What the Liberal Left Has Unlearned: Teaching Common Values and History in the EU

In a material sense, the countries within the EU are slowly recovering from the debt and refugee ‘crises’. However, politically speaking the wounds are far from closing as Brexit and the surge of right-wing populism show. On a superficial level it is astonishing that the liberal project of the EU has taken for granted that economic and political liberalism will stabilize each other. Taken for granted to such a degree that the core political values where only charged once from newly entering member states: only at the door to entry, e.g. in the form of the Kopenhagen criteria. But once the new members became full members of the club there is very little the EU actually can do about backsliding. The European responses to Berlusconi’s Italy, Austria’s coalition government including a right-wing populist party of the early 2000s, or to the recent ‘carpet bombing’ (Lajos Bokros) on the Hungarian and (to some degree) on the Polish constitution have been lukewarm at best.

If these episodes show one thing, however, is that one cannot take for granted that the EU is a community of shared values. It may or may not be. The EU is first and foremost a legal and economic arrangement with some influence in specific policy areas. And among these policy issues those get most political stage light that deal with economic and legal issues: how to handle debt, how to handle third-country migrants to name just two hot topics.

In all these increasingly polarized discussions EU member states and the common institutions have unlearned an important lesson of early post-war reconstruction: re-education. The idea of European integration was first and foremost one about establishing a community of values: the mutual stabilization of democracies, rule of law, and good government. And this is hard to achieve only by secondary action on specific policy areas. It is even hard to achieve only by constitutional guarantees alone. What the European project, in the beginning, was all about was shaping Europeans. A good example for this was the French-German twinning that happened in the early post-war period. This consisted much more of symbolic politics and the actual exchange between pupils, twinning programs between towns and cities and a common understanding of shared history.

This dimension was never fully embraced by the EU. Education, for instance, seems to be fully submitted to the principle of subsidiarity. True, there is some harmonization of degrees and facilitation of mobility. And yet, nation states jealously watch over the substantive contains in this domain, and, as Ernest Gellner would have expected, within nation states the substance matter of education falls very often into the hands of conservative politicians. This might not be necessarily bad, but from this foundation right-wing extremism takes its legitimacy to build up very dangerous interpretations of European history.

Just take the example of the current Hungarian government which is aggressively redesigning the content of education towards more conservative worldviews. This is only possible because such underlying national narrative where never replaced, not even counterbalanced by transnational, European narratives. Look at one exhibit, I came across some eight years ago in a normal book shop. It shows the title page of a historical atlas for school children. On the title page you see the image of greater Hungary, the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire after the great compromise 1867 (and implicitly, as the mythical king figure exhibits a much longer historical tradition). This picture is ingrained in the minds of Hungarian kids learning history.

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No wonder that these new Hungarians feel betrayed: they live in a seemingly smaller, less aspiring, shrinking country compared to this fictitious entity. The past is a country of glory and greatness and the present one one of shame. For liberals it is obvious that this greater Hungary is a case of historical cherry-picking, a manufactured snapshot in the everchanging, constantly meandering flows of history, with moving boundaries, moving identities, and moving social structures. It is so obvious to them that they do not seem to care to replace it by a more pluralistic less nationalistic version of history.

This is the fertile ground of current right-wing rhetoric. The Hungarian politics of collective memory constantly repeat the idea of being betrayed and victimized. And under constant threat from neighbors and superior powers. And Hungary is clearly not the only case of such partial historical narratives. Was it the Polish-Lithuanian or Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth of the 16th and 17th century that showed the largest extensions of what current day Poles or Lithuanians believe to be their past? Does Kosovo historically belong to Serbia or not?

Liberals usually don’t bother about these issues, they live in a world beyond borders. They do not see that people care about belonging to a community (e.g. here). In fact, they care so little, that they do not think these issues should be regulated or Europeanized at all. But Europe is about much more than just money or external borders. It is about the way how we tell ourselves stories about our common past. It is here the EU can also act and to develop a European version of history. The EU needs to rediscover the idea that a union is also about informing and instilling common values and common identities. Why not massify twin programs between neighboring countries or invest in common historical education for a start? The issues are too important to left to the containers that are contemporary nation states alone.


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