What Europe Means

May 15, 2013 9:45:20 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he takes a look at the EU in its current economic crisis and extracts a positive outlook.


"Insanity is contagious."
- Joseph Heller, Catch 22

"See that little stream ... we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to do it... a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rags.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

In December 2012 I had the pleasure of speaking at conferences in two great European cities: Athens and Dublin. They are, as we all know, cited as examples of cities in crisis, exemplifying the degree to which the European experiment has “failed.” The two cities may occupy different positions in the current crisis but they are supposed to signify a fractured European Union and, according to some, the defeat of a European ideal.

Mini globe
Photo: Mini globe by Kingsdude/Dave

I am not telling you this because I think you should be particularly interested in my travel schedules but because it made me think about what Europe means to us as international educators and how we might talk about this among ourselves, in our communities, and, more to the point, with our students.

The National UK newspaper, “The Daily Telegraph” carried an article by Andrew Gilligan with the headline “The EU: so where did it all go wrong?”(30th December 2012). In many respects the title exemplifies the position of the anti-European lobby and embodies a set of assumptions that imply that it has, definitively, “gone wrong”. The way in which it has gone wrong, according to this view, is in the economic sphere and with regards to the Euro. The fragility of the currency is undeniable as is the uneasy nature of the Union at this point in history where economic trauma permeates our several environments. In April 2013, for example, unemployment in Spain reached over 26% of the potentially working population. There are real dangers in this predicament and there is real pain for the poor (as always most of the rich are insulated from suffering). It would be foolish to disregard this reality.

It would be foolish also to see this as the failure of the Union. We know that politicians do not, as a rule, read history. If they did we would not be embroiled in Afghanistan. We, however, do have a responsibility as international educators to teach our students about the context in which the Union was founded and continues to function. Simply put, in the twentieth century there were two cataclysmic wars that originated, and were substantially fought, in Europe between nations that are members of the European Union. In World War I (1914 – 1918) an estimated 37 million people were casualties. At the Battle of the Somme alone over one million people died. In World War II (1939 – 1945) civilian deaths are estimated at somewhere between 38 and 55 million; military dead somewhere between 22 and 25 million.

This hideous historical context creates a moral imperative. Whatever the current economic traumas besetting Europe they alone are not what is ultimately important. The current version of a European Union came into being in 1993 but was preceded by a number of other associations beginning with the Hague Congress in 1948. What drove these efforts, and what we need to teach students about Europe, is that for over 60 years there has not been another war between the protagonists who butchered each other in the first 50 years of the twentieth century. That is the real achievement of the European Union and it is more important and more profound than any current economic crisis that will, inevitably, pass. The moral imperative is to remember the bloody insanity of those wars.

What the Euro sceptics have forgotten (or never knew) was encapsulated in the announcement in October 2012 that the European Union was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize:

The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. .. The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners. ...The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU's most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.

The award was controversial in some areas of European political life and was ridiculed by the leadership of the UK Independence Party. Nigel Farage said he was "baffled" at the decision, which he claimed brought the Nobel Prize "into total disrepute".

Students coming to Europe to study will hear these perspectives and more moderate, nuanced voices debating the Euro and the economic crisis but that is a limited perspective and not the only one that matters. The terms of the economic debate are familiar. We need to remind ourselves and our students that, as the Nobel Peace Prize indicated, there are other terms in which this issue needs to be considered: through the lens of the imperatives of historical memory. They need to understand the historical significance of the Union. I did not fight in a European War; my father and his father and his father did. I think that my children and yours will be spared that also. That is the profound achievement of the European Union.

The poet Siegfried Sassoon in “Aftermath” precisely reminds us of what really matters:

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.