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What unites Europe

Freedom and equality have been the very foundations of the West since the revolutions of 1776 and 1789. Why their substance is crumbling and how the idea can continue to shine. 

Heinrich August Winkler, 25.06.2020
An ongoing challenge: Europe must fill its idea with life.
An ongoing challenge: Europe must fill its idea with life. © dpa/pa

Nationalism, the rise of populism and the EU’s legitimacy crisis are all proving to be a tough test for the EU. Looking back at the period since the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 with their ideas of freedom and equality – the very foundations of the West – we see a history of serious violations of the values that were proclaimed at that time. Ultimately, however, it has been a story of productive self-criticism and self-correction – that is to say, of learning


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An idea finally comes to fruition

For the most part, the ideas of 1989 were not new demands but reflected those raised by the two Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century: the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. A yardstick was created at this time, and Western democracies have had to measure themselves against it ever since. Since then, the history of the old European and new North American Occident has revolved around the struggles to adopt or reject the ideas promulgated in 1776 and 1789. It has also been a history of persistent, serious violations of the values proclaimed at that time, and ultimately a story of productive self-criticism and self-correction – that is to say, of learning. After the peaceful revolutions of 1989, the part of the European Occident that fell under the Soviet sphere of interest after the Yalta Conference in 1945 was opened up to the possibility of enjoying the rights and freedoms that the United Nations General Assembly promised the whole world with its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. Today, it is clear that the battles over these late 18th-century ideas are still being waged in the old European Occident. When the European Commission is obliged to urge a member state to comply with the Copenhagen accession criteria of 1993 and the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, it is only doing its duty.

The power of civil society

However, such warnings will only have lasting success if the civil society of the country concerned also gets involved in the fight to defend threatened freedoms and institutions. This is happening in Poland, and this should be a reason for us not to give up hope that the rule of law and democracy will persist in our neighbouring country.

The West and the refugee question

The question of asylum-seekers and refugees also relates to the issue of Western values, both claimed and real. None of the Western democracies in Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand are in a position to solve the problems faced by the countries from which people are fleeing in droves to their territories. Western democracies can facilitate legal immigration and make development aid more generous and effective. The European Union has to focus on helping the Middle Eastern countries that are bearing the brunt of housing and caring for people fleeing the Syrian civil war and must do everything in its power to promote the success of peace talks on Syria.

Was Europa verbindet
© dpa

No reason for self-righteousness

There are good reasons behind Germany’s call for a European solution to the refugee problem, for joint efforts to secure the external borders and for a fair distribution of people in need of protection. It must not, however, be presented in a form that our neighbours regard as self-righteous or arrogant – as an attempt to create a ‘German Europe’, at least in terms of asylum policy. After the catastrophic failure of its National Socialist dictatorship, Germany was a latecomer to the political culture of the West. It tried to learn from the failure caused by its rebellion against the political consequences of the Enlightenment in the form of the ideas of 1776 and 1789 and, where possible – so in the western part of the divided country – established a functioning, pluralistic, Western-style democracy. But it has no reason to be self-righteous, and this also applies to the issue of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Germany’s unique path

After the tyranny of the years after 1933, there were good reasons for including the following sentence when the Basic Law was drawn up in Bonn in 1949: ‘Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.’ This was a unique path for Germany, as most other Western democracies recognise the right to asylum not as an individual basic right but as a right that is granted by the state. Since then, the question of whether the Federal Republic has promised more that it can deliver has cropped up regularly, including in Germany itself.

It cannot be simply swept under the carpet, and the same applies to another self-critical question: when we revised the article on asylum law in 1993, were we merely feigning adherence to the 1949 principle, so at the expense of third parties, the ‘safe third countries’? Would it not have been more honest to state that the Federal Republic of Germany grants asylum to politically persecuted persons in accordance with its capacity to accept and integrate them? The principle of helping people fleeing political persecution and civil war according to one’s own capacity would be a good maxim for all EU member states. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that they will all adopt it in the foreseeable future.

A humane and sustainable asylum policy

It is not only the new member states in Central and Eastern Europe that have joined since 2004 which have failed to adopt this maxim. This is also the case with countries whose populations include a large proportion of migrants, such as the former colonial powers Britain and France. But, with its strong economy, Germany should also be helping refugees to the best of its ability, even if it remains in the minority in the European Union.

To the best of its ability: this also means that a humane and sustainable asylum policy has to lay the foundations for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. These foundations not only include respecting a country’s limits for accepting and integrating migrants, but also maintaining the political support of its people, on which democratic governments and parliaments depend for their existence. In his famous 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber describes the ethic of responsibility (as opposed to the ethic of ultimate ends) as the understanding that ‘one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.’ A sustainable asylum policy that pays attention to its potential domestic consequences must, therefore, do everything possible to maintain public confidence in the state’s capacity for action.

Was Europa verbindet
© dpa

European unification

Europe is not only divided on refugee policy, but in many other areas, including the question of the ‘finality’ of its unification process. Many people in Germany have long believed, and some still believe, that it is in the post-national stage of its history, but this is not the case. Rather, the European Union consists of post-classical nation states, which exercise some of their sovereign rights jointly and have transferred others to supranational institutions. Europe cannot be united against the will of the nations, but only with them and through them. As a confederation of states, the EU aims to be an overarching structure, but it does not seek to transcend them.

A long, hard look

It is easy to love a certain idea of Europe. But it is much more difficult to face the ugly reality of national egotisms, to seek a balance between opposites and to continue to work towards Europe’s ability to speak with one voice on important issues, particularly relating to foreign and security policy. Its huge diversity of languages and customs does not stand in the way of this. This is all part of Europe’s richness and is one of its defining features. But there are also commonalities, and upholding these should, first and foremost, be a matter for civil society. One of these commonalities – and ultimately the most important – is the values that we like to call European values, but that in historical terms are transatlantic or Western values and universal in their normative basis. The West has to adhere to its own norms and take a long, hard look at its deviations. Then, and only then, will the ideas of 1776 and 1789 continue to radiate across the globe.

Heinrich August Winkler, born 1938 in Königsberg, is a German historian. Heinrich August Winkler was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 2016.