• Email
  • Print

How Europe Could Fail

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

The following address was given on October 9 to the General Assembly of the Council on Europe in Vienna.

All of us—whether from the west, the east, the south, or the north of Europe—can agree that the common basis of any effort to integrate Europe is the wealth of values and ideals we share. Among them are respect for the uniqueness and the freedom of each human being, the principles of a democratic and pluralistic political system, a market economy, and a civic society with the rule of law. All of us respect the principle of unity in diversity and share a determination to foster creative co-operation between the different nations and ethnic, religious, and cultural groups—and the different spheres of civilization—that exist in Europe.

This intellectual and spiritual basis of European civilization is the product of thousands of years of history, of the intermingling of many traditions, and of vast historical experience, both good and bad. The fall of communism has presented our continent with a unique opportunity to unite on that foundation and to become—for the first time in a very long time, if not in history—a stabilizing force in the world today.

Despite general agreement on the values upon which European integration should stand, this process today, four years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, has encountered a number of obstacles. Many are even beginning to doubt that the process can succeed, that it can lead to the kind of Europe in which everyone will feel at ease, in which no one will feel repressed or threatened, and no one will have any cause to behave aggressively.

What are the reasons for this discrepancy between the possibilities and the reality? Why, so soon after the collapse of a bipolar Europe and at a time when we all appear to want the same things, do we suddenly feel so much doubt? Why does a goal that seemed within reach at the beginning of 1990 now seem so distant?

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but I feel strongly that they all have one thing in common: the erroneous belief that the great European task before us is a purely technical, a purely administrative, or a purely systemic matter, and that all we need to do is come up with ingenious structures, new institutions, and new legal norms and regulations. We believe, in short, that we need do no more than discuss endlessly, or, more precisely, argue endlessly over, technical matters without ever attempting to change anything in ourselves or in the habitual motives and stereotypes of our behavior. The very values that were to be secured by systemic changes get lost in the debates over those changes. In other words, what was to have been no more than a means to an end becomes the central topic of discussion, and our very capacity to agree is weakened.

Many of the great supranational empires or alliances in history, or at least many of those that have survived for long periods of time and enriched the human history of their era in some way, not only had strong guiding ideas and were centers of intellectual and spiritual advancement, they were also remarkably determined to stand behind these ideas and willing to make great sacrifices to bring them to fruition, since it was clear to everyone that those sacrifices were worth it. It was more than just a belief in certain values; it was a deep and generally shared feeling that those values carried with them moral obligations.

This, I fear, is precisely what is critically lacking in the Europe of today. We argue about quotas, tariffs, and interest rates. We assert our own partial and often very selfish interest, whether they concern geopolitical, ideological, economic, or other matters. We hope we can solve the problem of minorities by agreeing on how many hours children must spend learning their mother tongue in school, or which road signs should be bilingual. And so, all too often, we succumb to the notion that should we manage to discover a formula for compromise with which everyone agrees, we will have succeeded. Yet administrative measures, general treaties, and high-sounding declarations—the products of long negotiations among specialists—will scarcely save us if they are not the expression of a common European purpose. Only such a purpose can guarantee that the agreements and measures we do adopt will not just remain scraps of paper.

The greatness of the idea of European integration on democratic foundations consists in its capacity to overcome the old Herderian idea of the nation state as the highest expression of national life. Thus European integration should—and must if it is to succeed—enable all nationalities to realize their national autonomy within the framework of a broad civic society created by the supranational community. The greatness of this idea lies in its power to smother the demons of nationalism, the instigators of modern wars, and to enable nations to live in peace, security, freedom, and prosperity by forgoing some of their immediate interests in favor of the far greater benefits of realizing their long-term interests.

To put it more succinctly: Europe today lacks an ethos; it lacks imagination, it lacks generosity, it lacks the ability to see beyond the horizon of its own particular interests, be they partisan or otherwise, and to resist pressure from various lobbying groups. There is no real identification in Europe with the meaning and purpose of integration. Europe does not appear to have achieved a genuine and profound sense of responsibility for itself as a whole, and thus for the future of all those who live in it.

