01-06-2009 - Traces, n. 6


Building a Cathedral or
Just Oiling a Machine?

From inside Europe, Irish Times journalist John Waters gives a post-European election critique of the state of affairs. While the European Parliament runs at full clip, its increasing detachment from the people it serves catalyzes questions of its utility and, indeed, its risks. What are the real keys to hope in the future of the EU?  Education,  transparency, and following the example of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona...

By John Waters

Having listened and watched for several weeks, I feel safe in saying that, in the course of the recent European elections in my home country, Ireland, not a single vote was cast on a European issue. Perhaps, reading this, one or two people may emerge and say that, no, they cast their votes on principles relating to international fisheries or European immigration policy, but I am certain there would be no more than a couple of such eccentrics. The entire thrust of the campaign was directed at domestic matters: at the performance of the government in handling the recession, at the recent sudden lurch into fiscal retrenchment, at the personalities of the domestic scene and the urgency of sending a message that would be understood by the political establishment at home.
Not once during the campaign did I hear, see, or read anything that connected the European elections to the Lisbon Treaty. This is despite the fact that, just twelve months ago, the Irish electorate, in a referendum on that treaty, put the brakes on the entire European project.  An uninitiated outsider might have expected the treaty and the issue of Ireland’s role in Europe to be center-stage in this, the next available democratic election for the European Parliament. But, no, not one word was spoken about Lisbon, which in Ireland is regarded as a separate matter, to be decided in a second referendum in the autumn.
There is something strange about this. Again, the uninitiated outsider might hazard that perhaps the electorate is crude and uneducated but, in fact, when it comes to domestic politics, Irish voters are among the most engaged, passionate, and sophisticated in Europe.
A few years ago, the bureaucrats in Brussels would patronizingly declare that the Irish were “among the most enthusiastic of Europeans.” It did not seem to occur to them that this enthusiasm may have arisen because, back then, Ireland was a net beneficiary of funding transfers. When this balance shifted some years ago, the “enthusiasm for Europe” wore off.
There is nowadays no sense in Ireland that the political entity called “the European Union” is anything other than a distant bureaucracy with some undefined and mysteriously acquired powers to interfere in domestic affairs. Every five years, the voters elect their MEPs, and that is pretty much the end of it. Until the next election, it is as though the people they have elected are dead. Nobody sees them; nobody hears from them.
A knot of suspicion. The vote against Lisbon was to a large degree symptomatic of the ennui that infects Irish political culture concerning what is called “Europe.” Other than through money transfers, the concept of the European Union has made no headway in Ireland in the 37 years since we joined. Otherwise, the whole affair is regarded with suspicion, disinterest, and boredom. The founders of modern Europe–figures like Monnet, De Gasperi, Adenauer, and Schuman–are almost unheard of in Ireland. Many Irish people who consider themselves committed Catholics are nowadays especially opposed to the EU, perceiving it to be a “godless” entity driven by secular values which it seeks to impose on member states. This mainly reflects some Irish Catholic  distorted attitudes concerning abortion and euthanasia. Although this is not the whole story of the defeat of Lisbon, it is certainly a significant element.
In all last year’s discussions about the Lisbon Treaty, there was almost no reference to the fundamental values that led to the creation of the EU. Those who promote the EU assume its purpose and intentions to be obvious. Those who oppose it say these are all too obvious. But really the whole question appears to be bound in a knot of suspicion that none of the present generation of European leaders seems capable of dissipating.
And this, I believe, is not atypical of how the Union is perceived within its member countries. Those who promote the European project almost invariably speak to people as though they have a duty to respond positively to what is proposed. But beyond a general sense of the potential benefits of economic cooperation, there has been little attempt to add substance, in the popular imagination, to the philosophical core of the project. From time to time, we hear about the desire of the founders to unite the continent in the wake of the second world war, to ward off future mutually destructive hostilities within Europe. If we do not go along with their wishes, the successors of these founders imply, we may be responsible for the fields of Europe turning into sites of bloodbath once again.
And yet, all the time, there is this sense that what is being proposed is not being revealed other than in a minimalist way that will take us on to the next stage. If the project is so virtuous, why be so underhanded about it?
For my own part, I was for many years deeply suspicious of the European project, mainly because of its bureaucratic dimension and the way it seemed to treat the issue of democratic endorsement as a rubber-stamp on decisions already made by politicians and officials. At home in Ireland, as a journalist and sometime activist, I campaigned against several EU treaties, up to and including the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Since then, I have concluded that Ireland is already so far advanced on the road of dependency in relation to the EU that there is no way back. I therefore reversed my earlier stances on the recent treaties of Nice and Lisbon.

