Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling
I’m told a rock band is at its best when it’s a little transgressive: when it pushes the bounds of so-called good taste, when it shocks, when it surprises. Well, U2 is kicking off its tour in Berlin this week, and we’ve just had one of our more provocative ideas: during the show we’re going to wave a big, bright, blue EU flag.
I’m guessing that even to a rock audience, waving an EU flag these days is either an annoyance, a bore, a kitsch reference to the Eurovision Song Contest but to some of us it has become a radical act. Europe, which for a long time triggered a yawn, today sparks a kitchen-table screaming match. Europe is the theatre of powerful, emotional, clashing forces that will shape our future. I say our future, because there is no way to deny that we are all in this boat together, in seas churned up by extreme weather and extremist politics.
Europe is a hard sell in Europe these days
Europe is a hard sell in Europe these days. This is true even though there has never been a better place to be born than in Europe during the last 50 years. Though we have to work a lot harder to spread the benefits of prosperity, Europeans are better educated, better shielded from abuses by big corporations, and leading better, longer, healthier, and flat-out happier lives than people in any other region of the world. Yes, happier. They measure these things.
Ireland is a place with a special emotional connection to Europe, and the idea of it. Maybe it’s because Ireland is a tiny rock in a big sea, eager to be part of something larger than ourselves (for most things are larger than ourselves). Maybe it’s because we used to feel closer to Europe than we did to some of the people on our island.
Belonging to Europe enabled us to become a better, more confident version of ourselves. We stand a bit taller among friends. Also, the closer the north and the south of Ireland got to Europe, the closer we got to each other. Propinquity crossed the border and brought the barriers down.
For sore historical reasons, we do not take sovereignty lightly. If the definition of sovereignty is the power of a country to govern itself, Ireland saw that working with other nations gave us a greater power than we could wield on our own, and a greater agency over our own fate.
As a European I feel proud thinking back to when Germans welcomed frightened Syrian refugees (I’d feel prouder had more countries stepped up); proud of Europe’s fight to end extreme poverty and climate change; and, yes, extraordinarily proud of the Good Friday agreement and how other countries have rallied behind Ireland on the border issue, revived by Brexit. I feel privileged to have witnessed the longest stretch of peace and prosperity ever on the European continent.
But all these achievements are under threat, because respect for diversity—the premise of the whole European system—is being challenged. As my countryman John Hume has said: ‘All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat…Difference is of the essence of humanity,’ and should be respected, celebrated, and even cultivated.
Zero-sum game was a suicide pact
We’re seeing a spectacular loss of faith in that idea. Fueled by the unevenness of globalization, and a failure to manage the migration crisis, nationalists say diversity is a danger. Seek refuge, they tell us, in sameness; drive out the different. Their vision for the future looks to me a lot like the past: identity politics, grievance, violence. Nationalism is an equal opportunity discriminator.
The generation that endured the world war saw the deadly toll of that way of thinking. They found a path out of the rubble, over concrete walls and razor wire, to draw back the Iron Curtain sketched on Stalin’s easel, and rejected the idea that our differences are all that define us.
They understood that zero-sum thinking was a suicide pact.
I love our differences: our dialects, our traditions, our peculiarities, “the essence of humanity,” as Hume put it. And I believe they still leave room for what Churchill called “an enlarged patriotism”: plural allegiances, layered identities, to be Irish and European, German and European, not either/or. The word patriotism has been stolen from us by nationalists and extremists who demand uniformity. But real patriots seek unity above homogeneity. Reaffirming that is, to me, is the real European project.
Can we get put our hearts into this struggle? There may be no romance to a “project” or sexiness in a bureaucracy, but as the great Simone Veil said, ‘Europe is the grand design of the 21st century’. Its values and aspirations make Europe so much more than just a geography. They go to the core of who we are as human beings, and who we want to be. That idea of Europe deserves songs written about it, and big bright blue flags to be waved about.
To prevail in these troubled times Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.