Comment: For all its faults, the EU is still a powerful force for good

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I was in Madrid last weekend visiting family. It is a beautiful city with extraordinary architecture, fantastic museums, elegant boulevards and avenidas. It has everything you would expect in a major capital and former imperial seat of a world power.

Walking around this lovely metropolis I found myself, as I often do in these places, thinking about the people who unwillingly paid for all this grandeur with the sweat of their brows, the blood of their veins and with their very lives.

From Tarragona in northern Spain to Tierra Del Fuego on the southern tip of Argentina, the Spanish pursuit of gold and world domination meant, for many, disease, destruction and death.

I have the same reaction when I visit most European capitals - my mind inevitably turns to the lost lives behind the columns, colonnades and arches, to the backs bent, the hearts broken and the lives stolen in the pursuit of power and wealth. As the citizen of a former colony, I suppose it is to be expected that my thoughts and sympathies will be with the unwilling and the damned.

In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind (above), Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari tells of an exchange between Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and native Aztecs during his invasion of what is now Mexico. The Aztecs found the invaders' obsession with gold bizarre. When asked to explain the Spanish passion for the shiny metal, Cortés is reputed to have said: "I and my companions have a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold."

Although a fervent supporter of the European project, I find my enthusiasm is tempered by a consciousness of the dark imperial past of the major European nations - a past which, whether we leathery old lefties like it or not, also did much to create the comfortable place we occupy on the ladder of global material and political well-being.

I like to think of the EU as a sort of redemption for the sins of the continent's imperial history. As a project, it distils the best of the member states' legal systems, the best of their attempts at social cohesion and gathers the civilising power of the continent's rich artistic heritage around its formidable economic power.

The object is to create a just, outward looking, sustainable future, not only for the citizens of the Union, but for the planet. In that regard 'Fortress Europe' is a contradiction of what the Union should be. The rolls of razor wire along the southern borders of the Union, along with the treatment of the people of Greece, are blights on its name and nature.

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In these days of Brexit and the revival of narrow nationalisms, it is a good time to re-evaluate what the Union means. From subsidies to social legislation, it has made this country much better off. In rural Ireland, we have good reason to appreciate the value and values of the EU. The continued investment of billions into farming in the shape of the CAP (current budget €1.3bn) is the lifeblood of farming in terms of payments, research and policy development.

Rural communities have been transformed by LEADER, a fund and a programme born out of a deep European analysis of rural decline from Estonia to the Erris Peninsula. And there is much more to it than that. The Union is a symptom and symbol of emerging global realities. If I may quote Yuval Noah Harari again: "The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps, nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation states."

I was in the magnificent Royal Palace in Madrid, surrounded by the fruits of imperial aggrandisement when my twitter account alerted me to a video clip of a speech delivered in the EU Parliament by a Spanish MEP, Esteban Gonzalez Pons. He was speaking in a debate honouring the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

Aside from crediting Europe with the dubious honour of ending communism, the speech is a powerful affirmation of what Europe is and seeks to be. "Europe is not a market. It's the will to live together. Leaving Europe isn't leaving a market. It's leaving shared dreams. We can have a common market, but if we don't have common dreams, we have nothing... Europe is the welfare state, it is democracy. Europe is fundamental human rights."

I leaned against an ornate colonnade in the Palacio Real and listened as the words of the MEP, spoken in a latter day version of the language of Cortés, drifted around the trappings and tapestries of imperial glory.

There was redemption in his words, there was redemption in listening to them in this place, there is redemption in this European Union.

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