Victor Hugo coined in 1849 an idea that comes back over and over again
In an already quite popular interview published by the Financial Times this past week, the French president Emmanuel Macron presented his views of the covid crisis, future consequences, and Europe. He’s part of a bunch of intellectual politicians, so scarce these days. In his speech, he works with concepts, with ideas, with a strategic approach more than tactics, and he says things like “multilateralism is under threat because globalization created a growing hegemony.” You can agree with him or not, but at least you need to admit that he’s one step forward of the superficial political jargon, and of course of the scary irresponsible messages we’re unfortunately forced to listen to these days.
Europe has created, at least during the latest 40 years, a profile of “Capitalism with a Human Face”, as Samuel Brittan described 25 years ago. Addressing the ethical foundations of competitive capitalism from a strong and explicit individualist perspective, but where communities of individuals should help their least fortunate members, and having, to this end, a scheme of basic income support.
This “European profile” is based on Welfare State, where dominant public sectors have been providing the population with universal coverage for health, education, pensions, and many public services. Among the most powerful economies and societies of the world, the European model has been halfway between the Darwinist approach of the USA, and the full control imposed by the Communist Party in China. And the current pandemic crisis made these models emerge with even more clarity.
For sure, Europe has developed this idea only out of a lot of suffering. It took such a dramatic chain of events like almost consecutive WWI and WWII to realize that something should be done to avoid a complete collapse, and the Bretton Woods conference and Marshall Plan paved the way to the European fathers and founders.
Robert Schuman due to his Declaration on 9th May 1950, Jean Monnet, who was the latter’s source of inspiration and first president of the High Authority of the ECSC, Konrad Adenauer, the German Chancellor who brought the young FRG into the project and also Alcide de Gasperi, President of the Italian Council, Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian Prime Minister, Johan Willem Beyen, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Joseph Bech, the head of the Luxembourg government. Seven founders for the emerging ECSC — which was heading towards a great future — the European Union.
Concerning the views Macron presented, there are two different views when confronting the crisis. First, the ones who want to come back to the previous situation as soon as possible (as China and the USA are trying to do). And on the other hand, those who want to recover while taking advantage to create something new.
The question here is whether Europe is finally ready to overcome the reluctance of centuries to the creation of a genuinely single political and social space. During the latest 70 years, the continent advanced to incredible heights, building upon the economic alibi of an integrated market. Maastricht Treaty and the Euro Area, already in force for 25 years, might have seemed a bizarre idea very a few years before. But today it’s a reasonably consolidated idea, with a single currency and one European Central Bank, whom all the states involved gave away its monetary powers.
History repeats. And the famous speech that Victor Hugo pronounced during the Peace Congress at Paris in 1849, more than 170 years ago, shows that we’re all a product of our time:
A day will come when you, France — you, Russia — you, Italy — you, England — you, Germany — all of you, nations of the continent, shall, without losing your distinctive qualities and your glorious individuality, be blended into a superior unity, and shall constitute a European fraternity (…). A day will come when the only battle-field shall be the market open to commerce, and the mind-opening to new ideas. A day will come when bullets and shells shall be replaced by votes by the universal suffrage of nations.
Victor Hugo was, for sure, influenced by what he lived and the reality at that time. As Vicepresident of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, said in 2012:
This vision can only be understood against the background of the historic upheavals in nineteenth-century Europe that Victor Hugo experienced at first hand: several wars between France and Germany, Victor Hugo’s enforced exile in the Channel Islands because of his opposition to Napoleon III, the traumatic annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany after the war of 1870/71, and lastly his involvement in the laborious birth of the Third Republic in France. Understandably Victor Hugo yearned then for peace and democracy on the continent.
Eight years ago, she was advocating again during the worst times for Europe after the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession, for the United States of Europe. Shortly after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, Helmut Kohl proclaimed a “United States of Europe” as an irreversible goal — although, in the end, the new Treaty had only achieved monetary union and not a political union, as Kohl had hoped.
Kroes final words at that speech in 2012, quoting a Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart book, can be repeated today: “the pressure of the crisis may unleash a dynamism that we cannot imagine in our wildest dreams. In the end, the United States of Europe may come about much faster than most people think.”
Now it’s time to know whether this current health and environmental emergency are grave enough for the citizenship of extremely different cultural backgrounds to gather around the same idea. Let’s find out id they can finally turn this “business-friendly” environment into something more profound, which was at the root of the initial approach.
Some steps seems to go slowly into this directions. Or at least, it seems to come back to a certain joint action with the involvement of the 27 countries, to some sense of unity. These days, the European Union agreed to launch a Recovery Fund, still without an specific amount, but which could allocate between half a trillion and two trillion euros to support to tackle the impact on unemployment, SMEs, and individuals. Such an amount would need to lead to a long-avoided question, because of its daunting dimension: fiscal union, the last step to a truly economic and political union. According to German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, Europe is now standing at a crossroads. “We will only be able to do such big solidarity packages if we go one step further in the direction of the fiscal union.”
It is a claim of many voices around the world today. Many have pointed out the immorality of our system of greed and self-centered gain, its inefficiency, its cruelty, its shortsightedness, and its danger to planet and people. But, above all, the logic of self-interest is superficial in that it fails to recognize the obvious: every private accomplishment is possible only on the basis of a thriving commons — a stable society and a healthy environment.
Probably Europe is today in the best position to win that race, in case the countries want to be in for the competition.