Victoria Martín De La Torre: Something is wrong with the EU – let´s recover the spirit of its Founding Fathers

Victoria Martín De La Torre wrote the book “Europe, a Leap into the Unknown: A Journey Back in Time to Meet the Founders of the European Union” that was published in Spanish and English in 2014 and then in Norwegian. In the interview, she speaks about her dissatisfaction with the EU when she began to work in Brussels and about problems that the Christian heritage of Europe sometimes causes in the EU environment. Based on her book about the Founders of the European Union she suggests how to “make Europe great again”. She currently works as a press officer at the S&D Group in the European Parliament. The interview was firstly published on Postoj.sk.

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Victoria Martín De La Torre with some of the Founding Fathers of the European Union in Scy-Chazelles, France/Archive of Victoria Martín De La Torre

text by Bohumil Petrík

Why did you write the book and what is so special about it?

As a journalist, I had an ideal vision of the European Union, as a project based on fraternity and friendship and by chance, I lost my job in Spain and found another one in Brussels. I was quite disappointed as it was not as ideal as I had imagined. Either I was too naive and it was never such a beautiful project, or maybe we just forgot the original idea. So I studied the Founding Fathers and their vision for Europe – they had fascinating lives and the reason why they could do what they did for Europe is because of their personal values. It is a pity that the majority of the people working in the EU institutions and writing about the EU actually do not know anything about who those people were…

The books reads as a novel, but everything is true, because it has been researched and you have an insight into the personality of the characters. There are so many boring books about the European Union that only explain how? and they never explain why? and who? I think changes or institutions happen only if there is someone who is willing to carry the project forward. After the book was published, the Council of the European Union filmed a documentary “Europe Through the Generations” based on the book.

In general, I had very good reactions For example, the schoolteachers told me this is a very good way to learn about Europe, because it is not abstract, you see the real people. And also some MEPs read the book and they told me it gave them a different perspective, because even the people who work here think that the EU was created for economic reasons and it was not.

How come there is a Norwegian edition as Norway is not an EU member?

There is a very active pro-European minority, they organize events, discussions so they thought that was another way of presenting of the European Union and that the launching of this book would be an opportunity to discuss different topics that go deeper, because sometimes the agenda has been taken by a few other topics hiding a bigger picture.

The role of the Americans and British at the beginning of the EU

The book stresses the role of the USA at the beginning of the EU project: Marshall Plan, US delegations´ presence at post-war meetings in Europe or meetings of European leaders in the USA.

When Europe was occupied, destroyed, there was no freedom and all those who wanted freedom, met in London and in the USA and some of the leaders from Central and Eastern European countries already in early 1940s to discuss the future of Europe after the war. In a way, the vision of the UK and the US was very traditional and they wanted to promote cooperation, but did not have a dream of a political union. They were instrumental in building the basics of freedom and Europe also needed economic help, Marshall Plan, but those few European leaders had a revolutionary vision that one day we would have no borders among European countries and a government for all Europeans and it went far beyond what the Americans and British envisioned.

In this particular sense, is Brexit understandable? And what would you say is the EU´s share of responsibility for Brexit?

The EU is a work in progress, it is a process in which people change their hearts and perspectives and, in a way, their identities so you feel you have more in common with others. After World War II, the UK still had the Commonwealth before the independence of its colonies so it is true the starting point of the European countries was different. Then the UK joined the European communities, but probably we have not done enough to change hearts and minds.

I think that before Brexit, there has not been a real debate about Europe in the UK and many British had a distorted image of the EU – and I said I was disappointed when I came to the institutions, but when you feel you are part of the family, you try to fix the bad things together. I think only the negative things have been promoted in the UK, there were also lies during Brexit campaign. Instead of building bridges for many years, we have failed to promote understanding between Britain and the rest of the Union.

After Brexit, can we expect “Departugal”, “Italeave” etc. or the Founding Fathers designed the institutions well to endure?

The lesson I take from the Founding Fathers and the reason I wrote the book is that institutions, regulations, legislature are all secondary. The main thing they wanted to build was community and it was not improvised. The word community they chose for the first European community has a philosophical ground. There is a nice quote from Robert Schuman that goes like this: The community proposes to all partners one objective, which St. Thomas´ philosophy called the common good. It goes beyond any egotistical motive. The good of each is the good of all and vice versa.

This is not about big and small countries or rich and poor countries: this is about having a family, a community, in which we all look for the common good. Only then you can think of the institutions as they are just a way to build this community. I think that today we have forgotten this is a community and the goal is not economic and if you go for your interest against the other, you are breaking the community.

