The dream of Europe: Utopian yearning or indisputable reality?

Timothy Garton Ash and Ramón González Férriz

On 13 November 2023, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the dialogue "The Dream of Europe: Utopian Longing or Undeniable Reality" in which Timothy Garton Ash and Ramón González Férriz spoke on the occasion of the publication of Professor Garton Ash's latest work entitled "Europe, A Personal History".

Timothy Garton Ash is a British historian and journalist known for the brilliance with which he has documented the transformation of Europe over the last quarter century. He is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University. He writes regularly for publications such as The New York Review of BooksThe GuardianThe New York TimesThe Washington Post The Wall Street Journal. Garton Ash's work is often referred to as a "history of the present". He was seventeen when Britain joined the European Community and sixty-four when it left. Since then he has lived and breathed European politics, witnessed some of the most dramatic scenes in its history, interviewed many of its protagonists and analysed the evolution of the lives of ordinary Europeans across the continent.

Ramón González Férriz is a writer and journalist. He writes about politics and culture in El Confidencialis an editorial advisor at the consultancy LLYC and directs the podcast The future of ideas for the Center for Economic Policy at Esade Business School (EsadeEcPol). Previously, he was associate editor of the magazine Foreign Policyeditor of the weekly Now and responsible for the Spanish edition of the magazine Letras Libres. He is the author of the books The optimism trap. How the 1990s explain today's world (2020), 1968. The birth of a new world (2018) y The fun revolution (2012), all published in Debate.


On 13 November 2023, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the dialogue "The Dream of Europe: Utopian Longing or Undeniable Reality", in which Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, spoke on the occasion of the presentation in Spain of his book "Europe, A Personal History".

One of the most typical traits of Europeans is the sense that you can be at home when you are abroad. This is fantastic, this is the future. That's why my book in English is called Homelands. Americans don't have this.

I was in Berlin after the fall of the wall and went to East Berlin. There I met a young Berliner looking at a poster saying "Only today we can say that the war is over". Only in '89 could we say that the war was over for the whole of Europe. Two years later, I was sitting with Helmut Kohl in Bonn, who had just achieved the reunification of Germany. Kohl was gigantic and he says to me, "By the way, Professor, do you realise that you are talking to someone who has inherited everything that happened to Adolf Hitler?". That's when the conversation stopped. Kohl was saying this for a good reason, that he was aware of the burden of responsibility. Hitler wanted the roof of Europe to be German, but Kohl wanted to leave a European roof to Germany.

Three years go by and I am in St. Petersburg at a conference. Camaraderie, West, West, Russia. But there is an unpleasant-looking little man, a sort of pseudo-assistant to the mayor of St. Petersburg who, on the second day, clouds the atmosphere of the conference because he whistles and says: "let's remember that there are territories that, historically, have always been Russian and we in the Russian Federation are committed to them", and he refers to Crimea. There are 35 million Russians living outside Russia and it is up to us to look after them. We are talking about '94. His name was Vladimir Putin. You cannot say that NATO enlargement, which started five years later, is the cause of aggression against Ukraine, no. It is the revanchist instinct. It is the revanchist and imperialist instinct that was already bubbling in '94. So the story is a story of the history of Europe and of freedom. These are the main threads of my work.

In the early 1970s, most Europeans lived in dictatorships. 289 million Europeans lived in democracies and 389 million in dictatorships. Not all dictatorships were behind the Berlin Wall. Spain and Portugal were also dictatorships at that time. Starting with the end of dictatorships in southern Europe in the mid-seventies we see an upward curve, we see freedom and democracy passing like a veil over Europe. Europe and freedom, arriving in '89 to the East and an unprecedented enlargement of the European Union to the East, with 27 members in 2007. NATO, fifteen members in '72 and 26 in 2007.

Of course, it was not an uninterrupted period. There were five wars in the former Yugoslavia. There was also the attack on the twin towers, but still, it is an upswing. In this respect, it is interesting to remember that 11 September, the attack on the twin towers, does not seem to be the most important moment in Europe. It is in the United States and in the Middle East. The most important moment in Europe is 2008 when, simultaneously, the global crisis occurs and Putin takes over two large parts of Georgia in the summer-autumn. This triggers a cascade of crises over fifteen years: the financial crisis leads to the Great Recession, Orban begins to threaten democracy in Hungary, in 2014 Putin annexes Crimea and the Ukraine war starts, in 2015 the refugee crisis, Brexit, Trump, populism, Covid and until 24 February 22, which is the beginning of the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

This war in Ukraine brings the post-war era to an end. One of the questions is why, after everything seemed to be going well for so long, why this series of crises. In large part it is due to hibris (a Greek concept that can be translated as 'immoderation' of pride and arrogance), to different faces of hibris and to a fundamental underlying error, which is how we approach history. In the early 2000s we came to think that we knew where history was going and that, the way things had been going, pretty well, they would continue to go pretty well. But there is nothing inevitable in history. So, if the continuation of the upward curve is not inevitable, neither is the negative curve that we are now in, it is always up to us. It is always up to us. Do we take it for granted that Europe will exist? We have built the best Europe in history, but it is now under threat. We have seen it in the former Yugoslavia, in Ukraine, in Hungary. All the achievements can collapse very quickly, so we have to mobilise to defend this Europe that we have built.

