European Integration and Identity

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the general lock-down most Europeans have experienced something they could not have imagined earlier. Travel bans, border controls, shortages in certain food supplies, a break-down of the health care system, economic slowdown might be a déjà vu phenomenon for older generations of the post-Communist bloc, but certainly a frightening prospect for most European citizens. In such times it is appropriate to reflect on the indisputable benefits of European cooperation such as lasting peace and stability, the established social, economic and cultural network, but also the inherent values of democracy, rule of law, freedom and respect of human dignity. 

Now that we have experienced a degree of confinement and all the frustrations that ensued, including the frightening responses from certain illiberal, populist and authoritarian political forces, we might learn to appreciate more our achievements but also get down to correcting some of our earlier mistakes and omissions. Similarly, the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Plan is a great opportunity for reflection. It was exactly 70 years ago this day that Robert Schuman, French foreign minister at the time  presented his plan for a European cooperation that eventually led to the European Union as we know it today. Schuman, together with Konrad Adenauer German chancellor, and Alcide de Gasperi Italian prime minister dreamt of a Europe that respects traditions of individual member states but simultaneously surmounts the greed, animosity and confinement inherent in nation states by cooperation and solidarity.

A new geopolitical constellation emerging in the post-war era (at least in the Western hemisphere) also supported the development of the concept of European cooperation. The plans of the architects of new Europe fortunately coincided with the will, interests and intentions of post-war US administrations. Success of the European community would have been inconceivable without the great financial impetus of the United States, i.e. the Marshall Plan, debt relief and restructuring of pre-war state debt, as well as the construction of the global institutions that safeguarded economic and political stability and prosperity for decades to follow. In sharp contrast to the years following WWI, when politicians lacking political finesse and intellect sought a settlement based on national humiliation and subjugation paved the way for yet another and even more devastating war, real statesmen took the helm to act in cooperation with solidarity for a better and more prosperous future. Apart from the conceptual synchronicity of the political elite there was a key element to the success that is often overlooked: a concurrence of shared common values. Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi hailed from the same conservative Christian-social school of thought. This ethos was the cornerstone of their vision for a new Europe.  

Despite the desire to unite, the Founding Fathers were aware of the realities of Europe and knew that although there are common traits, features or even roots shared by European nations, it has always been and remains a deeply divided continent in geographical, religious-cultural, and geopolitical sense. This is why from the outset they envisaged the European Community as a confederation of states working together in close cooperation and harmony but with a degree of sovereignty and national autonomy. Indeed, to this day the most characteristic attribute of Europe, even after seven decades of forced integration, is its geographic, political, cultural and economic complexity and diversity. 

No matter how difficult it might be for some to admit, but European integration has not resulted in the creation of a common European identity, a European society or even a common European public opinion, let alone a European political community. Does this mean that European integration has failed or that it has no purpose? Certainly not, as the merits and benefits of European cooperation are undisputable and irreversible. However, forced and deepening integration without the unambiguous definition of European values emanating from the common European heritage, institutions that not only proclaim it, but safeguard it, and put these values into practical measures understood and felt by 500 million European citizens will endanger achievements of the past decades. Europe has to be constructed on solidarity and cooperation based on Christian-social values embraced by its Founding Fathers.


Márton Gyöngyösi


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