In the words of Vaclav Havel. For me as for many, however, the core problem of the European project remains: that it has failed to ignite the imaginations of the people but has remained, at best, a techno-bureaucratic phenomenon justified by moralism and high-flown but essentially meaningless rhetoric. This is the problem so beautifully described by Vaclav Havel in his 1994 speech to the European Parliament. He was speaking about his initial response, as a Europhile, on first encountering the Maastricht Treaty: “Into my admiration, which initially verged on enthusiasm,” he said, “there began to intrude a disturbing, less exuberant feeling. I felt I was looking into the workings of an absolutely perfect and immensely ingenious modern machine. To study such a machine must be a great joy to an admirer of technical innovations, but for me, a human whose interest in the world is not satisfied by admiration for well-oiled machines, something was missing. Perhaps it could be called, in a rather simplified way, a spiritual or moral or emotional dimension. My reason had been spoken to, but not my heart.”
In his introduction to the display catalogue of “The Realism of Gaudí and the Hope of Europe,” the exhibition which he created last year in cooperation with the sculptor–stonemason Etsuro Sotoo, the then–Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mario Mauro, outlined the many resonances between the unification of Europe and the continuing construction of the Expiatory Temple of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. Both projects, he outlined, were attempts to reinterpret tradition for a new world. Both were born of a vision of something that seemed almost impossible. Both arose from a sense of the Presence of God. Both remain incomplete. Both, as Mauro asserted, “move forward with small steps, many times guided by intuition, with abrupt stops and sudden accelerations: a fire, the disapproval of a referendum, a change of architect, a new treaty… For both, a fundamental problem is finding people that know how to humbly propose, update, and reinterpret the original intuitions once again.”

Gaudí and love for truth. It was an intriguing and vivid comparison. The Sagrada Família is a truly inspirational project, a vast, spectacular construction that plays all kinds of tricks on conventional conceptions of time and space. Gaudí saw God in polygons, arches, and parabolas. His objective was to incorporate in a building the natural geometric shapes of creation, and to demonstrate how these underpinned the beauty of the universe with a functionality that responded to the reason and intuition of man. Rejecting the rigidity of the rationalist architecture of the time, an architecture that seemed to defy nature, he sought an ethos of harmony with natural reality. The Sagrada Família has a broad footprint, but its principal direction is upward, toward the sky, in a series of towers and pinnacles that take the breath away. Gaudí had a passion for reality, its curves and angles, its lines and colors, and this was for him the meaning of Christianity. Circumstances, difficulties, setbacks, all these were manifestation of Divine will. “Love of the truth,” said Gaudí, “is above any other love. Art is beauty. Beauty is the magnificence of the truth. Art doesn’t exist, but rather love of the truth.”
The European project, as the exhibition outlined, was conceived likewise not from abstractions or utopias but from the facts of history and European politics.  What is often left unsaid in the platitudes of the European bureaucrats, who speak of the duty of Europeans to do as they say, is the substance of what John Monnet and the other original builders of a United Europe sought to impart. What they proposed was not a high-flown notion, but a practical project–based, yes, on great ideals–that, firstly, is a construction to be built together step by step, and founded upon shared values, cultural principles, and institutions that take the human desires of Europe’s people into account.
Recent events have told us that there remains a clear need to educate the electorates of Europe about the core meanings of the project that seeks to unite them. But there also remains a need for the elites of the European bureaucracies to emerge into the light and begin to speak to the citizens of Europe about their fundamental human desires and how these might best be adhered to in a political project governing the whole of Europe.