THE 10 DAYS OF EUROPE | 9: Yearning to remain optimistic
1 January 2011
Novelist Tim Parks argues for a Europe built on a shared vision, one that gets excited about refashioning the world rather than fighting to keep it as it is.
The challenges multiply and Europe remains conceited and confused. Whatever the eventual affects of climate change, dwindling natural resources, mass immigration, militant Islam, a declining America and a strengthening China, it is clear that our present way of life is unsustainable. Huge changes must be made. For the first time such changes will have to be guided and negotiated at global level. It is hard to imagine Europe as it is presently constituted finding the unity, vision and courage to make a contribution. The alternative, alas, is war.
Through the eighties and nineties, as the European Community expanded and consolidated, I was suspicious of the process. Living all my adult life in Italy, I was not the typical English sceptic, anxious to preserve the rags of British imperialism. It was the phobic, defeatist tone of the rhetoric that was so discouraging. Scared of another war between ourselves, we had to tie ourselves together in a mesh of commercial rules and regulations governed by tier after tier of bureaucracy; scared of threats from outside we had to form a solid block in collective defence, against agricultural products from Africa, industrial manufactures from China, Russia’s empire to the east.
Nations joined Europe, not as converts to an exciting ideology, but as realists negotiating surrender. Convinced that a separate national destiny was an outdated delirium, they nevertheless hung on to whatever shreds of sovereignty they could. The reassuring aspect was that Europe never attracted the visceral loyalty that can persuade people to die for a flag; the Community boasts no martyrs. On the other hand its only momentum was bureaucratic; there was no proud, elected centre of power taking charge of our collective future. While the rhetoric spoke of equals pooling their destiny, decisions evidently emerged from the shifting antagonisms and alliances between France, Germany and Britain. It was never easy to be a believer.
Overwhelming mood is conservative and petty
In Italy the hypocrisy and opportunism of the process was inescapable: Europe offered a rhetoric of piety and progress which substituted for any real debate. Its institutions could be blamed for the hard economic decisions that weak coalition governments couldn’t otherwise make. Its funds could be raided and defrauded, its rules flouted when they didn’t suit. Despite its vaunted Europeanism, Italy like every other country sees itself as a separate entity milking what it can from the group. Selfishness actually seems to grow as sovereign identity is ceded. The UK’s only claim to greater honesty was that it never hid this cynicism. The long Blair/Brown stand off from the Euro – “we will join when it makes economic sense for us to join” – may look like intelligent pragmatism, but is hardly good for the soul, or even the markets. To embrace an idea with enthusiasm or, alternatively, to reject it on principle are decisions which alter economic conditions and stimulate all kinds of positive behaviour.
The ambivalence as to where power lies in Europe today, affects every area of life. No single country sees itself as decisive on the world stage and no institution expresses the collective will. The possibility for bold vision and sweeping change is not there. No one is responsible because no one can be. The overwhelming mood is conservative and petty: let us preserve our privileged way of life at all costs; let us get what we can while we can. Listen to the rhetoric of car users’ lobbies when the price of petrol goes up a cent and you have your finger on the pulse. It is a mood of denial. Realities such as climate change are accepted at the intellectual level but ignored in practise. They exist in a separate dimension where we are powerless. What we can do is fight price hikes. Nothing must impinge on our standard of living.
A deeply corrosive conceit
One result of all this is that the continent’s brightest minds, the most intelligent and spirited, whether young and old, no longer think of engaging in public life as a career. At best they involve themselves from time to time in some worthy protest movement. For the most part they withdraw to their individual lives, writing off the collective for lost. This retreat of talent from public service is the hallmark of decadence. It will produce some good art. But it will not get us out of gaol.
Yet one yearns to remain optimistic. Perhaps the very urgency of the problems will eventually wake us from the disgrace of our present torpor. What kind of Europe would I like to see for the future? First and foremost, one that knew itself as a community built on a shared vision, one that could get excited about refashioning the world rather than fighting to keep it as it is, one that was courageous and positive, rather than phobic and negative. Such a community would find a way of expressing itself politically, even through the maze of institutions that presently blur the exercise of power. It might even prove seductive enough to draw its immigrants into enthusiastic integration rather than reluctant cohabitation.
How could such a change of heart be achieved? I have no idea and little hope. Certainly, Europeans must set aside once and for all the notion that they are in some way superior, that their culture has already expressed the apex of human civilization and artistic achievement. This conceit remains and is deeply corrosive. Even more crucially, the notion that life is about asserting one’s will in the accumulation of goods and amiable partner in a castle home will have to go. In the end, I suppose, it is a deep change of perception as to what well-being is and how life might be lived that I would like to see. Openness, generosity and tolerance seem essential. But I’d better stop the wish-list here. Just expressing these ideas one feels ingenuous and futile. It’s not going to happen. To talk about the future of Europe is to risk serious depression.