Last week will remain engraved in our memories. TV channels around the world broadcast images of children separated from their parents at Texas borders and here in Europe the conflict over migrants and refugees has reached the highest possible level of confrontation.
Have we lost our humanity? Have we forgotten our values? Was I the only one who, watching the inhumane treatment of children warehoused in cages, relived the nightmares of World War II when children were separated from their mothers at their arrival in Auschwitz or other concentration camps? Have we lost our historical compass?
As EU leaders enter a difficult negotiation this week over the migration and asylum crisis, we should not forget the suffering our parents and grandparents went through decades of divisions and devastation in our countries.
We have done a poor job across our nations to reconcile our collective historical memories. We have created a huge single market, a common currency, but it seems we have failed after the most recent enlargement, and the reunification of Central and Eastern European countries in our EU family, to create a common approach to Europe's past based on the foundation of European core values, such as humanism, tolerance and democracy.
We seem hesitant in assuming our history and civilisation, the cradle of the best and the worst, Beethoven and Auschwitz. Forgetting that we have provided the world with some cardinal values - freedom, rationality, secularism and solidarity – we are entangled in parochial nationalism, rather than priding ourselves of what we have built and what we have in common which should allow us to match a shared identity with national identities.
Conscious of this missing link, I have invited just two weeks ago the enlarged presidency of the EESC to Krakow, precisely to reflect on how people of Europe can come to terms with our own respective pasts in an unbiased way, genuinely embracing common European principles and values.
Central and Eastern European countries have joined the single market and the Schengen zone. These are concrete landmarks of integration, but only of its economic and political side. Have we had a historical, emotional integration? An integration of values, of memories?
At the time of the enlargement of 2004, Western Europe assumed Eastern Europe could simply be absorbed into the Western system of values and historical memory and would perfectly adapt to it. We never asked ourselves whether some adjustment, some soul-searching needed to be done also by Western Europe in order for the two ‘lungs’ to breathe harmoniously together.
I have a feeling that the Eastern European nations saw their EU accession as something that was due to them, not because they were able to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria but because firstly, they had never ceased to be European, even behind the iron curtain, and secondly, the Europe that had turned her back on them at Potsdam and Yalta, had a moral obligation towards them.
Poland is an excellent example of this. Until 1989 it was a communist country, not because of a choice to be one, but because of a decision of the Great Coalition. Those 60 years saw a civil war, the terror of the Stalinist era, the collectivisation, authoritarian communist rule, the martial law of 1981-83 and finally the peaceful transition of 1989. It is only a few days ago that Poland celebrated 29 years since the first partially democratic elections. It is not by chance that during those communist years, the only "free", clandestine radio station in the communist block was called "Radio Free Europe". Communist block nations were perhaps expecting a more profound accession, based on an understanding of their history during the communist era, their specific cultural perspective, and not only an economic pact.
We must talk freely about our history, our cultures and our expectations for the future of the European Union. Concentrating European efforts for transnational historical remembrance on the Holocaust and National Socialism as well as Stalinism proves problematic as it fosters a biased, simplistic black-and-white history, which does injustice to the richness and complex nature of European history, and leaves out other crucial issues such as colonialism, but also hampers a better understanding of the European integration process.
Also, narrowing historical memory to National Socialism and Stalinism, which are elevated to a negative foundation myth, reduces incentives at critically examining stereotypes of one’s own national history.
Time has come, as some history scholars have underlined, for a critical European culture of remembering rather than an imposed singular remembrance culture.
The longer we stutter in reconciling our past histories, the harder it will be to construct a genuine new European collective memory and forging a new identity, based on diversity, with the mission of developing a sense of common history, common belonging and finally common destiny.
I hope we don't need another flashpoint. We have had Brexit, Trump: How many more will we need to step out of weak and too prudent political responses? Let's now walk the walk in the months to come and prepare for the dawn of a real, shared rEUnaissance.