental rights have even been embedded next to natural rights in the European Charter of Human Rights. Over this, the European Court of Human Rights stands guard — a crowning achievement of international law in its own right. This body, perhaps more than any other, has presided over a quiet revolution in the international approach to ensuring human dignity. The court is a harbinger of a future in which the community of nations itself will be willingly governed by the rule of law. So perhaps European values have not been so eloquently articulated as the preamble to the American Constitution, or so directly enshrined in an easily recited Bill of Rights. But exist they do, imbued as they are in the governing philosophies and societies of Europe’s nations.

None of this is said to overlook the existing problems with the European Union — its democracy deficit being undoubtedly the most serious issue that needs to be addressed. In addition, for many, it’s difficult to place a finger on what exactly a European identity is. Some reject the notion that Europeans are one people with one common destiny. They’re half right. Europe is many peoples with many destinies, as are we all, but our destinies are profoundly intertwined, more now than ever before.

Nations can inspire tremendous loyalty, community and sense of belonging. A flag can be a powerful enough symbol to cause one to fight for it, die for it, dedicate a life to serving it. But we have become too numerous, too disparate, too powerful for our human nature. We can no longer continue only to divide ourselves into national groupings and fight our petty fights. Laments over the lack of a European identity akin to a national identity miss the point — there is no European nation, nor should the EU attempt to artificially construct one. Europe’s distinct, diverse communities don’t have to end, don’t have to merge into an amorphous blob of uniformity, but they must become indelibly interconnected. In this, supranationality offers a bold new vision not just for Europe, but for the whole world as well.

Yet even with the Continent’s vast diversity, from Portugal to Prague, there does exists some tellingly European quality of the kind German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger alluded to when he said, “If you took me up blindfolded in a balloon and put me down in any European city, I would know it was Europe.” Perhaps Europeans can’t see this because they live it, and maybe it takes a foreigner to tell them. Europe has borne the sins of empire and hubris, and it has absorbed its historic guilt into its very nature. Instead of proud, it is self-reflective; instead of confident, it is doubtful and questioning. Maybe it also takes an outsider to tell Europeans that their star is bright, and their promise is deep. That the European story is not absent, but that even after thousands of years of history it is still being written.

Europe is Mahler’s fifth symphony. It is despair juxtaposed with promise, anguish through which can shine great joy, skepticism that cannot help but be tinged with exuberance, disparate forces that must be conducted into resounding unity that finishes by recalling all of the previous but ephemeral visions of paradise into one victorious finale.

It is a finale that Europe may very well not reach. It might get mired amidst discordant notes, its trials and travails proving too tough to triumph over. But that is not the ending that the world should hope for, that Europeans should hope for, or that they should resign themselves to when the way forward seems impassible. They may not be shooting for the moon, but they are nevertheless taking a giant leap for humankind. They are building a completely new city to glitter and beckon from an entirely different hill. For all of our sakes, Europe should succeed, because if it fails, then the world will have lost an irreplaceable and shining part of her soul.