Héctor Abad Faciolince: An Idea of Europe

May 26, 2014

After centuries of war, European unity has been one of the world’s greatest achievements in the second half of the 20th Century. But can it last? The recent European Parliamentary elections have given rise to Euro scepticism and hostility to immigration. It is a testing time for Europe.  John Menadue


El Espectador, Colombia, 4 May 2014,  http://www.elespectador.com/opinion/una-idea-de-europa-columna-490295

I have just been at Berlin’s “House of the Cultures of the World”, as part of a discussion about Europe, and more specifically, about whether some ideas developed in that part of the word can be considered universally valid. One cannot deny that Europe is a special place. To start with, although it is called a continent, it is not even a continent. When we look at a map of the world in real dimensions, and not one designed from the point of view of the European geographers, we can see that Europe is just a small Asian peninsular. It is a corner of the world, squeezed between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and a crossroad in the paths connecting Africa and Asia. This does not detract from Europe, but on the contrary, makes it more extraordinary.

Tiny Europe was affected by all the plagues (which ensured that its peoples became immune from many diseases), and for millennia, it was basically a killing field: wars and invasions from the north, the east and the south. It was also a centre of commerce, and because the wisdom of the Egyptians, the Arabs, the Indians, Chinese, indigenous Americans etc, circulated and settled throughout its territory. The invaders and the invaded left great technical, artistic and scientific knowledge in Europe. Writing, numbers, algebra and Christianity were not European inventions, but it appropriated these ideas to itself.

And although Europe is very small in relation to the world, if we look at the map again, we can see that vast regions speak European languages: throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Obviously, that does not mean that English, French, Portuguese, Dutch or Spanish are better languages than the others. It simply means that those who spoke these Latin or Germanic dialects won more battles and imposed their own languages. They colonized almost the whole world with fire and sword.

Latin America still has the footprints of the Conquest, the rape and genocide of the indigenous Americans that can be seen in our looks and in our blood; and we bear the traces of a European and African business in slaves that lasted for centuries. Europe produced perhaps an involuntary, but real extermination of tens of millions of people from illnesses from which the indigenous people had no immunity. But the colonies also brought with them the seeds of Enlightenment thought, the scientific method and the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. It has always been said that the translation of “The Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, a French idea, was the beginning of our liberation.

After thousands of wars and suffering, Europe appears to have learned a lesson and today is it one of the least uncivilized regions on earth. Europe’s defeats civilized it: Spain lost its pride with the loss of its Armada and the American colonies; France lost its overweening grandeur at Waterloo; and Great Britain’s Empire disappeared into thin air, while Germany learned not to be so arrogant, and not to believe that it was “über alles” when Hitler took it to moral and material ruin. The European Union, the practical disappearance of borders and 70 years without war between the major powers has turned Europe into a reference point for many. For the Ukraine, Turkey, and in part for the Americas. Values like the freedom of the press, of thought, religion, universal education, and rules of hygiene seem almost universally accepted like certain postulates of physics, geometry and mathematics. The beauty of Bach’s music or Velazquez’s painting is almost as unarguable as Pythagoras’s theorem.

There will be elections on 25 May 2014 in Europe, the same day as Colombia’s elections. And the incredible thing is that in this place that seems to be an example in so many ways, a good percentage of the population will vote against a united Europe, and for nationalism, for racism, for closed borders, and for the call to war. A good part of Europe, it seems, does not believe in Europe.

Translated from the Spanish by Kieran Tapsell.

Héctor Abad Faciolince is one of Colombia’s best known authors. His book, El Olvido Que Seremos, about his father, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Antioquia, who was assassinated by the Right wing paramilitaries, became a best seller in Latin America. It has been translated and published under the name, Oblivion: A Memoir. http://www.amazon.com/Oblivion-Memoir-H%C3%A9ctor-Abad/dp/B00D05REJC

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