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Europe at a Crossroad.

One year ahead of the next European elections, the debate over citizens’ participation heats up: How to bring the institutions closer to the citizens?

The best inspiration can be found in an extraordinary meeting that took place exactly 70 years ago. In May 1948 more than 800 persons from all walks of life met in The Hague.
The civil society of the time took the lead to change the course of history. There were famous politicians like former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill or the French Paul Ramadier, who had been an active member of the Resistance against Nazism.

French Prime Minister, Robert Schuman could not attend, but sent the young François Mitterrand in his place. Nor was the head of the Italian government Alcide De Gasperi, but his foreign minister Carlo Sforza and Altiero Spinelli led the Italian delegation.

Overall politicians were less than half of the participants. The others were businessmen and industrialists like the Olivetti brothers; worker unionists, representatives of traders and craftsmen; university professors and a couple of students; lawyers; physicians; engineers; musicians like Sir Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra; philosophers like Bertrand Russel, writers and many journalists.

Only a few women were present, among them Bodil  Begtrup, president of the National Council of Danish women, and Violet Bonham-Charter, vice-chairman of United Europe Movement. There were also representatives from Easter European countries, from Poland and Hungary to Yugoslavia. And a bunch of participants from outside of Europe, like the member of the French Parliament Saïd Mohamed Cheikh, a former doctor from the Comores, along with observers from the US, Canada and Turkey. Everyone felt concerned. Everyone felt a share of responsibility for the future.

On the ashes of World War II, they intended to launch a new dynamic between the peoples of Europe. It should be based on the principle of fraternity and on the absolute dignity of each human being. The gas chambers put a tragic end to the belief that technological progress would bring happiness to humankind. After the war, there was a general understanding that reason without a soul dehumanises.

The conference was organized along three committees: one political, one social-economic and a cultural one. All three were equally important. The cultural committee was chaired by the Spanish writer and diplomat Salvador de Madariaga, and some of the most influential thinkers of the so-called “personalist” philosophy took part in it. Hendrik Brugmans, Denis de Rougemont and Marc Alexandre advocated the core principle of this philosophy with strong Judeo-Christian roots.

Between two materialistic visions of society (the capitalistic individualism and marxist collectivism) they proposed an “integral humanism” in which each person was recognised and valued as unique and open to transcendence.
Society should be organised to let the person develop to his/her full potential, always in relation with others, in a community where all are equals in dignity and yet different in their identity.

Unlike the immanent ideologies of nazism, fascism and communism, the spiritual dimension of this new society was regarded as crucial. As crucial was forgiveness to overcome the wounds. It took a lot of courage by the organisers to invite the losers of the war, which had ended only three years earlier.  And it was the first European event to which a German delegation was invited on an equal footing. Konrad Adenauer, who was at the time the leader of the newly-created CDU party, was part of the delegation, along with Father Brandes, from the Evangelical Church of Hamburg. In fact, the CDU was born as a political party that would bring together Catholic and Protestant Germans – who were divided and opposed before the war – in a common effort for a spiritual renewal on Christian values.

Other delegations also included religious leaders, such as Bishop Joseph Wellington Hunkin, of the Church of England; and several priests. One of them was Father Verleye, from Bruges, who decided to start a college where young Europeans would learn to live as a “community”. Pope Pius XII, who had a strong interest in the success of this conference, was represented by his nuncios, Archbishop Paolo Giobbe.

The French delegation also included Jacques Augarde, deputy secretary of State for Islamic Affairs, who had been recently appointed by Robert Schuman. The prime minister was concerned about the exploitation of Muslim workers in Europe and also about the growing tensions between the French metropoli and its colonies in the Maghreb.

Because Europe was not meant to be united in isolation of the world, but to become a light for this new kind of humane global society. “A united Europe is the harbinger of future universal solidarity”, wrote Schuman (Pour l’Europe, 1964).

So said the final declaration of the congress in The Hague: “Human dignity is Europe’s finest achievement, freedom her true strength. Both are at stake in our struggle. The union of our continent is now needed not only for the salvation of the liberties we have won, but also for the extension of their benefits to all mankind.”

Today Europe is again at a crossroads. Faced with the challenges of globalisation, growing inequalities, the arrival of war refugees and economic migrants, the consequences of global warming, and the labour changes posed by new technologies, the EU has two options: closing itself in fear or strengthening the sense of solidarity. If we want to revive “the community”, institutional changes will not suffice. Rather, a new engagement by all European citizenry is needed.

Victoria Martín de la Torre

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