Why we should rely on optimism and integrity to overcome political difficulties
I hate it, too, sir, slavery, but - but we’re entirely unready for emancipation. There’s too many questions...
(laughs) We’re unready for peace too, ain’t we? When it comes, it’ll present us with conundrums and dangers greater than any we’ve faced during the war, bloody as it’s been. We’ll have to extemporize and experiment with what it is when it is.
In the above scene of Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln, the eponymous president seeks to convince conservative Kentucky Representative George Yeaman to support the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that would abolish slavery once and for all.
Earlier in the film, soft-spoken George Yeaman, taking the House floor, already professed his disgust of slavery. He now adds, however, that freeing four million slaves in an instant is fraught with unknowns, and that abolishing slavery would get the US on a slippery slope many Representatives would not approve of – including the enfranchisement of people of colour, intermarriage and the vote of women.
It is easy for us to scoff at these issues that seem so obvious and normal to us now. But the important point is that Yeaman’s opposition to the amendment, instead of being based on its own merit, rests on a feeling of unreadiness at its consequences, a fear of the unknown, and on half-related or unrelated issues that he opposes.
Indeed, freeing millions of slaves does pose many new problems; but none of these problems can rightfully be seen as more important than the abolition of slavery itself. Yes, there will be issues and unknowns, but doing what’s right comes first and should lay the foundation of the new norm.
Yes, it will be messy and dangerous
This is where Lincoln’s response is so illuminating. “Yes, you’re right, we are not ready”, the President admits. He doesn’t try to defend his proposal or readiness; he doesn’t even try to reassure Yeaman about the complications that lie ahead. “No, that’s true, we are wholly unready, and it will be messy and dangerous”, he says in substance.
In hindsight, both peace and abolition did bring complications. Reconstruction was a difficult process and led to the first-ever attempt at impeachment in American history. Abolition left some slaves economically worse off than they had been and did not solve social injustice and racism – it would take over a century for the Civil Rights movement to right some of these wrongs.
From a plural to singular denomination
Yet, undoubtedly, despite these complications, peace and abolition were worth fighting for, leaving the country both more united and more just than it was before the war. According to historian Shelby Foote in Ken Burn’s magnificent nine-part documentary The Civil War: “Before the war, it was said “the United States are”. It was spoken that way, and thought of as a collection of independent States. And, after the war, it was always “the United States is”. […] And that sums up what the war accomplished: it made us an “is”.”
Lincoln’s message is therefore one of profound optimism: yes, there will be complications ahead, but we will prevail. We must do what’s right and, with time and good will, the difficulties, great as they may be, will be dealt with and we will come out stronger.
Evidently, the issues raised here – the importance of drastic reforms and the dread vis-à-vis their consequences – permeate societal and political decision-making and similar dives into the unknown are not uncommon in history.
Let’s have a look at some examples in Europe.
The French Revolution didn’t lead to a quick, stable democracy
Focusing on European history, we see that countless revolutions mark the history of the Continent, overthrowing absolute monarchies, communist dictatorships, and other imperial or otherwise authoritarian regimes. All of them leaps of faith to a better future, regardless of the accompanying risks.
To say that France’s road to democracy following the 1789 revolution wasn’t a straight line is quite the understatement. After the fall of Louis XVI’s monarchy, France became a brief republic, toyed with several forms of government, became an empire, returned to the monarchy, then the republic, then again to empire, then again to the republic under a variety of constitutions. Needless to say, many of these changes and ruptures were accompanied by a heavy death toll. The instigators of the Revolution knew it would be difficult and they knew they didn’t have all the answers from the start. Yet, a change was necessary. It unfortunately came at a high price and we can wish it weren’t so, but the end of the Old Regime and its cast-like system was inevitable and had to be brought.
Not all obstacles fell with the Berlin Wall
Much closer to us, the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany presented the country with a host of challenges, politically, economically, and socially. Although the inhabitants of both West Germany and East Germany had shared a long, common history, they spent two generations growing apart; each having developed its own set of institutions, political life, and societal norms. With the exception of the Korean peninsula, It would be hard to find people so close in culture, living such different lives. Despite the efforts that were put into reunification, including two trillion euros in “Solidaritätszuschlag” (Solidarity Surcharge) in order to rebuild the East German infrastructure, Angela Merkel – herself a symbol of integration of East Germany – declared in 2009 that "the process of German unity [has] not ended yet". Yet, for all these difficulties and even some form of Ostalgia, reunification had to be done and few would now doubt that it was the right course of action.