I still believe in the European identity, but we have to ask ourselves who this we is. In Ukraine, every second word is Europe. There is no European as passionate about Europe as Ukrainians are right now. They yearn to be members of the European Union because they see Europe as their future and the champion of security and democracy. Another group of very passionate Europeans are Britons like me. The two most impressive recent pro-European demonstrations have been in Kiev and London, in this case against Brexit and calling for a second referendum. If you look at how the pro-Europe argument has been made over the last seventy years, it has always been the same: we were in a nasty place, we want to be in a better place and that place is Europe. There were many bad places in Europe. In Germany, Nazism; in France, occupation; in Spain, dictatorship; in Poland, communist dictatorship; in the UK, economic decline. The form was the same, being in an ugly place and wanting to go to a better place, which is Europe. The problem is when we are there. There is a generation of young Europeans who take for granted everything we have achieved in Europe and now they think things are worse. They are not sure that Europe guarantees them a better future. So we have a problem not on the periphery, but in the very heart of Europe.

The Europe we have today was created by four generations, whose lives were changed by the experiences of their youth. First there is the generation of '14, with their experience of the First World War, people like Adenauer and so on. Those of '39, the Second World War, those of '68 and '89, those who live through that year of wonders. I was explaining this when a student stood up and asked if I thought there would be a generation of '22. The war and this feeling that the project is threatened from within and from outside will make us talk about a generation of younger Europeans. I would love to think that this is going to be the case, that we are going to see the generation of '22 mobilising on the continent, but I have my doubts. In Ukraine and the Baltics yes, but in the West I don't see it. So you have to try to generate that awareness for the generation of 22.

The fall of the Berlin Wall challenges the way we make people understand the importance of these events. A German friend of mine went to West Germany via Hungary in 1989 and thought he would not see his family again for many, many years. But there is a train station in Berlin where the tram ran through East Berlin and there he had an appointment with his family. He was on the train and his sister was on the East German platform and they were shouting at each other. It's a heartbreaking scene and they thought they were never going to see each other again. And then the miracle of the fall of the Berlin Wall happened. The father of these kids crosses with his daughter and a friend of hers to the other side of Berlin as soon as the wall comes down. He crosses half an hour to the other side and, on his way back, his daughter's friend asks him to stop the car and he put one foot on the ground. She couldn't believe she was in the West. When you tell a story like this, you can make people understand what it was like. We knew it was a miracle. But little by little we started to think that this was inevitable, but it was really a stroke of luck. We started making that mistake in the early 2000s and convinced ourselves that history was our ally. That's where things started to go sour.

When I see how we are going backwards, I ask myself where we went wrong. I see the mistakes as a liberal Europeanist. We spend too much time on the other half of the world and neglect the other half of our societies. It is not just a question of inequalities of income and wealth, but also inequality of attention and perspective. Many people thought that they were not being taken into account, that they were being ignored, that the cosmopolitan elites had no respect for them. The populists took over this electorate. One of the great challenges for Europeans is how to win back that other half, which is still tempted to vote for populism.

Spain is a classic example of how Europe, freedom and democracy have gone hand in hand. I would therefore be concerned if that were to be called into question. The European Union has enormous regulatory power when countries want to join. But once they are in the club, they seem to be able to do what they want and the normative power weakens somewhat. It is a major problem for the European Union, for example, to think that democracy in Hungary would be consolidated by EU membership. Then it turned out that Orban was able to destroy Hungarian democracy by using Europe's own funds. The problem is therefore structural, and the EU will have to address this problem if the next enlargement is to be a success, because it will have to welcome countries with authoritarian tendencies. Moreover, it has always been a mistake to think that Europe will defend the rule of law for us. It is a mistake to think that Europe will do our job for us.

The key to Europe's future is to find the right balance between unity and diversity. For two thousand years, Europeans have had this love-hate relationship with Rome. On the one hand, since the end of the Roman Empire we have been trying to recreate it. On the other hand, we have been trying to escape from the Roman Empire. The key to securing Europe's future is not to try to go full speed ahead to create the United States of Europe. We have to try to strike that delicate balance between unity and diversity. It is the key to keeping Europe alive for the next fifty years. Should we then enlarge the European Union? Enlargement is the greatest success of the European Union, because countries want to be democratic and part of the EU, but also because we are now in a world of giants, of great powers. There is not only the United States and Europe. There is also Russia, China, India, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa. In a world of giants, you have to be a giant. Therefore, if enlargement is done well, we will increase our power, especially if Trump wins the US election, which is very possible. To defend our interests and values we have to be a very powerful giant.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.