The cursed and fantastic duality of Europe

Historically, Europe has given us both some of the best and some of the worst of what the world has seen. Now, as the EU trembles and our approach to the world is under pressure from all sides, we need a new European renaissance

It has been 60 years since the foundation for what we now know as the EU was laid. I was born three years earlier in post-war Denmark. My parents and my grandparents were active in the resistance against the German occupation during the war and housed both refugees and the persecuted until they could escape to the security of Sweden. This means that the long shadow of the world war reached all the way into my childhood bedroom, even though I am too young to have experienced the last great collapse of Europe first hand.

The EU was one of the responses of my parent’s generation to the tragedy of the Second World War. By means of trade and cooperation, former enemies were reconciled. Border posts were packed away, and we kissed each other on Interrail trips crisscrossing the continent. Some of us went even further, to study, live or work in the very same countries that we had fought during the war.

So while it might be easy more than 70 years later to forget the bombed out and lost Europe, the war-torn and divided continent that European cooperation grew out of, it is hard to underestimate what the EU has meant in terms of positive change for Denmark and for the European peoples. The close and binding cooperation has secured peace, prosperity and economic growth almost without historic precedent. Thank you for that, Europe.

Sum of its parts
This is all worth remembering, especially in the current political climate. Way too often, the EU is blamed when something goes badly, whereas the nation-state is celebrated when something goes well.

This isn’t just simplistic, it’s outright wrong. And for one reason alone: the EU is nothing more than the sum of all of us. We are the EU; no one else. It is ourselves that we reflect upon, all of our victories and defeats, our wise decisions and grave mistakes, as this cooperation turns 60.

For me, it is completely clear that Europe has produced some of history’s greatest accomplishments and some of its biggest setbacks. Europe has given us the best and the worst.

Think of the age of enlightenment, think of the freedoms we have fought for and have spread to the rest of the world. The right to believe what you want. Say what you want. Be who you want to be. Think of the welfare state, think of the humanism we have made the norm, the culture and the arts we have cultivated. It is truly stunning.

And on the other hand, think of the times we threw it all overboard and degenerated into conflict, war, and genocide. It has happened too often in European history. We have sacrificed progress for the special interests of nations.

This is why I remind myself (and anyone else that may be listening) that Europe can be the best and the worst. That is the cursed and fantastic duality of Europe. We can be progress and cooperation, and we can be war and catastrophe. History has shown that we are the best version of ourselves when we stand united.

A progressive future
When I look at Europe now, at our European cooperation, it is clear we are under pressure from ourselves and from others. Some even say that the EU is in crisis and in danger of collapsing, which we must take very seriously.

As Trump comes to power in the US, as Putin rattles his sabre from a more self-confident Russia, and as Erdogan hastens towards dictatorship, there is a very real need for a united Europe that sets the pace on the international scene. A Europe that lays out a progressive agenda and models civic involvement in the 21st century.

READ MORE: Learning to talk European

For these reasons, I hope that we use the 60th anniversary of European cooperation – and the fragile situation in which we find the EU – to strengthen the conversation about how the future of Europe should look. The EU must make more sense for more people, and contribute more effectively to the world around us. As I like to say, the alternative to the EU is a better EU. We must not give up on our cooperation, but we should and must invest far more in improving the way we work together.

As we have seen since the economic crisis hit Europe hard a decade ago, it is completely clear that the EU conceived solely as an economic relationship will not be enough. Not if we wish to secure solidarity across borders, be rooted in communities, and be relevant in both Denmark and Greece, so we can more directly and meaningfully address the challenges Europeans meet in their everyday lives.

Social neglect
My vision for the EU is to focus on creating a balance on the triple bottom line: the economic bottom line, the social bottom line, and the environmental bottom line. Economics isn’t everything – far from it. For that reason, the EU should craft initiatives that secure these three bottom lines in a balanced way.

It is about time that we acknowledge our neglect of the social dimension in European cooperation thus far. Look no further than what happened in Athens – and what happens at home – when salaries fall or jobs disappear. Going forward, we must change this.

At the same time, we must strengthen democracy and transparency in our European cooperation, so that we can all follow its decision-making processes. For that to happen, we propose a number of initiatives, including live streams of the meetings of important EU institutions, public access to many more key documents, as well as greater involvement and influence by national parliaments on European decision making.

Europe must also reclaim its international leadership role in fighting climate change – a position we have lost as the rest of the world increases its efforts and ambitions. Europe must once again be the world’s green beacon of hope.

READ MORE: Europe’s grassroots revolutions

This is how we Europeans can be our best. As an inspiration to the rest of the world. As those who, when standing at a crossroads, choose the hopeful and progressive direction rather than the reactionary and regressive path. As those who believe in cooperation over conflict. Those who believe we are better together than apart. Those who know that we can only solve trans-boundary and global challenges when we unite.

In recent years, we have seen a wide variety of exciting new movements form and thrive across Europe. People dissatisfied with the status quo have been taking back their democratic authority with a willingness and courage to rethink the way we have organised our society and our way of working together.

I hope like crazy that all these citizen initiatives, all these new forms of cooperation, all these new bridges connecting people with wild ideas represent the beginning of a new European renaissance that will revitalise not only our cooperation, but the way we work, live, think and love. We Europeans have done it before. I think we can do it again. M

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By Uffe Elbæk

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