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EU: Only when it is in peril is the idea of Europe so inspiring - by Fintan O’Toole

Most ideas prove themselves by working well. The idea of Europe, on the other hand, seems to be most powerful when it’s going disastrously wrong. Over the course of modern history, it appears that Europe becomes an urgent business only when it is threatened with disintegration.

When things are OK, Europe bores us to tears. It is 28 shades of grey. But plunge Europe into existential crisis and it suddenly seems to matter. This is the great paradox of the idea: it grips the imagination only when it is in a dire state. The odd way in which the threat of Brexit makes the notion of Europe interesting again is actually quite familiar.

Europe has always drawn energy from the proximity of catastrophe. The first modern conception of Europe – that of a Christian commonwealth of holy kingdoms – took hold because the Turks were at the gates of Vienna and the triumph of Islam in Europe seemed a real possibility.

The religious wars in which Catholic and Protestant powers tore each other apart were ended by appealing to that same idea of European Later, the Enlightenment conceptions of a European culture based on science, reason and human rights became most vividly urgent when it collapsed face down in the mud of Flanders.

And the European Union emerged from the ultimate degradation of the European Enlightenment ideal at Auschwitz. Threaten or destroy the idea of Europe and it becomes suddenly potent. Take it for granted and it atrophies.

In its 58 years, the EU has worked best when it has been, in the broadest sense, negative. It has stopped things happening. It stopped Germany destroying itself, and Europe, yet again. It stopped central and eastern Europe from descending into chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It did not stop the horrendous civil wars in Yugoslavia, but it has offered a way out of them for Slovenia and Croatia and at least a roadmap for Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

It also – and this is not acknowledged often enough – allowed Europe to escape at least some of its own most vicious hypocrisies. At the heart of the idea of Europe were notions of superiority – of Christianity over Islam and of scientific rationalism over the benighted superstitions of lesser peoples. This superiority manifested itself in the barbarism of empires. “European”, to much of the world, meant a rapacious white man with a gun.

Maybe the British referendum will be the moment at which the EU begins to reconnect with its roots in the positive side of fear. Not a Project Fear of warning the Brits how harsh their lives will be outside an imaginary European Garden of Eden, but the energising fear that the world can be a pretty bad place if we don’t work in common to make it more equal, more democratic and more sustainable.

Read more: Only when it is in peril is the idea of Europe so inspiring | Fintan O’Toole | Opinion | The Guardian

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