Whatever we do should bring us closer to a united federal Europe
A change of similar magnitude – probably even greater – is what we are facing today. If we’re honest, as we must, we will recognise that this change has actually been before us for some time now, but the compounding influences of globalisation, liberalisation and technological change have now made it all the more pressing.
This change is to, once and for all, move past our nations-States and build a federal Europe.
Admittedly, the scope of this change, for European nations, would be unmatched in recent history. While our economies have long grown more integrated and interconnected, a federation would drastically affect our political, institutional and social lives. Now, and probably for decades or centuries to come.
Why should we want this? Simply for the sake of statistics? To become the world’s 2nd largest economy? The world’s largest provider of foreign aid? The largest winner of Olympic medals? No. We should want this because we share a common European identity and because it is in line with our principles and values. Because our belief in true democracy cannot sustain the lack of representativeness of the European system as it stands. Because our support for the rule of law can no longer support the unfairness perpetuated by competing European nations. Because our cherished human rights would be more secure in a larger freedom.
Yet it’s true: we are not ready.
Indeed, we have not nearly solved the puzzles and difficulties that a federation will inevitably bring. Even considering the breadth of these issues is enough to make one’s head spin. Will we keep our Heads of State or Government, or will we have national governors instead? How will we harmonise the Eurozone, Schengen Area and borders of the Union? Should we wait until we agree on an EU-sized federation or should we start dismantling the unity of the EU so that a core of nations may move forward? What should be the reach of the federal government? How will we harmonise healthcare or retirement legislations? Will we choose a common language? Can we enforce dual-language schooling across the Union? What will happen to our tax systems, our military strategies, our national holidays? Which voting system should we adopt? Who will write our constitution?
For all these questions, myriads of answers can be chosen from, and each will determine a potentially defining aspect of who we become as a country. The truth is, even among the most convinced federalists, most of these issues have not been solved: they remain open for debate and match diverging ideas of what our federation should be. Some envisage a social Europe, where a federal government ensures standards and guarantees social protection for all, that federated States could only go beyond and not undermine. Others favour a liberal Europe, where the common market is extended to all segments of trade and norms and regulations are lowered to promote entrepreneurship across the continents. Both are possible futures.
Perfect preconditions will never be met
But, looking back at other, similar turning points in history, we must realise that we will never have all those answers. That as soon as we answer a question, two more spring up. And that this hydran dilemma is already the constant state of our national political lives: we keep amending our policies based on changing convictions and contexts. At times more social, at times more liberal; sometimes leaning towards more solidarity, sometimes to more freedom. It is therefore unfair to forever delay our European project, placing the bar too high, and condition its implementation on unreachable preconditions.
We must learn to accept that we do not have all the answers – nor will we ever have them –, and to understand that that’s not what matters. For instance, when national governments (or monetary unions) set up central banks, they do so because they know they need a dedicated institution for the management of monetary policies and they design the bank’s broad motus operandi, its power and its limitations. They do not, however, set the departments, the precise modalities of its action or the regulations it will adopt. These are decided and formalised over time and the institution grows organically.
The why matters more than the how
What matters above all is therefore not the completeness of our answer, it’s the principle behind our decision. It’s the strength of our resolve. It’s the why and not the how. If the idea is good and the values are sound, then we must proceed ahead.
Of course, policy-makers do have the responsibility to think ahead and account for the consequences of their decisions. They must weigh the pros and cons and review, as predictably as possible, how their choices and votes will impact the lives of all citizens. Principles and values, however, trump technical, political decisions, and when the principle is sound, its adoption should matter more than the exact details of its application.
More importantly still: ours must be a message of confident optimism. I’m not talking about blind optimism, here – the idea that these questions will work themselves out if we just don’t think about them. I’m talking about something more substantial. I mean professing, calmly and firmly, that not having those answers will not deter us from moving forward, with the confidence that, with time and hard work, we will find together the answers we are looking for. We will go through hard times, it’s inescapable. But our Union will come out stronger. It will come out emboldened and fierce.
It will come out an “is”.
About the Author:
Louis currently works for the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. Before that, he also worked for the UN in Côte d'Ivoire and New York, and, among others, with the European Commission on political affairs and with the Council of Europe on anti-money laundering activities. He is also the founder of EuropeanConstitution.eu, a French non-profit dedicated to the adoption of a European Constitution and the promotion of EU federalism. You can find his opinions on his blog Food for Thought and follow him on Twitter at @Louis_Drounau.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Volt Europa.