A practical vision
Whereas the plenary opening had been mostly theoretical, the plenary conclusion was geared towards offering a more concrete and practical vision on the present and future of open societies in Europe. The two keynote speakers, Mathieu Segers, Professor of Contemporary European History and European Integration at Maastricht University and Caroline de Gruyter, a European Affairs correspondent for the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and a regular contributor to Carnegie Europe, both proved to be very relevant and informative in that regard. In a stirring lecture combining academic acumen with poetic expression, Segers delved into the European history of the twentieth century to explain the contemporary state of affairs. Segers blended economic history with literary articulations to explain how the Pax Americana in postwar Europe had been nothing more than ‘a temporary fix, a flush of escapism’. Had been, because according to Segers the era of Europe looking across the Atlantic for help has ended: contemporary Europe is on its own again. Some attendees might have felt a bit uneasy by Segers’ compelling analysis, but perhaps their spirits were lifted by De Gruyter’s rather optimistic keynote speech.
De Gruyter shared Segers’ idea of a more inward-looking Europe. As a European correspondent, she had noticed a distinct shift among politicians and policy-makers during the last few years. Before, Europe stumbled from crisis to crisis, and as a result could never focus on anything but the present. De Gruyter argued that several developments altered the European political arena. The crises -such as the Greek debt crisis and the migrant crisis- might not be over, but seem less acute and heated than before. Moreover, national politicians want the European Union and the Euro to survive. As De Gruyter ably put it: Europe used to be surrounded by friends, but with Brexit, Trump, Putin and many other geopolitical changes, Europe is now challenged from all sides. This profoundly changes the European perspective and forces it to be inward-looking. These external developments might seem threatening, but De Gruyter views them as possible blessings in disguise, for they force Europeans to collaborate and think about their joint future.
New European Europe
After these two impressive keynote speeches, there was still ample time for a final discussion. Following the notion of a new, inward-looking Europe, many attendees where interested in laying bare the identity of this ‘new European Europe’. Van Bavel asked the keynote speakers where a European identity would take shape, considering the relative absence of a European public sphere. Segers acknowledged that it was still up to national media and parliaments to forge a European identity and thus legitimize Europe. In an elaborate analysis, he called attention to two paradoxical (and problematic) elements of the European Union. Whereas possibly the primary raison d’être of Europe is being anti-totalitarian, many citizens perceive it to be just that. Moreover, the ideals and values that instigated European cooperation often contradict the contemporary technocratic reality of the Union. Again, De Gruyter showed optimism concerning this last contradiction, using examples to demonstrate that members of the European parliament increasingly act on the basis of their values and ideals. For instance, the vast majority of the European People’s Party politicians voted against Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party for breaching core European values, even though it weakened their own party from a technocratic point of view.
open european societies