Don’t believe those who say a pan-European public sphere is impossible

In Jean Renoir’s 1937 film The Great Illusion, German World War I commander Rauffenstein invites his prisoner Boeldieu, another captured officer and aristocrat on the French side, to dine with him. They bond upon discovering that they frequented the same establishments in Paris. Part elegiac, part satirical, the film remains a landmark commentary on European history.

It also serves to demystify an old critique of the European project: that it could never succeed because there was no sense of belonging or common purpose between the different European nations. Indeed, Europe has always been criss-crossed by social, political and personal ties, often stronger than national ties.

As Renoir illustrated, members of the same social class have more in common with each other across borders than between classes of the same nation (the working-class characters in the film also fraternize around the food and common destinies). At various times in history, the European community has equaled or surpassed national brotherhood in institutions ranging from royalty and the church to the communist movement, football, and artistic and intellectual activity.

Today, too, a European public sphere is visibly emerging. “There is increasingly a trans-European debate,” observes Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank with branches in Brussels and Berlin. “There are still national bubbles, but the feeling that we are all in this debate together.” The growing interest in the politics of other countries stems from an awareness of interdependence – Odendahl says this started with the Eurozone crisis – and while this is happening mostly at the elite level, it is “transmitted” by them to the national debate.

“There is indeed a European economy,” says Beatrice Weder di Mauro, president of the Center for Economic Policy Research, a network of economists. It serves a community of “people deeply interested in . . . how to buy into, grow and deepen the European project”. CEPR’s VoxEU online platform is where economists share their ideas on European policy issues .

This intellectual effervescence is not limited to political buffs. A crowdfunding effort is underway to launch a European book review (disclosure: I donated), echoing the New York and London incarnations of this kind of cultural publication.

Nor is it always led by privileged classes with a vested interest in legitimizing the institutions in which they work. The most profound exchange of ideas in recent times has been about what European identity means for Europeans with roots in places that have suffered from European colonialism. Writers such as Johnny Pitts and Hans Kundnani expand our understanding in ways that are critical, provocative and source of a much richer sense of pan-European solidarity in the future.

Brexit is the glaring anomaly of this image. Ironically enough, the British referendum on Europe accelerated the emergence of a European public sphere. It pushed CER to move elsewhere, while CEPR moved its headquarters from London to Paris, partly thanks to an offer of public funding. Presumably, the French government sees the value of bringing together people “who want to think about how to manage Europe”, in the words of Weder di Mauro.

Is it important? It’s the beginning. But the risk is that just as a robust European public sphere is emerging, which many in the UK believe is impossible, Britain’s ties to it are weakening. Domestic concerns, along with the government’s desired global direction, may well crowd out European issues beyond Brexit-related issues from Britain’s national conversation. For many, the English Channel already seems wider.

Faced with this, efforts are being made to maintain and strengthen ties. The Europaeum, a group of leading European universities created explicitly to increase their interconnection and promote thinking about Europe, includes Oxford and St Andrews. And English reigns supreme as the language of European debate. But even in the heyday of remote connectivity, or conversations happen and who calls them remains important.

The Great Illusion illustrated something else. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu had a lot in common, but none of that stopped them from meeting as enemies in a devastating war. A strong sense of European community does not guarantee the pursuit of common interests. But without even that, we would surely be doomed. We should be happy that the skeptics are wrong to say that it is impossible.

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