I’ve always been a fan of Timothy Garton Ash, both the academic and the journalist, for his willingness to engage with real issues without hiding – like so many intellectuals these days – inside the cosy heights of their ivory towers. So it was a plasure to get a chance to hear the man himself address the LSE’s illustrious Old Theatre on the future of Europe’s identity.
TGA gave a lucid (perhaps a little cold?) presentation on the concepts of Europe and Freedom, which he believes have been inextricably connected since their mythical birth in the Aegean Sea some 3000 years ago. Somewhat glossing over the many pages of European history where freedom wasn’t quite as valued as it is should have been, he came to the core of the argument: the EU needs to rebuild a narrative about its raison d’etre and future direction. It is not enough to talk about stability, security, growth: this is not the stuff that inspires a vision.
Freedom has long been associated with the EU, given how many of its members joined straight out of dictatorships or undemocratic regimes. In fact, he argued, the EU has been the most effective machine for democracy-building and regime-change in recent times, and its magnetic power consists in the freedom it offers to its citizens. It is now time to build a vision around these remarkable achievements, so that Europeans are reminded of why we have a Union and what example we are setting to the rest of the world.
The argument is a powerful one, and I am still processing the information. On the one hand, I fully endorse his premise: the cultural dimension of the EU is something that has been ignored for a long time, and the constitutional debacle is a direct and obvious consequence of this mistake. It is something too important and precious to be left to national politicians, who are all too eager to blame the EU when it suits their petty interests. Europe has to be given back to its citizens if it is to survive.
On the other hand, however, I found myself questioning some of TGA’s more political statements and assumptions, such as the idea that it’s fine to suggest to Moldova and Ukraine the prospect of future membership, but that we should ‘come clean‘ with the North African countries, because they will and should never join the EU. This is a very northern-European perspective, one that fails to recognise that the Mediterranean is a political, economic and cultural space in its own right.
Why should the borders of Europe stop at Gibraltar and not at the Sahara? For security reasons? I’d argue that a border reaching the desert would be far more secure than the porous sea border we have now. For historical reasons? There is a richer history of integration between the Mediterranean countries than there is between the countries facing the Baltic, let alone between the former and the latter. For economic reasons? Economic integration has always been the means, not the cause or the ultimate purpose of the European project.
I could go on for a while, so I’ll stop here, but watch this space because there will be more rants on this topic soon!