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What of Europe is Europe missing? (by Tomáš Sedláček)

The meaning of European integration has long been tied to the economics. This is to some degree understandable, but this betting had and has its price. And that price is that in the moment of the global economic recession comes the questioning of the importance of European integration, or in the end also questioning of the meaning of Europe.

Nowhere else in the world came to a similar conclusion: neither the USA nor Russia, China, Japan or India deduced that they should be divided into smaller entities. This is understandable, as their sense of collective identity was not primarily economic. We come now to a curious conclusion: even though we Europeans pretend to be high above economics, we are more sensitive to economic fluctuations than other cultures. The same applies to the large economic crises of the last century—even though it began in the USA and was also deeper there, the economic crisis did not lead to any civil war, much less a world war, still less a holocaust. That was Europe.

The brilliant thought of the founding fathers of the European Union were to substitute for the historical fetish of national geographic growth with national economic growth. And the idea worked. It worked so well that we, so fascinated with our growth and so proud of it, we forgot about all the other meanings. It was a completely natural mistake; when something is so pleasant and easy, we have a tendency not to see anything else.

Nevertheless, Europe is much more than the sum of its economic performers, more than a compromise of mountain top negotiators, and much more than progress in the limits of self-regulating bureaucracy.

In Favor of European Protests

It is hard to say or describe what exactly it is, but it is altogether easy to feel or perceive. This isn't some esoteric observation, but a rather normal experience—to ask about a feeling is simply hard, and almost universally so. And as we are used to with the meaning of life, it is difficult to describe it.

Rather, it is much easier to perceive in the moment of deprivation, here in the instant when quality of life is in a short supply. And so it happens, says Martin Pospíšil, a colleague of mine, in his studies, that today, in crisis of non-crisis, we are living through the biggest pro-European protests in the history of Europe. Where? In the Ukraine.

The 'Ukraine' (in Czech, 'U-krajina—' meaning 'near - the countryside' or 'region') is just such a region, which is 'near'. It is a country, which lies near the European Union, in the same way as it lies near Russia. It is in this way non-European Europe, somewhere in between; similar to us (Czech republic) —a one-time satellite country, a left-over from the implosion of the Soviet Union, but different from us in that it never properly found its home. An economically uninteresting country with more inhabitants than Poland, which ceaselessly talks of its size as one of its biggest economic and bargaining advantages.

Non-European Europe

When one says 'Europe,' Ukraine rarely comes to mind, but in fact it belongs geographically to Europe.  In the same way, incidentally, we forget that even part of Russia is European—though to speak thus about Russo-European relationships is a bit awkward. Even Moscow is geographically European.

Except that it isn't completely ‘Europe’. What else could the protestants on the streets of Kiev mean, when they say “we want into to Europe,” while, technically speaking, they already are in? And what did we think in November 1989, when we wanted “back to Europe” while we, technically-geographically speaking, had always been there? What of Europe we missed in Europe? And what is the Ukraine missing today and what is Moscow or the rest of Russia not missing?

The Fifth Element

What, then, is this 'fifth element' which can be seen only when it is missing? The right to free enterprise without a system which forces you to pay bribes. The capability to say that Caesar, or the president, or the czar, is an asshole, and to not be punished. To not have the death penalty and not to have to fear being shot by a lunatic with a license to carry a sub-machine gun as in USA.

What then is Europe? The luxury to not have to constantly think about all these and similar things. The tradition which considers these things natural. And exactly for that reason, we don't perceive it.

Article previously published in Hospodářské noviny (translated from Czech)

About the Author: Tomáš Sedláček (1977) is a Chief Macro-economic Strategist at ČSOB. He served as a non-political expert advisor to the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of the Czech Republic, with special responsibility over fiscal consolidation and the reform of the tax, pension, and healthcare systems. He also served as an economic advisor then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. (    

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