By Sean Keeley
At a time when European solidarity is facing challenges both internal (e.g., Brexit) and external (e.g. the refugee crisis), the future of the European Union has never appeared so uncertain. While there is no shortage of European leaders who are committed to a strong EU and want to see it succeed, too often this message has failed to connect with Euroskeptic citizens.
This October marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, a visionary European leader whose steady leadership guided his country through a period of immense change. Yet in 2016, when a proliferation of crises threatens the credibility and durability of the European project, the question remains: who will take up Havel’s mantle and guide Europe to a more prosperous future?
On the sidelines of September’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sally Painter participated in a strategic dialogue session on these and related questions at the 2016 Concordia Summit, a forum that convened leaders from business, government, and nonprofits to examine global challenges and identify avenues for collaboration.
At the Summit, Sally served as a conversation lead on the broad topic of “The Future of Europe” alongside a prestigious group of co-panelist leaders that included Dutch Member of European Parliament Marietje Schaake, First Vice President of the European Union Commission Frans Timmermans, and former First Lady of Ukraine Kateryna Yushchenko. From Sally’s perspective, the present crisis can be traced back to three factors: 1) the traumatic aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis; 2) an absence of effective European leadership in response, and 3) the disconnect between policies proposed by leaders and average citizens, who increasingly feel left behind.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, Sally argued, two things were needed above all: leaders who would take the initiative to deal with the crisis, and thoughtful policies that would address average citizens’ concerns and help them share in their countries’ prosperity. Instead, the most common response has been a form of the blame game, as governments have picked easy scapegoats, ranging from big banks to immigrants, depending on the country. Many European citizens today do not feel secure in their livelihoods and governments have failed to tailor policies that respond to citizens’ real economic concerns. The tendency to demonize the other has only made the problem worse, contributing to the wave of populist backlash now sweeping across Europe.
If we are to positively shape the future of Europe, Sally argues, we need to acknowledge the mistakes of the recent past, while taking inspiration from those who have shepherded Europe through earlier crises. One such figure is the great Vaclav Havel, who served as the first president of the independent Czech Republic. Havel was a visionary and charismatic leader who understood the importance of crafting a positive, confident agenda for his citizens. His unwavering commitment to Transatlantic solidarity, his support for Western values, and his commitment to a strong and expanding NATO should inform a newly revitalized strategy for Central and Eastern Europe today.
As we reflect on Havel’s legacy, we should heed his wise words about the need to craft a “European identity.…a new and genuinely clear articulation of European responsibility, an intensified interest in the very meaning of European integration in all its wider implications for the contemporary world.” Havel’s is a compelling vision for this European identity, but there is still work to be done—and it will be up to a new generation of leaders to carry his vision forward into the 21st century.