Are we really so incorrigible? Twice in this century all of Europe has paid a tragic price for the narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination of its democracies. These democracies first failed when confronted with Nazism; they retreated and refused to resist this evil in the bud, only to have to pay a million times more in the struggle against Nazism in full bloom. They failed a second time when they allowed Stalin to swallow up one half of our continent and bring history there to a halt. Today this failure is tragically coming back to haunt not only those who have recently escaped from Soviet tyranny, but everyone.

There is a saying: “Everything good and evil comes in threes.” Democratic Europe cannot afford a third failure.

And yet, I am afraid a third failure is looming. I am not only referring to the caution and indecision that mark the attitudes of the developed countries of Western Europe toward the post-Communist countries. I am referring chiefly to their response to events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the whole of the former Yugoslavia. The peace talks ought to come up with a comprehensive defense of precisely those values on which the future Europe should stand—that is, the values of a civic society based on the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups and cultures. Instead they are, more and more blatantly, an occasion to argue over new borders between ethnically purified mini-states, as defined by the outcome of clashes between illegal armies. An internationally recognized multinational state is being subdivided according to the dictates of fanatical warlords. Regardless of how well intentioned—and didn’t Chamberlain have the best of intentions?—such behavior means sanctifying the idea of the “ethnically pure state” and giving up on the idea of the civic society. We talk and talk, we drown in compromises, we redraw the maps, we read the lips of the ethnic cleansers, and, with increasingly serious consequences, we forget the fundamental values upon which we would like to shape the future of our continent. We are cutting off the very branch we are sitting on.

The reason for this sad state of affairs is simple: it lies in the feeling that we can somehow outwit history, and in the ostrich-like belief that the place of generous and dedicated commitment can be taken by appeasing the warring factions and giving in to their demands.

The former Yugoslavia is the first great testing ground for Europe in the era that was initiated by the end of the cold war. At present, it is also the most highly visible, but it is not, of course, the only one.

Another one consists in how we deal with the temptation to open the back gate to the demons of nationalist collectivism with an apparently innocent emphasis on minority rights and on the right of minorities to self-determination. At first sight, this emphasis would seem harmless and beyond reproach. But one real consequence could be new unrest and tension, because demands for self-determination inevitably lead to questioning the integrity of the individual states and the inviolability of their present borders, and even the validity of all postwar treaties. Attempts of this kind are dangerous chiefly because they look not to the future, but to the past, for they call in question the very principle of civil society and the indivisible rights of the individual, as well as the certainty that only democracy, individual human rights and freedoms, and the civil principle can guarantee the genuinely full development of even that aspect of one’s identity represented by membership in a nationality.

There are countless such tests and pitfalls in Europe today. We cannot expect to stand up well in the tests, or avoid the pitfalls, if we continue to believe that we need not forgo any of our particular interests, need not accept the new Europe as a radical moral imperative, if we believe that it is enough—within the framework of established political practice—to negotiate, argue, appoint commissions, and go from conference to conference, our attaché cases brimming with paper that wraps base and narrow-minded interests in noble, high-sounding words.

If various Western states cannot rid themselves of their desire for a dominant position in their own sphere of interests, if they don’t stop trying to outwit history by reducing the idea of Europe to a noble backdrop against which they continue to defend their own petty concerns, and if the post-Communist states do not make radical efforts to exorcise the ghosts their newly won freedom has set loose, then Europe will only with great difficulty be able to respond to the challenge of the present and fulfill the opportunities that lie before it.

The Council of Europe, the oldest existing pan-European institution, exists to cultivate the values from which the spirit and ethos of European integration might grow, and to ensure that these values are embodied in international legal standards. If, as I claim, the main task of Europe today is to grasp the spirit of its own unification, to understand the moral obligations that flow from that, to assume—genuinely, and not just superficially—a new type of responsibility for itself, then the Council of Europe can play a unique and indispensible role in carrying out this complex task.

The Czech Republic would welcome this, and is prepared to do everything in its power to make it happen.

Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

  • Email
  • Print