international analysis and commentary

Why Europe should equip itself for bad weather


France with its rediscovered patriotism, France ready to react and to fight, François Hollande’s warlike France. It is not simply a political choice or merely an elite response. It is also the response of France’s youngsters, who were targeted in the first person in the Bataclan carnage. Where it may have been difficult to identify with the Charlie Hebdo victims, it was tragically easy for them to identify with the victims of November 13. That is the night on which France’s young people dramatically rediscovered their collective identity; the night on which they realized that they wish to defend themselves. The number of applications to join the various police corps and Armed Forces has skyrocketed since that night.

Psychologists are well aware that identity, the sense of self, is fueled also by the enemy; an interesting reminder of this may be seen in Woody Allen’s latest movie “The Irrational Man”, which is about just that. And the same issue is a topic of study in international relations: Historians tell us that empires have always used the foe to consolidate; yet in expanding, they also pave the way for their ensuing fragility.

Europe is not exactly an empire, but it has had serious problems ever since it lost its original foe (the USSR) and took that foe’s former satellites on board. Could rediscovering a common enemy help to firm up Europe’s cohesion? Could Paris 11-13 become a game-changer?

The answer to that question is anything but a foregone conclusion. Amid proclamations of collective solidarity and random bilateral offers of aid, Germany’s unprecedented amenability and Italy’s traditional prudence, one thing is certain: If the European Union is to produce security, it is going to have to change radically. Let us take a quick look at the history here.

The European Community was devised to eliminate war in Europe, but it has regularly split over military operations outside the continent.

After the European Defense Community fell through in 1954 following a veto from the French parliament, Europe became Kantian in philosophical terms (perpetual peace) and Swiss in pragmatic terms (the economy first and foremost); but the truth of the matter is that its security was long handled by the United States.

The result of all this is that the European Union is structured only for “fair weather”: The euro, too, has suffered on account of this inbuilt flaw. When the weather started getting really bad, Europe’s younger generation (the generation that grew up on the Erasmus scheme and under the umbrella of the Pax Americana) found itself totally defenseless – first in facing the economic crisis, with the unemployment rates we all know about; and then in the face of Islamist terrorism, whose target it has become.

The Paris tragedy, in that sense, has been a full-fledged wakeup call. The fair weather is over for good, and the crucial issue for Europe’s future citizens is how to combine the prevention of individual risk (which by its very nature is both economic and social) with the prevention of collective risk (thus safeguarding our democratic societies). The patriotism of France’s youngsters is an initial response, but it is not going to be sufficient: If the risk is Europe-wide, then the response has to be continental in scope too.

And there are only two ways in which that response can become continental in scope.

The first is the construction of a transnational “patriotism”, but it has become clear since the early years of this century just how difficult that is to achieve. From the failed referenda on the European Constitution to the handling of the euro crisis and the rifts sparked by the migrant issue, what prevails above all is the defense of national or local interests. The foe, in this instance, tends to be “the others”, and that includes the EU, which is perceived as an obstacle rather than a help.

The second possibility – and in my view, the only realistic possibility as things stand today – is for the EU to finally develop the bad-weather policy that it has been missing to date. For the EU to prove, after Paris, that it adds value, it needs to move forward in three crucial areas. It needs to build a European intelligence capability; it needs to build a system for the common monitoring of its external borders that actually works, with all the operational and legal consequences that that entails; and it needs a shared political and military strategy for Syria-Iraq and Libya. If Europe takes those three steps, it will at least lay the groundwork for a security policy tailored to today’s “foe”.  Nor, indeed, would taking those steps bar the way to the gradual construction of a collective sense of identification with a properly functioning Europe capable of safeguarding its citizens’ common interests.

Are new patriotism and European policies a viable combination? I believe they are, especially if the Union, with nigh on 30 members, increasingly tends to adopt the structure of a “differentiated” Europe within its borders. Such a setup – a confederation of nation-states not excluding closer forms of integration, primarily in the euro area – can be strengthened by a compromise with London.

If, on the other hand, the European Union fails, after Paris it will never be either a potential homeland or a confederation of any use to the nation-states that are its members.

Consequently, and of necessity, Europe’s younger generation, no longer living in times of peace but in times of war, will choose other ways to defend itself.


A version of this article was published in the Italian daily La Stampa on November 29, 2015.