Thirty Years Later, Europe has Lost its Bearings
Simone Disegni 8 November 2019

For those who were born in the ruins of the Berlin Wall, or right after, the are many aspects of the world that are taken for granted: travelling to virtually any corner of the Earth, for example; open communication in the lingua franca that English has become, save a few exceptions; but also the implicit idea of living in a “given” economic system, without alternatives. It may be disconcerting to think about, but none of these aspects was always so ubiquitous. For earlier generations, all three of these considerations would have been completely incomprehensible, maybe even naive. It is this discontinuity in mindset, between those who came before and those that came after that caused the Wall and the system supporting it to collapse.

An “adult” Europe was born that night thirty years ago, or at least it tried. We must pay homage to those who risked everything – their life, their destiny, their power – big or small – to guarantee freedom for the next generations and it is all that we can do to not forget how precious that gift really is. Pope Karol Wojtyla, whose delicate actions contributed to “unfreezing” Poland, those pan-European picnickers in Sopron that paved the way, or the victims of the Wall, killed in their tragic attempts at eluding the border guards are some of those protagonists whose stories are recalled in this special Dossier by Riccardo Cristiano, Marta Facchini, and Lorenzo Monfregola.

Freedom, therefore, is and remains the keystone of European life and we should take care to remember the fundamental liberties of speech, thought, press, religion, and association more often. “External” liberties have also been able to take root in this new Europe such as those of free circulation of people, goods, services, and capital, which form the cornerstone of the European Union, becoming the largest and most prolific free trade area in the world. The perfect contrast to the Iron Curtain is the Erasmus, and its children are the European citizens of this new Century. Nonetheless, this extraordinary treasure seems to have faded as the rest of the world has “grown-up” and become decisively more cynical, scaring Europe into closing in on itself.

At the political and cultural levels, who really knows today what Europe’s place is in the world?

Nationalists from around the globe could have an answer: from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, from their smaller European emulators to China’s Xi Jinping, they are all brought together by the almost explicit desire to reduce it to a folkloristic experiment, to fragment it to destruction in order to return to the power politics that challenge multilateralism. In case there were any doubts, an internal version of this model is Viktor Orban’s Hungarian laboratory, the only European nation to have been demoted to “partly free” by the independent watchdog, Freedom House, after a decade of systematic aggression towards political and religious pluralism, as well as towards ideas and independent institutions.

Are we really not able to react to this brazen aggression against all that was fought for by generations of Europeans?

As both the Tusk-Juncker era in Brussels as well as the more powerful Draghi-Merkel one in Germany are drawing to their natural ends, we should give due credit to the new European leadership that will soon, barring any last-minute surprises, take its place. Aside from some initial faux-pas – such as the mandate for protecting “the European way of life” assigned to the new Commissioner for Immigration – recognition should be given to Ursula Von der Leyen for outlining in its first speech at the European Parliament a “geopolitical” vision for the Union in the coming years. This vision imagines a more active and incisive role for the EU in large-scale global challenges such as technology and the environment as well, perhaps, as foreign policy.

This autumn, that has seen a resurgence of demonstrations around the globe, we remember how the effect of political participation – in the streets, and not behind screens – can be a formidable force for change. There is no better moment to “review” the universal worth of those values that Berliners and Eastern Europeans fought for thirty years ago: freedom and social justice. If we look around the planet, there are few places in which these values are observed and guaranteed as much as they are in Europe – that is of course, until we continue to care. That truly is the “European way of life”: we must give it substance and for the next thirty years, if possible, make it all of our fight.



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