While Europe had grown accustomed to the idea that catastrophes happen elsewhere, at least since the end of the Second World War, the Covid-19 pandemic was a humbling event. Its blatant socio-economic consequences have added more stress to the cycle of crises (financial, refugee, and climate) that have affected Europe in the past decade.
The context is more complicated as Europeans observe regional fragmentation in their southern and eastern neighbourhood and increased global contestation of the liberal order. Re-emerging powers such as China and Russia are becoming more dominant (or aggressive) in foreign policy, and the United States appears more hesitant to cooperate. The perception of loss and ontological insecurities haunt European politics.
Scholars have noted how this experience of loss in the present is mobilized by right-wing nationalists —who imagine days of closed national borders, sealed from migration and other cultures— to idealize the past and desire a return to better times. As written in the ‘Re-Imagining the Past’s’ Conference Report: ‘[Right wing] populist governance benefits a great deal from its own version of re-imagining the past. Deploying imagery and rhetoric that invokes a return to an idealized past presents a danger for policymaking and legislation’s present (and future). In this short contribution, I seek to demonstrate that the imagination of a better past also shapes the liberal narratives of an integrated and open Europe. Both right-wing nationalists and liberals idealize a past of European unity and certainty, as well as hope for a better future. This is a problem, I suggest, because the remembrance of a glorious past only leads to an estrangement from this world, adding more anxiety to current perplexities.
What past is being remembered? Liberals, who are concerned about the fragility, disunity, and loss of influence of Europe today, remember the glorious 1990s and early 2000s. The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which gave birth to a European Union with the potential to develop a common foreign and security policy. Against the background of the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and stable economic growth, the world seemed friendly for liberal projects.
The euphoria in the capitals of Europe contrasted with horrible stories coming from the Yugoslav wars, as well as in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo). In the eyes of Europeans, the nationalism and brutality of these civil conflicts were a mirror of Europe’s past. Europe had learnt to overcome conflict through economic cooperation, political integration, and the pooling of sovereignty and cultivation of inclusive identities. Projects of international democracy promotion, state-building and development aid followed. The feeling was that, as key European figures have believed and repeated since then: ‘the world needs Europe’, ‘Europe continues to set a global example as a region upholding the value of global solidarity’.
Sometimes Europe’s golden past is invoked explicitly. This was visible in the conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Javier Solana, who was NATO’s Secretary-General from 1995 to 1999 and then became the first High Representative for the emerging Common Foreign and Security Policy, spoke with a certain melancholy about the days when Europeans could shape world politics.
Solana claimed that the EU had lost authority on the world stage, despite it has become more integrated and has more resources and foreign policy tools than ever: ‘We had less power but had more influence; probably today the High Representative has more power, more people at its disposal … but I dare to say we had more influence’. Elsewhere, he contrasts the 2000s —when ‘a new age seemed to be dawning in Europe, in which the rule of law, democracy, and individual rights were unassailable’ — with today’s emergence of populism, nationalism and anti-EU sentiments. In another piece, he regrets that the ‘honeymoon’ of the European project is over.
This blog was produced following the “Re-Imagining the Past” Conference, jointly organised by CIPS and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University ofDuisburg-Essen in Germany.
The European Union’s past ‘greatness’ is also invoked implicitly by European Union leaders in office. Every time the world appears complex and uncertain, out of sync, the spectre of the terrific 1990s and early 2000s returns. The EU Global Strategy (2016), which sets the common framework for today’s EU external action, is a good example: ‘We will navigate this difficult, more connected, contested and complex world’. While the observation that the EU faces greater complexity refers to a multipolar world dominated by great power competition and contestation, it also reflects a loss of confidence about the self, a loss of clarity, a loss of unity, a loss in the capacity to manage today’s international affairs as one would wish. Policymakers regret the spiral of crises that have affected the EU in the past decade (the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit or the pandemic) and indirectly monumentalize a past devoid of crises.
This remembrance of better times also comes in when there is a feeling of a broken promise or a gap between ambition and reality as in the development of Europe’s Strategic Compass, or as it often happens in European Union debates over sensitive issues, or in world summits on multilateralism, peace, or the fight against climate change. The past even permeates liberal narratives of hope for a better future, where the EU could enhance its capacity and strategic autonomy. In the words of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell: ‘Let us hope and make sure that it  will be the year in which we begin to emerge from this crisis while rebuilding a just, green and digital future in Europe and in the world’. The hope is that in the future, Europeans can rebuild, recuperate and bounce back to glory days.
The longing for regaining a blooming past starts with anxiety over the present and ends in the hope for a better future. This is true for many right-wing populist narratives, as much as for liberals who wish for a stronger and united Union. The result is that the present has been drained, and the anxiety with European politics intensifies. Skepticism grows while Europeans wait for Europe’s return.