Our quest for a European identity

Euro-scepticism is on the rise again and the European dream seems to be receding from people’s imaginations.

British Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he leaves a European Union leaders'' summit in Brussels [REUTERS]
British Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he leaves a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels [REUTERS]

Some readers are by now familiar with a few of the chapters in my life. Born in Jordan, I spent my formative years in France and my longer years as a law student and practitioner in the UK. And having come to Europe from the Middle East, I still recall how I was mesmerised by my new realities and surroundings. No wars, less corruption, institutions that functioned well, people who waited politely and patiently at long queues, let alone all the greenery everywhere as well as a sense of fun, coupled with unselfconscious freedom.

But more gripping for me was the fact that I was now living in the European Union – the EU for short – that had been put together to ensure that the ravages of two world wars were not visited upon Europe again.

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So many men of different nationalities and backgrounds had striven to put their differences aside and labour for a European project that was meant to end the wars between neighbours and establish a system of cooperation between populations. And yes, despite the rhetoric of politicians today, political unity was the ultimate long-term aspiration.

European dream

The founding fathers of the EU were not all veteran politicians. They were also lawyers, businessmen and resistance fighters – in a nutshell, an assorted group of people who espoused the same ideals for a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

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They sought a European Dream – as it was called then – precisely because they had experienced the horrors of war and so shared the same ideas for a peaceful, united, stable and prosperous Europe.

They sought a European Dream ... precisely because they had experienced the horrors of war and so shared the same ideas for a peaceful, united, stable and prosperous Europe.


On a less visionary, more practical level, those EU architects also yearned to create a time of peace and prosperity – both politically and economically – and wanted to move from one country to another without visas or entry and exit permits.

Hailing from a region where visas are compulsory everywhere, and where obtaining an official document is often a circuitous and long-winded process that invites bribery, was it any wonder that the Old Continent held me in its spell?

Yet today, some three decades later, Europe has distressingly lost its way. It has mislaid its compass. It no longer has a proactive and far-sighted vision.

Perhaps this is because it is harder to manage 28 disparate countries or perhaps because the sense of rusty nationalism is still alive. Or it might simply be that some countries believe that closer union dulls their own sovereign identities. Economic ties: yes! Political integration: no!

High rates of unemployment

The European Union today faces social, political and economic crises with high rates of unemployment – especially among the youth – increasing socio-economic inequalities, a weak political unity and an inability to reflect the dream of those founding fathers.

Euro-scepticism is on the rise again and the European dream seems to be receding from people’s imaginations. But once it disappears, the alternatives become truly more frightening.

Refugees walk towards the border with Serbia [AP]
Refugees walk towards the border with Serbia [AP]

After all, we caught a glimpse of it when some members of the Visegrad Group reacted to the refugee inflow on to European shores.

It could get worse, and the sustaining dream of many short decades could fragment rapidly and take us back to those horrible “isms” akin to Fascism and Nazism and their omnipresent modern-day equivalents.

Such tensions could not have been any sharper than in the past year. With the million-plus refugees from Syria and other countries heading for Europe, the pan-European sense of solidarity buckled under pressure.

Some member-states forgot how the EU had helped them when they gained independence and sought membership of this club.

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They started erecting physical and psychological walls instead. Others turned their backs on Chancellor Merkel of Germany as she welcomed a majority of those refugees into the country. The Schengen area comprising 26 countries began convulsing as politicians failed to find solutions.


Mind you, statements coming out of officialdom in Brussels were still couched in positive terms, but the reality on the ground was both unwelcoming and sour.

The Eurosceptic flank 

In this morass enters the UK: Prime Minister David Cameron chose to checkmate the Eurosceptic flank of his own Conservative Party by promising an “In-Out” referendum, to be held on June 23, that would decide whether Britain stays within the EU or opts out. Hard-won concessions later, the outcome of the Brexit referendum remains unpredictable.

And much as I try to fathom the fears of some sceptics who wish to leave the EU, are they not also aware of the business-unfriendliness, financial perils and political scenarios – not least with Scotland – that could be unleashed with an exit? Do we want to open a Pandora’s box across Britain and Europe?

Prime Minister David Cameron [Reuters]
Prime Minister David Cameron [Reuters]

As the EU searches anew for a European identity, my pen drifts towards an idea by Enrico Letta, former Italian prime minister, who postulated two circles within Europe – the euro circle, moving towards greater integration, and a looser circle of countries with different goals.

His idea is different from the much touted two-speed EU. Two circles can move in different directions whereas a two-speed momentum presumes motion in one direction alone.

Has Europe become jaundiced because of the erosion of time, the conglomeration of socio-economic problems and the inflation of egos? Yes. But do we have a refugee problem? Not in my opinion when we consider our demography of 508 million European citizens inhabiting an area of 4.325 million square kilometres or when we look at the burdens facing Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

But even if we accept having a refugee problem, are those reasons enough to warrant an implosion? Should we in the EU not go beyond short-term tactics and seek long-term solutions? In a global world, do we lack a vision and commensurate statesmen or women?

In the final analysis, though, do we want to return to those yesteryears of long wars and rampant nationalisms within Europe, or do we seek to strengthen a Europe of peace that underpins the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law?

Europeans hold the answer – if we have the cojones for it … as did the Founding Fathers.

Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.