Europe’s doubting generation shatters EU’s unity dream

The contrast between the Schuman Declaration of May 9, 1950, which launched the European unification project through the Coal and Steel Community, and the fearful bid to save Greece and rescue the euro of May 9, 2010, could not be more stark. Of course, in 1950 the Cold War was raging and recovery from World War II concentrated European minds. It was urgent to be imaginative — and the right people were in the right positions.

By Dominique Moisi

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Published: Thu 20 May 2010, 9:06 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:27 AM

Jean Monnet, who inspired the project, was pragmatic and daring. Robert Schuman, who presented the idea of unification to Europe’s leaders, was animated by a deep Christian faith that helped create miracles.

Different times, different people, different spirit. The seat of the College of Europe in Natolin, near Warsaw, is a near perfect barometer to test the morale of Europe. If the young European elites being trained there to occupy positions within the European Union’s institutions no longer believe in the EU’s future, something is really wrong. For if they don’t believe in Europe, who will?

On the Natolin campus, post-graduate students, representing more than thirty nationalities, live in what they themselves often describe as a “golden cage.” They interact (or should) to become what many may already have been prior to their arrival: “Europeans.” At least, this is the way things were and should be.

But, even in this uniquely protected environment, Europe is no longer the cause that it once was. Students tend to group themselves by nationalities more than they did in the past, as if they want familiar reassurances against the uncertainties of the present and the future.

When I started teaching International Relations in Natolin in 2002, all the college’s students were infused with the hopes stemming from the EU’s enlargement to Eastern Europe. They prepared for inclusion of eight former Communist countries (as well Cyprus and Malta) with almost quasi-religious fervour. Students from “Old Europe” were energised by the idealism and confidence emanating from their Polish, Czech, Estonian, and other compatriots. They all seemed full of optimism about their political and economic future.

The will to transcend the murderous trauma in the Balkans was also present. Watching students from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia confront their memories of the Balkan wars, “European students” had first-hand experience of what true “reconciliation” meant and what the rules of the game were in the greatest success the EU had known—transcending the Cold War and nationalist animosities.

On May 1, 2004, I celebrated EU enlargement with my students. We embraced each other under the blue flag with its 12 yellow stars. Of course, not everyone beyond the College of Europe’s campus shared this enthusiasm, especially not everyone in Old Europe, which often seemed to be accomplishing its “historical duty” with considerable reluctance. Today, in fact, as the financial and economic crisis unfolds before our eyes, it is ironic to compare the relative strength of Central Europe, behind a strong Poland, to the extreme vulnerability of Southern Europe, behind Greece.

Nowadays at the College of Europe, the “culture of doubt” among students from Old Europe seems to prevail over what was once the pragmatic confidence of students from New Europe. It is no longer the “good wind” from the East, but the “bad wind” from the EU’s South and parts of its West that carries the day.

Many students, if not the majority, are no longer on campus because they “believe” in Europe, but because they are full of doubts as to their capacity to find a job in their respective countries. They wish to acquire an additional diploma, even though they are already overqualified. They hope for an upturn in the economic climate, or to get a comparative advantage in the ferocious competition for first jobs. They are, above all, gaining time. Asked not about their motivations, but about their identities, the students from the College – with the exception of the Germans—do not naturally and spontaneously perceive themselves as Europeans first. They listen with sympathy, and sometimes even emotion, to the testimonies of the generation for whom Europe was synonymous with the ideal of reconciliation and reconstruction. But they desperately need a new narrative. The Union’s founding story is not their story, but the story of their parents or grandparents. They do not ask themselves what they can do for Europe, but what Europe can do for them in terms of jobs and salaries.

And they are more dubious than confident.

Dominique Moisi is a Visiting Professorat Harvard University and theauthor of The Geopolitics of Emotion

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