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Europe & the European Parliament

 

I wrote this for a group of students going to visit the parliament:

Reflections for students visiting the Parliament in Strasbourg

2009-04-13

Dear students,

You have lived your conscious experiences entirely after the web was invented, now 20 years ago: you do not know the world without the internet.

You also did not live the years of Europe's division by the Iron Curtain and the nuclear armament threats, let alone the second world war.

You do live in a world where it is difficult to find jobs, where big crises are coming like overpopulation and climatic catastrophes (the politicians prefer the euphemism "climate change"), and where the future of millions has been wrecked by silly banking operations.

But you also live on a continent that has been very lucky. EXTREMELY lucky!

First, Europe is geographically well positioned: not too hot, not too cold. It is made up of lots and lots of peninsulas, which means both the sea and the mountains are everywhere, transport is easy and challenges are available.

Second, there were many waves of migration, which meant that learning new things from the immigrants was not only an opportunity but often a necessity for survival.

And finally, Europe was lucky to have the Black Death epidemic in 1345. That reduced the population by half and made the remaining people twice as rich. It also was the beginning of a freer mode of thinking and solving problems which led to the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment.

These three accidents of nature created the circumstances from which rose a philosophy, a way of life, an approach to building societies that the rest of the world calls "western".

But I would like to stress that the "western" ways are not a cultural affair, proper to some peoples of Europe and exported to North America. I want to avoid the geographical characterisation of "western": the people who came to inhabit this continent, and of whom you are the heirs, were just lucky.

Over the last 3000 years we were educated by this continent, not by our own efforts. Because of these circumstances we were privileged to learn faster, to drive our knowledge and understanding faster, to get quicker to technology and to become better at handling sociological interactions between ideas and the groups of people under their influence.

Europeans were lucky.

But we were not better pupils than any other people would have been: we misbehaved constantly, fighting wars almost throughout those 3000 years, and the worse sins of war we committed in the 20th century, coming close to exterminating the human species.

In the second half of last century we did understand that our individual and collective power had to be channeled firmly so that we would preserve what had been achieved: democracy in decision, serenity in stress, science in problem solving, technology in action.

We stepped down from colonialism, managed to defuse the atomic war threat, built up the sciences and technologies of politics and management. The task is not finished and the road walked was not straight: there have been and still are many abuses, bad laws, incomprehensible belief systems, intolerances and misunderstandings.

As Europeans, we should humbly remind ourselves again and again that we had 3000 years of lucky development, we are not superior in our human abilities. But we can be proud that we did learn rather than sit still. We continue to learn and we understand the value of a reasoned approach to problems.

We Europeans are privileged to be first to have reached a level of general education and civilisation that has never before been attained. This privilege comes with the duty to help others catch up. It is not a matter of "western", it is a matter of civilised organisation of human society, wherever that is located.

Democracy and the rule of law are not "western" cultural export products for which equally good alternatives might exist. Democracy is the best technology of organisation and operation of societies that humanity has found. It must be constantly worked on to improve it and to maintain it, lest it fall apart.

Scientific research in sociology is needed, and progress can and must be made. But remember that democracy is not just another, "western" way of doing things, it is not a cultural choice like dress fashion or cuisine, it is a technology.

The European Parliament is far from perfect: it has not enough power yet, it is still composed of people whose vision is often about their own country rather than more global. The rules for participation are still far to much rooted in individual nations. But there are hopes: there are now pan-european political parties, transnational, such as the "newropeans", of which I myself am a member.

The origins of the European Parliament lie in a past century of wars and conflicts. It was founded by people with a global vision but who understandably still had some nationalistic reflexes. The Parliament is an institution that will change for the better, and it will do so because of the new generation that you are.

I wish you every luck, a happy trip to Strasbourg, and a lot of energy to change what needs to be changed, to preserve what is good and, above all, to help those who were not as lucky as we were.

Robert Cailliau

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next planned revision: 2009-01