The European Union is not perfect, but it is the most successful experiment in managing relations between nation-states.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was a pioneering novel that portrayed the lives of people from across the social spectrum. In a similar way, the wave of emotion felt by Europeans watching the recent images of Notre-Dame in flames reminded us that we are more than a collection of nations and their symbols. We are Europeans, and we have a duty to treasure the peace and prosperity of our continent as much as the great cathedral of Paris.
It has become a common refrain that Europeans don’t identify with “Europe”, but instead rally around more local and national shared identities—which the populists can take advantage of. Nationalist politicians exploit people’s natural desire to belong to a group, recognisable through shared symbols and artefacts from anthems to flags, from the language they speak to the football team they support. Populists draw lines between these groups to divide people into “us” and “them” and to assign blame to others for any misfortune. These kinds of simple solution have gained a lot of ground in Europe in recent years.
In the run-up to elections for the European Parliament in May, many voices across the political spectrum will fire criticism—sometimes well founded, more often not so—at the European Union. It’s important for positive Europeans to make themselves heard in response.
The spontaneous outpouring of emotions triggered by the blaze in “Our Lady of Paris” is proof that we already have something better than the populists would have us believe. You could see it in posts on social media. People were shocked and moved to tears—not just in France, but everywhere. This is a testament to our common culture and our shared history. Certainly most of us have, or have had, the iconic cathedral on our “must visit” list when travelling to Paris. It is also proof of the age-old adage that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters helped ensure that Notre-Dame is not gone. But we were suddenly made aware of something extremely valuable to us as a European civilisation. Under threat of losing it, we came to appreciate its value. It is my firm belief that this is emblematic of a lot of the “Europe” that we take for granted: the peace, the economies of scale, the freedom of movement, the shared commitment to liberal democratic values and our rights. Like some of our cultural symbols, should any of these come under threat, we as Europeans will suddenly be reminded of how much we treasure them. And we all do treasure them, despite national borders.
The same phenomenon occurs when terrorists strike or other tragedies take place. We realise that it could have been us, that we are not so different from the parents of victims that we see on our screens. At such times, we stand in solidarity with people ostensibly quite different from us, people who normally eat lunch at a different hour than we do, and maybe even, as they greet, kiss each other on the cheeks three times instead of once, twice or not at all.
Crucial European Elections
This all goes to show that the European Parliament elections on 23–26 May are crucial for the EU. Consensus-building is going to be harder if the elections send more extremists and anti-Europe politicians to the new parliament. It would make the EU much less effective, which is of course what the populists want. The European project would be put under pressure across the continent.
The Notre-Dame fire is a prime example of how it is much easier to destroy something than to build something together. The fire wrecked parts of the structure that had taken close to 200 years to complete. What burnt in hours will now again probably take years to repair. You could say that laying the cornerstone of the EU took place around 60 years ago, and it is still under construction. But the populists are riding high in the polls because it’s easier to rally people around tearing something apart than to get them to agree on what our next spires should look like. Building a wall is the most they can even dream of creating. Now go and compare that to the flying buttresses, gargoyles and rose windows of Notre-Dame.
But I am an optimist, and I am avidly pro-European. As a young student in the United States in the late 1980s, I remember watching from afar as the Cold War ended and Germany came together again. Those years defined my path in life. I have spent nearly 30 years trying to understand EU policy as an academic, bureaucrat, politician and manager. I learned that the EU is in a constant state of crisis management. We move from one big problem to another, but we always manage to find a way out. This is now Europe’s moment to offer a solution.
Improving the Union
The EU is not perfect. It never will be. Still, it is the most successful experiment in managing relations between nation-states. But we spend too much time highlighting our differences. The vote on 23–26 May is a test of our desire to work together and preserve European goals and values. The EU is based on respect for human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. In uncertain times, these values remind us why we are together—to promote peace, security and justice without internal borders; to promote economic growth and social progress; to ensure environmental protection and fight discrimination; and to encourage technological progress.
It is always good to start by thinking about more tangible things we can accomplish together. The impact of the fire at Notre-Dame on our collective consciousness makes it only natural that we should work together across Europe to help restore the cathedral to its former glory, as president Macron has already pledged to do. The European Investment Bank was created some 60 years ago to contribute to “the balanced and steady development of the internal market in the interest of the Union” and to help finance “projects of common interest to several member states”. I believe we have just seen that things like Notre-Dame cathedral are integral to the common interest of the European Union and, should there be a need, we should all pitch in. We should take this opportunity to check that the other cultural artefacts of our common Europeanness are well protected and taken care of.
The tangible results of EU cooperation are what my place of employment, the EU’s bank, is all about. We help companies innovate, expand and add jobs. We boost investment across the EU and encourage public–private partnerships. Our financial support does more to help the climate and the economy than almost any other institution in the world, but we also make certain that every one of our financing projects helps ordinary people. We invest in bakers, toy-makers, insulation for your home, new medicines, hospitals, public buses, streetlights, clean water, batteries for electric cars, solar power and wind farms. The EIB is proof of what EU cooperation can achieve, in practical terms, towards improving all our lives.
This kind of solidarity is what we also need over the future of the euro, the single market, sustainable growth and the circular economy. Let’s take these things step by step. If we get them right in the next few years, we will look back on this time as formative in the building of true European integration.