Years ago, at the start of the nineties, there was into a Dutchman fighting alongside Croatian militia during the war in the former Yugoslavia. He was a civil servant from The Hague, as it turned out, who had taken a month off pursuing the thrill of war. In Bosnian hotels at night star reporters from all over Europe would tell each other excitingly about the day’s adventures on the frontline. One of them boasted that he had saved a child. Another shouted: „I was just able to duck down, bullets were whistling past my ears!” A third one had girlfriends in several bomb-shelled cities, all of whom wanted to marry him. For many journalists this war was a chance to play the hero. Thanks to journalism you could experience the thrill of war and condemn it at the same time.
Back then these were peripheral phenomena. Back then, Europe was still going somewhere. The Wall had fallen, the Soviet threat was melting away. The West had won. This gave us a mission: the rest of the world would become like us. What we thought we saw in Yugoslavia were the last throes of the old order in which one asserted his rights through fighting, not through trade. We thought that we Europeans were above that: we were working on the internal market, on the euro and Schengen. One day of course, after the war, the ex-Yugoslavs would surely take part in these large-scale projects. Civilisation, to us, was always an upward trend. We Europeans knew it better than anyone: once you come out of a war you suddenly realise how stupid and useless it is to fight.
But now, 25 years later, Europe is not going anywhere anymore. Big European projects are shattering because every country only wants the benefits, not the disadvantages. These projects functioned as a compass. They gave us a focus, a sense of direction. Now we have lost that compass. We are floating aimlessly, bickering amongst ourselves.
Donald Tusk, the European President, quotes Toynbee: „Civilisations die from suicide, not by murder”. He admits this is slightly coarse, yet „fitting for this situation”.
There used to be a ring of friendly countries, surrounding us like a safe cordon. They were outside the EU, but aspired to be members one day. Now they are exploding, one by one, and we are surrounded by a ring of fire. Meanwhile, Polish militia beat up asylum seekers in Sweden. Sales of weapons are up in Austria. Gang wars are raging in Dublin. Politicians receive threats. Violence returns to European society.
In one of his essays, Robert Musil mulls the question why Europeans allowed the outbreak of the First World War: „Because we had had enough of peace.” In Musil’s day, war was an alternative for stagnation. Society was going forward nor backward. Those were golden days for cynics and hedonists. People needed perspective. They desperately needed the feeling that they had a grip on their lives and that they were able to make a difference in politics and society. There is no need to exaggerate the parallels between then and now. But Europeans are feeling a similar sense of powerlessness now, and of futility. Many want to get involved, feeling a strong desire to put their energy into something constructive, something that creates progress.
It is important to find political answers to this. This kind of energy is looking for a way out. If it cannot find a positive channel, it will switch to a negative channel – to political nihilism, brawls and other forms of hot-bloodedness. Politicians like Wilders or Le Pen can say whatever they want. But wouldn’t it be lovely if more people would contradict them? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ministers of the six countries who signed the very first European treaty in Rome in 1957, would not just meet to prepare the 60th commemoration, but also bring a new impetus to Europe, in whatever shape or form? For this is what Europe is craving now: positive impetus.