Twelve years ago, on the occasion of the Dutch EU presidency of 2004, our office designed an exhibition about Europe. The venue: a circus tent set up on the Place Schuman in the heart of Brussels' European Quarter. The tent, especially produced for the exhibition, was a kind of chromatic spectrum of every single color of every single flag of every single EU member state. The EU - that was the idea - could be fun. And for three months our creation made for a colorful spectacle in an otherwise dreary neighborhood, mainly conceived for conducting European bureaucracy.
The exhibition was based on the juxtaposition of two panoramic timelines: that of Europe's long history of wars and bloodshed, and that of the EU's contrastingly short period of relative stability, progress and prosperity. The message was simple. Europe's bureaucrats have succeeded where the warlords of previous eras had failed: the enduring creation of a single, undivided Europe.
Clearly the tone of the exhibition was one of optimism, which, at the time, seemed warranted. The Euro had been introduced with surprisingly few problems; the nations of the former Eastern bloc had just joined the EU; the Balkan conflict had been resolved and its perpetrators were being tried before international courts; separatist conflicts within states, such as in Northern Ireland and the Basque country, had magically given way to a shared enthusiasm for the larger European project; a constitution was in the making that would anchor the rights of European citizens. For a time, the EU looked like an appealing model for other continents to emulate. It seemed only a matter of time before the world could be redefined as a union of unions. We would all live happily ever after...
Now, twelve years later, the Netherlands again holds the presidency of the EU, but this time around it is difficult to regard our former optimism as anything but naiveté. The recent Dutch referendum on (and rejection of) the EU's association agreement with Ukraine has exposed the depth of anti-EU sentiments in one of the Union's founding countries. And while Britain is on the verge of a so-called Brexit, Europe's baffling inability to manage the refugee crisis has imperiled the entire continent. The list of set-backs goes on: Russian nationalism in the Baltic republics underlines the fragility of Europe's eastern borders; a European common 'defense' that is regularly mocked by Russian incursions into European airspace; politically correct European soft power that seems laughable against the reach of ISIS.
I have often wondered in retrospect how smart it was for an organization like ours to become so closely affiliated with a political system that has proven so fragile over time. Ten years after the launch of our exhibition, its celebratory nature seems distinctly out of touch with Europe's reality, as naïve as the optimism with which it was once associated. Yet I also feel that to simply distance ourselves from positions taken earlier would be wrong. There are enough who want to leave the EU; to join them by arguing for a EUxit, a wholesale abandonment of the European project, would hardly qualify as a meaningful contribution to the debate.
Europe is no failure. Europe is also no success. Its real value lies in that it can (and must) transcend short term performance indicators. Europe is a necessary adjustment in the context of a world where the size of problems inevitably exceeds the size of nations. Even if every single nation would exit the EU, it would in no way undo the fundamental interdependence to which all, for better or for worse, are subject. The only thing a wholesale exodus would accomplish is that there would be one fewer instrument to manage that interdependence. The good thing about the EU is that, after citizens choosing their national governments (Democracy 1.0), it allows citizens of nations a vote in each other's affairs (Democracy 2.0) with the simple admission that there can be no interdependence without interference.
More than just a political phenomenon, Europe is a form of modernization, or rather a chance for the political sphere to catch up with modernization. (It is no coincidence that it is generally conservative parties who oppose Europe.) Interdependence between nations is a direct result of scientific and technological progress, which once unleashed cannot be reversed. When problems escalate, so must inevitably the arena in which they are addressed. Only when democracy is practiced at as part of a multilateral constellation - on the scale of a continent - can it produce an enduring and stable course.
Like modernization, the concept of Europe emerges from irreversible progress. It often appears to defy political choices, yet it would be a stretch to brand the EU as undemocratic. In transferring power into the hands of a larger number, in allowing nations to meddle with each other's business, the EU simply elevates the notion of 'the majority' to another scale. More than eroding national sovereignty, the EU provides an additional space which helps transnational events unfold by design and not by default. An institution like the EU is born out of the knowledge that in the face of the bigger issues we are all minorities.
It is a primal reflex to retreat within one's territory in the face of trouble; the recent, terrible events in Europe prove no exception. Yet it is the core of modern thinking to mobilize the opposite reflex: that in the face of adverse conditions one flees forward. (In that sense Europe remains the perfect Freudian construct.) On the brink of the Britain's EU referendum, fully in line with a European tradition of interference, I would like to express the hope that the people of Britain will vote against plans for a British exit. Britain is a modern nation, the origin of the industrial revolution, former center of a global empire and, largely as a consequence, currently home to a global community. More than any other European country, Britain is multicultural. It is hard to find a nationality that is not represented in the UK. A retreat within the confines of its own borders is not only anti-modern, but ultimately un-British. I have lived and worked in the UK. I held my first ever job here. In no way was my foreign nationality ever a barrier to career progression or social integration. Bizarrely, it is now a fear of 'foreign' workers that underlies the referendum. Eastern European workers, who have helped propel the UK economy in recent years (and who incidentally count as domestic according to EU law), are now portrayed as invasive hordes. Nine month ago, Scotland chose not to turn its back on Britain, motivated by the knowledge that there was more in common than not. For the very same reason, I would like appeal to the people of Britain to not turn their backs on Europe.