Europe, in its long and eventful history, has become both victim to and perpetrator of the most horrific acts of brutality. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the bloodiest displays of carnage that human kind has ever seen. World War I was bound to end all wars and a decisive victory of one side or the other was to cement the world order for centuries to come. Instead, one bloodshed was replaced by another; World War II. Not having learnt lessons from the Great War, Europe was again plunged into a conflict, which this time proved far more consequential than anticipated.
The heaviness of individual and collective suffering served as an impetus to rebuild Europe on the grounds of mutual economic, cultural and social dependence. Although this moment marked the end of a long and painful evolution, by moving from conflicts to cooperation, it has proven to be the beginning of something even bigger: the birth of the European integration. This has consequently led to the creation of the European Union, which is now the best testimony to Europe’s understanding of the lessons of its violent past.
By breaking down the cycle of Europe’s ferocious history, the EU has achieved something that never been seriously contemplated before – long-lasting peace between France and Germany. The community of trust, partnership and friendship has turned old foes into new allies and this incredible success has become the underlying theme of the Union. Ever since then, the success of building bridges between old enemies and new friends has been replicated several times over.
2014 is thus significant not only for commemoration of the WWI, but also for celebrating the 10th anniversary of the biggest enlargement of the EU ever. For those countries that joined the EU ten-years ago, the European project means more than just peace. It also means freedom to travel, work and study abroad. It means feeling European and equal as well as re-joining the Union that had always been theirs too.
The EU is currently a collection of 28 different accounts of what it means and why the Union matters. Significant a part of the European story as it may be, we are currently running a risk of focusing too much of our attention on the Franco-German relations as the only relevant interpretation of the united Europe. While we had learnt from mistakes of the past, we are now creating new mistakes of the present by not treating all stories equally. This can only lead to marginalization and even alienation of millions of Europeans who will feel excluded from the project.
Be it the story of Central and Eastern Europe, of the Baltic States, the Balkans, the Southern or Northern Europe and yes that of Germany and France, the EU needs to recognize all stories in equal measure. Reminding ourselves of the diversity of what the European Union means to us serves a very important purpose: it allows for an ownership of this unique project to those who do not come from France, Germany or Western Europe but who, nevertheless, do feel just as much a part of it as anyone else. As such, the Union cannot be limited only to the exchange of goods, labour and services but a real integrated Europe will also require an inclusion of social and cultural aspects too.
Ultimately, the European Union of today is a project born out of the essential comprehension that learning from one’s mistakes is strength and not weakness. The beginning of European integration marked the end of insufferable conflicts driven by France and Germany’s animosity to one another. But Europe’s success does not end there, and as we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2004 wave of enlargement we are reminded that the EU means a lot more to a lot more people. Therefore the EU should embrace and be proud of all of its achievements – wherever on the Continent they may be – and by doing so it will lay a solid base for equal and ever closer union.