Fifty years ago this week, the idea of Europe was set to paper, on a continent unsettled but past the worst of the postwar period. The air was clear of sulfur if not spleen. Ireland was a small rock in the North Atlantic made relevant only by its cultural totems and ever increasing diaspora. In Berlin a chasm was opening up between East and West--the partition of lives, fortunes and fates. In the global struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., between freedom and totalitarianism, Europe was the fault line and the front line. Old Europe was being rebuilt to fight the next war: a battle not just of ideologies but also, very possibly, of nuclear arsenals. It was not a moment for dreaming--more like one for digging a basement and ordering a year's supply of tinned soup.
And yet this was the moment the New Europe was born.
On the continent that had been the theater for mankind's darkest hour, we witnessed a very human miracle. The people of Europe found that their capacity for destruction was mirrored by an equally immense capacity for forgiveness, grace and hope. Looking to the U.S., Europeans could see how cherry-picked European ideas from minds like Locke, Rousseau and Tom Paine could flourish in a society not polluted by blood and aristocracy. And so, in 1957, six nations signed the Treaty of Rome and, with that one crucial act, built a showcase of multilateralism, prosperity and international solidarity.
Fast-forward 50 years. An Irish rock star reads the treaty with the enthusiasm a child has for cold peas but does uncover what I think technocrats might call poetry. Not much of it--just a turn of phrase here and there. Like Article 177, which summons the signatories to foster "the sustainable economic and social development of the developing countries and more particularly the most disadvantaged among them" and calls for a "campaign against poverty in the developing countries." Not exactly Thomas Jefferson but a glimpse of the kind of vision that might bind us.
Over the next 50 years, we might need a little more poetry. Europe is a thought that has to become a feeling--one based on the belief that Europe stands only if injustice falls and that we find our feet only when our neighbors stand with us in freedom and equality. Our humanity is diminished when we have no mission bigger than ourselves. And one way to define who we are might be to spend more time looking across the eight miles of Mediterranean Sea that separates Europe from Africa.
There's an Irish word, meitheal. It means that the people of the village help one another out most when the work is the hardest. Most Europeans are like that. As individual nations, we may argue over the garden fence, but when a neighbor's house goes up in flames, we pull together and put out the fire. History suggests it sometimes takes an emergency for us to draw closer. Looking inward won't cut it. As a professional navel gazer, I recommend against that form of therapy for anything other than songwriting. We discover who we are in service to one another, not the self.
Today many rooms in our neighbor's house, Africa, are in flames. From the genocide in Darfur to the deathbeds in Kigali, with six AIDS patients stacked onto one cot, from the child dying of malaria to the village without clean water, conditions in Africa are an affront to every value we Europeans have ever seen fit to put on paper. We see in Somalia and Sudan what happens if more militant forces fill the void and stir dissent within what is, for the most part, a pro-Western and moderate Muslim population. (Nearly half of Africa's people are devotees of Islam.) So whether as a moral or strategic imperative, it's folly to let this fire rage.
How will Europe respond? For all the babble of clashing ideas, there's more harmony than you might think. Historic promises have been made on aid, debt and even the thorny subject of trade. Aggressive progress on these, matched by advances in fighting the evils of corruption in Africa, could transform the continent and prevent the fire from spreading. As a group, the E.U. countries have promised to commit 0.7 percent of GDP to the poorest of the poor. How Europe works to keep that promise is as important to Europe as it is to Africa.
We might remember that Europe, 50 years ago, did not pull itself back from the abyss on its own. Across the Atlantic was a nation with a pretty broad notion of neighbor. Sure, the Marshall Plan wasn't all altruism--the U.S. wanted a bulwark against Soviet expansion as the temperature of relations dropped below freezing. But it was also generosity on a scale never before seen in human history. It defined America in the cold war era.
What will define Europe in this new era? What will provide the bulwark against the extremism of our age?
Part of the answer lies eight miles away.