How to put the European Union in order

Nations are not Europe’s number one problem. It seems, however, that it is precisely the existence of national member states of the EU that is being identified as the original source of the crises of European integration. It’s hard to decide to what extent this false diagnosis stems from a failure to understand the moment in history in which Europe finds itself today and to what extent from a desire to achieve certain political goals. One way or the other, it doubtless makes many politicians act contrary to fundamental interests of European societies and Europe as a community. There is absolutely nothing wrong in the fact that some societies have a stronger sense of national identity than others, and want to have independent political communities, democracy and law in their own countries based on that sense of identity. The desire to preserve and cherish what is uniquely their own is not hostile nationalism. What is hostile to Europe is protectionism, i.e. favouring one’s own economic interest at the cost of harm to others. This, definitely a problem which the EU faces today, deserves to be called truly toxic nationalism. This is the populist weapon aimed at other countries.

European politics flourished when leaders judged the current situation realistically, uninfluenced by emotions or prejudices, remaining faithful to the values they deemed supreme to current political pragmatics. This formed the basis of the splendid success of European integration after World War II. Politicians deeply believing in Europe’s Christian identity, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi or Robert Schuman, correctly diagnosed the real problems of Western Europe and found the right way to address them. It is the singularity of the phenomenon of European integration, which continues to be a genuine academic fascination for me – I have specialized in the dynamics of the European system since the very beginning of my academic career – that it was steeped in ideas, and yet ultimately pragmatic. Based on the Christian concept of charity (caritas, the love of one’s neighbour) as the means of social sensibility, focusing on forgiving, though not forgetting, it managed to create lasting and effective instruments of international economic co-operation. These foundations determined the dynamic development of the western part of Europe for decades to come. Yes, that is correct: the western part of Europe, because in fact Europe was united only in 2004, following the enlargement of the Western world’s integrative institutions – NATO first and then the European Union – by the Central European states of the former Eastern bloc.

The history of European integration after 1945 proves that every new generation of Europe’s political leaders is presented with a similar challenge. Their task is to meet the citizens’ expectations and to preserve the values which constitute the core of the internal and international order; the values that politics must not violate, as they are pre-political. What politics must do, in short, is serve the citizens, respecting the values they uphold. In this triad – citizenry, values, politics – politics takes the last place, not the first.

To anyone who would question this assumption, let me suggest an intellectual experiment. Let us now reverse the order of the hierarchy in the triad. Agreeing that citizens should be subservient to certain political goals – that politics comes first, and citizens second – leads to totalitarianism, as we know perfectly well, for instance from the history of the Third Reich or Soviet Russia. It is not by chance that the examples I give come from outside Poland; in the Polish tradition, subjugation of society to the state is a foreign concept. This is evidenced by the fact that the only time when totalitarianism functioned on Polish territory was during the Nazi occupation, as a system forced on the people from outside following the act of aggression which ended Polish sovereignty. Whenever the Polish state was reborn, the tradition of freedom on Polish land, along with the republican and democratic traditions were reborn with it.

Furthermore, an assumption that politics outweighs values, allowing for unlimited manipulation of the latter, would amount to an affirmation of populism. Undermining the foundations of social order or consensual regulations of international co-operation in the name of current goals, dictated by political pragmatism, never ends well. Rendering values relative by revoking their superlative importance leaves humans in an axiological vacuum. This mechanism is finely described by Hermann Rauschning (incidentally, born in Toruń, the city of Copernicus) in his acclaimed book Die Revolution des Nihilismus [published as The Revolution of Nihilism in the US and as Germany’s Revolution of Destruction in the UK].

The above remarks are not mere academic theorizing. Let us take a look at European politics today. It is plain to see that the hierarchical order of the  triad under discussion – values, citizens, politics – is reversed; thankfully, this doesn’t take radical forms yet. European politics is in a crisis caused by the  inability to address the citizens’ needs. The EU citizens feel, as they have every right to do, that the Union does not guarantee the security and freedom which it was meant to provide. After all, security, in the sense of both physical safety and economic security, was the primary goal of the EU.

What Europe needs today are positive solutions to the main problems of the citizens of the member states. Europe must again be an answer rather than a question. It mustn’t go on multiplying doubts: it must start collectively finding solutions. All those in favour of the European integration process – myself included – need an efficient Europe, that is, a Europe which addresses Europeans’ aspirations and needs. It is not enough just to repeat that the European Union is vital and necessary; the citizens of the European Union must be convinced of it. Words will not do; there is a demand for action.

This opinion editorial is an edited excerpt from an essay first published in the Polish Diplomatic Review, translated by Agnieszka Pokojska. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 

About the author

Krzysztof Szczerski

Krzysztof Szczerski

Krzysztof Szczerski is chief of the cabinet of the president of Poland.

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  • It amazes me how Poland wants to do its own thing and goes contrary to the rules of the European Union. When Poland agreed to join the EU, it had to abide by the rules of the EU. Some of those “rules” was the protection of minorities, an independent judiciary, etc etc.

    As a kind reminder, here is the overview and the Aquis which Poland signed off on … https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/policy/glossary/terms/accession-eu_en and https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/policy/conditions-membership/chapters-of-the-acquis_en

    I would like to disagree with Krzysztof Szczerski on his opening remarks that “Nations are not Europe’s number one problem. It seems, however, that it is precisely the existence of national member states of the EU that is being identified as the original source of the crises of European integration.”.

    Nations ARE the problem in that before anything can be implemented as EU law, it must be approved not only by the democratically elected Parliament but also the Consilium – which as an FYI, is made up of the national governments – Poland included.

    I find adhorant that Poland wants to be “in” the EU but doesn’t want to be abide by those roles.

    Maybe Poland should reconsider its options and maybe look east once more for its future .. and if memory serves me right, it wasn’t a very bright future back when it was part of the “east”