Vice-President Alexander Stubb on how the Notre Dame fire is a prime example of how it’s much easier to destroy something than to build something, together. But why the reactions to the fire should also make us hopeful.

Originally published in ‘Diplomacy’, on the occasion of the 2019 Lennart Meri Conference by the International Centre of Defence and Security.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was a pioneering novel that portrayed the lives of people from across the social spectrum. In a similar way, the wave of emotion felt by Europeans watching the images of Notre Dame in flames reminded us that we are more than a collection of nations and their symbols. We are Europeans, and we have a duty to treasure the peace and prosperity of our continental as much as the great cathedral of Paris.

It has become a common refrain that Europeans don’t identify with “Europe,” but instead rally around more local and national shared identities – which the populists can take advantage of. Nationalist politicians exploit people’s natural desire to belong to a group, recognizable through joint symbols and artefacts from anthems to flags, from the language they speak to the football team they support. Populists draw lines between these groups to divide people into “us” and “them” and to assign blame to others for any misfortune. These kinds of simple solutions have gained a lot of ground in Europe in recent years.

In the run-up to European Parliament elections in May, many voices across the political spectrum will fire criticism – sometimes well founded, more often not so – at the European Union. It’s important for positive Europeans to make themselves heard in response.

European identity

The spontaneous outpouring of emotions triggered by the blaze in “Our Lady of Paris” is proof that we already have something better than the populists would have us believe. You could see it in postings on social media. People were shocked and moved to tears—not just in France, but everywhere. It is a testament to our common culture and our shared history. Certainly most of us have, or have had, the iconic cathedral on our “must visit” list when travelling to Paris. It is also proof of the age-old adage that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters helped ensure that Notre Dame is not gone. But we were suddenly made aware of something of extreme value to us as a European civilization. Under threat of losing it, we came to appreciate its value. It is my firm belief this is emblematic of a lot of the “Europe” that we take for granted: the peace, the economy of scale, the freedom of movement, the joint commitments to liberal democratic values and our rights. Like some of our cultural symbols, should any of these come under threat, we as Europeans will suddenly be reminded of how much we treasure them. And we all do treasure them, despite national borders.

The same phenomena occurs when terrorists strike or other tragedies occur. We realize that it could have been us, that we are not so different from the parents of victims that we see on our screens. At those times, we stand in solidarity with people ostensibly quite different from us, people who normally eat lunch at a different hour than we do, and maybe even, as they greet, kiss each other on the cheeks three times instead of once, twice or not at all.

Crucial European elections

This all goes to show that the European Parliament elections on May 23-26 are crucial for the European Union. Consensus building is going to be harder if the elections send more extremists and anti-European politicians to the new parliament. It would make the EU much less effective, which is of course what the populists want. The European project would be put under pressure across the continent.

The Notre Dame fire is a prime example of how it is much easier to destroy something than jointly build something up. The fire wrecked parts of the construction that had taken close to 200 years to complete. What burnt in hours will now again probably take a few years to repair. You could say that laying the cornerstone of the EU took place around 60 years ago, and it is still under construction. But the populists are riding high in the polls because it’s easier to rally people around tearing something apart than to get them to agree on what our next spires should look like. Building a wall is the maximum they can even dream of creating. Now go and compare that to the flying buttresses, the gargoyles and the rose windows of Notre Dame.

But I am an optimist, and I am avidly pro-European. As a young student in the United States in the late 1980s, I remember watching from afar as the Cold War ended and Germany came together again. Those years defined my path in life. I have spent nearly 30 years trying to understand EU policy as an academic, bureaucrat, politician and manager. I learned that the EU is in constant crisis management. We move from one big problem to another, but we always manage to find a way out. This is now Europe’s moment to offer a solution.

Improving the Union

The Union is not perfect. It never will be. We move from one big problem to another, but we always find a way ahead. This is now Europe’s moment to offer a new solution. The European Union is the most successful experiment in managing relations between nation states, but we spend too much time highlighting our differences. The vote on May 23-26 is a test of our desire to work together and preserve European goals and values. The EU is based around respect for human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. In uncertain times, these values remind us why we are together—to promote peace, security and justice without internal borders; to promote economic growth and social progress; to ensure environmental protection, fight discrimination; and to encourage technological progress.

It is always good to start by thinking about more tangible things we can accomplish together. The impact of the fire of the Notre Dame on our collective consciousness makes it only natural that we work together across Europe to help restore the cathedral to its former glory, as President Macron has already pledged to do. The European Investment Bank was called into being some 60 years ago to contribute “to the balanced and steady development of the internal market in the interest of the Union”, and to help finance “projects of common interest to several Member States”. I believe we have just seen that things like the Notre Dame Cathedral are integral to the common interest of the European Union, and should there be a need, we should all pitch in. We should take this opportunity to check that the other cultural artefacts of our common Europeanness are well-protected and taken care of.

The tangible results of EU cooperation is what my place of employment, the EU bank, is all about. We help companies innovate, expand and add jobs. We boost investment across the EU and encourage public and private partnerships. Our financial support does more to help the climate and the economy than almost any other institution in the world, but we also make certain that every one of our financings helps regular people. We invest in bakers, toy makers, insulation for your home, new medicines, hospitals, public buses, streetlights, clean water, batteries for electric cars, solar power, wind farms. The European Investment Bank is proof of what EU cooperation can achieve, in practical terms, towards improving all our lives.

This kind of solidarity is what we also need on the future of the euro, the single market, sustainable growth, the circular economy. Let’s take these things step by step. If we get them right in the next few years, we will look back at this time as formative to the building of true European integration.