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Don’t believe those who say a pan-European public sphere is impossible

In Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La Grande Illusion, German first world war commander Rauffenstein invites his prisoner Boeldieu, a captured fellow officer and aristocrat from the French side, to dine with him. They bond over the discovery that they used to frequent the same establishments in Paris. Partly elegiac, partly satirical, the film remains a landmark commentary on European history.

It also serves to debunk an old criticism of the European project: that it could never succeed because there was no sense of common belonging or purpose between Europe’s different nations. In fact, Europe has always been criss-crossed with social, political and personal ties, often stronger than national ones.

As Renoir illustrated, members of the same social class have more in common with each other across borders than they do across classes in the same nation (the film’s working-class characters, too, fraternise over food and shared destinies). At various times in history, European commonality has equalled or surpassed national fellow-feeling in institutions ranging from royalty and the church to the communist movement, football, and artistic and intellectual activity.

Today, too, a European public sphere is visibly coming into being. “There’s more and more of a trans-European debate”, observes Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform, a London-headquartered think-tank with offshoots in Brussels and Berlin. “There are still national bubbles but a sense that we’re all in this debate together.” Growing interest in other countries’ politics flows from an awareness of interdependence — Odendahl says it started with the eurozone crisis — and even if it happens mostly at the level of elites, it is “passed on” by them to the national debate.

“There is definitely a European economics,” says Beatrice Weder di Mauro, president of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, a network of economists. It serves a community of “people deeply interested in . . . how to make the European project stick and grow and deepen”. The CEPR’s VoxEU online platform has been the go-to place for economists sharing ideas about European policy questions.

This intellectual ferment is not confined to the policy wonks. A crowdfunded effort is under way to launch a European Review of Books (disclosure: I donated), echoing the New York and London incarnations of that genre of cultural publication.

Nor is it always driven by privileged classes with a vested interest in legitimising the institutions in which they work. The most profound exchange of ideas recently has been about what European identity means for Europeans with roots in places that suffered European colonialism. Writers such as Johnny Pitts and Hans Kundnani are widening our understanding in ways that are critical, provocative and a source of a much richer pan-European fellow-feeling in the future.

Brexit is the glaring anomaly in this picture. Ironically enough, the UK referendum on Europe has accelerated the emergence of a European public sphere. It spurred the CER to set up offices elsewhere, while the CEPR is moving its headquarters from London to Paris, partly thanks to an offer of public funding. Presumably the French government sees the value of bringing together people “who want to think about how to manage Europe”, in Weder di Mauro’s words.

Does this matter? It is early days. But the risk is that, just as a robust European public sphere emerges that many in the UK pronounced impossible, Britain’s links with it weaken. Domestic preoccupations, as well as the government’s desired global orientation, could well crowd out European matters beyond Brexit-related questions from Britain’s national conversation. To many, the Channel already feels wider.

Against this, there are efforts to maintain and strengthen ties. The Europaeum, a group of top European universities set up explicitly to increase their interconnectedness and promote thinking about Europe, includes Oxford and St Andrews. And English rules supreme as the language of Europe’s debates. But even in this heyday of remote connectivity, where conversations take place and who convenes them still matters.

La Grande Illusion illustrated something else. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu had a lot in common, but none of that prevented them from meeting as enemies in a devastating war. A strong sense of European commonality is no guarantee of pursuing common interests. But without even that, we would surely be doomed. We should be glad the sceptics are wrong to say it’s impossible.


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