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The European Union will not die with the giants who built it

The coffin for late former chancellor Helmut Kohl at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. - Credit: DPA/PA Images

Everyone is buying Europe just when Britain is selling

La construction européenne est ‘fragilisée par la prolifération bureaucratique’ et ‘le scepticisme croissant qui en découle’.

The European construction is ‘weakened by bureaucratic proliferation’ and ‘the growing scepticism that ensues’, Emmanuel Macron announced at his gathering of legislators at Versailles.

Summoning what could only be described as the ‘full De Gaulle’, the pomp of the new president was called ‘Pharaonic’ by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who boycotted the Congrès. But Macron’s statements about the EU were positively 21st century, as they seemed to have been illustrated by a reported incident at Strasbourg that very day.

The European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was furious at the tiny number of MEPs who had come to the chamber of the parliament to hear a speech by the Prime Minister of Malta. He called the body ‘ridiculous’ and accused it of lacking respect for the smaller nations of the EU.

The president of the Parliament, Antonio Tajani, asked Juncker – in Italian – to back off. Tajani moved to French and instructed Juncker to mind his language and not to call the parliament ridiculous.

There are 751 MEPs. Only a reported 30 showed up for the speech, which was an account of Malta’s six month presidency. Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, pointed out that this ‘absenteeism’ was typical and that if Angela Merkel or Macron had been there, all 751 MEPs would have been in attendance. There was reported anger, too, at the small number of attendees when the president of the Marshall Islands came to address the parliament after a journey that had to have been approximately 18 hours long. The reality of the bigger nations commanding respect, and the smaller nations having to struggle to get any at all is not particular to the EU but it reinforces the negative narrative of an organisation that many consider no longer fit for purpose.

For example: all MEPs are expected to attend what’s called plenary sessions once a month in Strasbourg. They have to sign an official register to prove that they’ve attended a plenary and in return receive 306 euros a day to cover expenses. There are accusations of MEPs signing in for half days and then going elsewhere – the same accusation levelled at peers in the House Of Lords. Except that the EU is a conglomerate of sovereign nations, each with its own story, its own challenges.

Now with the sheer chaos of Brexit; the tragic and urgent reality of immigration from Africa which is bringing Italy and Greece to breaking point; the rise of right-wing populism; and the arrival of a charismatic dynamo from France in the person of its new president who may or may not be good news for the European project, it is a tricky time for the EU.

An intelligent question would be: what is the EU for now? What is its meaning?

The irony and poignancy of the deaths of Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil so close to one another remind us of something lost in the tumult of our time, a time most of us only know as having always been this way. How could we have known any other?

Only an expert can unravel the labyrinth of post-war German politics. A nation carved in two by its vanquishers determined to stop a momentum that had been driving forward, more or less, since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, it was a miracle that Germany had any politics at all. And a miracle was what Germany was. It was aided by American money and a USA determined to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Millions of us were born and grew up under the reality of an East Germany and a West Germany. A broken nation that deserved to be broken. Needed to be broken for the peace of Europe itself.

At the height of the whole thing, there came The Wall, a monstrosity erected by the Soviet Union on which people literally died. The Berlin Wall became a metaphor for both the restrictions and oppression of the Soviet Union, and the blue jeans and rock and roll of the West. The West was America and Great Britain and the freedom to do what you wanted.

Kohl, who had joined the Hitler Youth in the last days of the Second World War took no part in this. He was a conservative and no saint, either. His last days were mired in political scandal; intrigue and shame. A famous German satirist once labelled him ‘Don Kohleoni’.

The left hated him and called him ‘a pear’ because of his shape. They ridiculed him without mercy. But ‘the Pear’ was also a political talent-spotter. Angela Merkel is his protégée.

Outside of Germany he is now and will be remembered for German reunification and European integration. And the picture of him holding hands in solidarity with another wily political operator, François Mitterrand, during a ceremony, will endure. Kohl was buried with the flag of the EU draped on his coffin, a German who had come to embrace something much bigger than Germany.

Simone Veil, who died almost two weeks after Kohl, like him, embraced Europe. But unlike Kohl, Europe, in the reality of her native land and Germany itself, had tried to kill her. Veil, Jewish and born in Nice, was transported to Auschwitz. French Jews were rounded up and sent to their deaths with a zeal which even surprised Nazi officials, and is still a scar on the nation. Her brother and father disappeared in a truck heading for Lithuania, and her mother died of typhus in Belsen. ‘You were murdered in Auschwitz but you passed away in Belsen,’ a survivor once said. In short, in Bergen Belsen people were left to rot. But this Niçoise survived to return to speak at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2005 for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

Like Kohl, she was a passionate European. She became an MEP and eventually president of the Parliament. She also served on various committees. For her, bringing France and Germany together was an act not only of necessity, but of supreme intelligence. France, with its border with Germany, its long history of conflict and hatred, became, for Veil, a kind of workshop for her own rebirth.

The European Union can be said to have been, for her, at once a reality and a promise. She and Helmut Kohl must have had no illusions about it. But they were Europeans. They pushed against the boundaries of their own countries. They remade them as Idea. And Purpose.

I was told once that what I really didn’t get about Brexit is that it is really English nationalism by another name. Maybe that explains why Brexit is still being driven though in the light of a flip/flop pound; the possibility of real trouble in Northern Ireland; the reality of investment banks looking away from the City of London and toward Frankfurt and Dublin; a Civil Service having to shore up its expertise to handle hundreds of new laws to replace European laws; inflation rising because of the fluctuating currency; science agreements in turmoil; workers not coming over to work in the fields. The list will get longer. And more complex.

Maybe Emmanuel Macron, born in the 1970s, can begin to bring some kind of understanding of the new reality facing this part of the world, especially in the face of the economic powerhouses of the USA and China, and in not very long: India. He demands reform. The EU needs it, and it is possible.

‘Everybody’s buying Europe now,’ an American investor has said recently. ‘Just when GB is selling it.’

But first it was Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil who helped to make it.

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