You can not claim solidarity if there is no bond between us. If it is just a power game at the end, why I should show solidarity? Because some countries are more pro-European than others, I think we have created the 1.-class and 2.-claas European citizens, and that is not a community and not the idea the Founding Fathers had. So before we discuss institutions, law, treaties, we have to recover the spirit, otherwise it won´t work.

You wrote that Jean Monnet took the wife of his employee and was hiding with her from her husband. What is more shocking, is that he, a Founding Father of the EU, went to communist Russia to ask for Soviet citizenship for Silvia, his loved one, so that she could obtain legal divorce. Is that an example to follow?

Firstly, my book shows they were real persons and everyone makes mistakes so we should not idealize the leaders, because any person with faults can be a leader. From a moral point of view, Silvia had just married the Italian man who had no interest in her, he was cheating on her right after the marriage so she could have obtained annulment. They were together until the end of their life and when she became a widow, Silvia and Jean Monnet got married in Lourdes by a local bishop who was their friend.

How about the fact that a Founding Father of the EU went to communist Russia for help, although just in a personal matter?

Jean Monnet was a very pragmatic, determined man, he wanted to marry that woman and Russia was a country where at that time a woman could ask for divorce. It took them years and when that happened he was an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek so it was Russia before World War II, before Cold War.

Christian values of the EU and of the Founding Fathers

How would you explain the Founding Fathers´ reluctance or cautiousness to mention or stress Christian values at the creation of the EU? One of them even had a strife with Pope Pius XII. regarding Italian politics.

It is a very complex issue. Three of the Founding Fathers´ are practising Catholics, one atheist, one agnostic and they established a very good friendship and they all wanted to work together for the common good. The atheist, Paul-Henri Spaak, who was a socialist from Belgium, really respected Christian heritage as he thought it was good for Europe.

Two of the Catholics are in the process of being beatified which, to me, means the Church is putting the label: this person is a model of how to be a Catholic. At that time, there was also Charles De Gaulle, a devout Catholic, but he is not a in the process of being beatified. For De Gaulle, his nation and defending his identity were so important that he never understood the effort of Robert Schuman for the reconciliation with Germany – he thought Schuman was weak and was giving up France´s right to get compensations after the war whereas Schuman felt that we have to forgive, he wanted to bring his Catholic values into his public life and he was even willing to give up some of the compensation rights.

With De Gasperi, it was the same. At one point, the Pope tried to tell him which electoral program he should follow and De Gasperi said: I am always going to respect you morally, spiritually, but for the political strategy, I think I know best, I have to act in conscience and as a Christian, this is my responsibility. That is why they disagreed. For him, politics was a service.

So they wanted to bring Christian values to the society, to everyone, not only to Catholics. They thought: If raising the issue of Christian roots or values would divide the society, it is better not to mention them, because it is better to unite and unity is a real Christian value. So they did not need to mention Christianity when they spoke about Europe.

At that time, everyone knew they were Catholic and were inspired by their faith. Schuman was going to church every day, De Gasperi was writing about his inspiration and his daughter was a nun… Because they were true Catholic inside, I think they did not need to use that politically.

So you would say they were politically smart and even nowadays it is not a problem if Christian roots of Europe in the treaties are not mentioned etc.

They really loved freedom, they had to fight Hitler and communism. The Founding Fathers were all reading personalist philosophers, Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier and the core of this philosophy is the concept of person and community. On one hand, you had capitalist, individualistic vision and on the other side, you had communism, marxism where the person is not important at all. So based on Catholic teaching, the philosophers developed a concept of person that has individual rights, but it has to grow in a community, because you are also responsible for a community.

For them, ideologies can not take over democracy – and you can not impose your morality on others, because you think it is better, as then it becomes ideology – you have to try to convince people, show what is good, participate in debates.

Also, because of the principle of subsidiarity, which is one of the principles of Catholic social teaching, the competence of various topics, for instance family law, abortion is national. And we live in a democratic society so if you think something is good, you need to persuade the majority and win elections. Probably it was easier at the time of the Founding Fathers as we live in a much more complex world today.

The Founding Fathers´ spirit for the future

You said you were disillusioned with the EU so you wrote this book. Can you see the spirit of the Founding Fathers coming back?

No, but when I came, things seemed to be OK for the majority, but now with Brexit, refugee crisis we have gone down, down so it´s so obvious there is something wrong and we have lost the direction. This crisis is an opportunity to rethink as Jean Monnet said: Men don´t change unless they see the need and they only see the need in the times of crisis. So now is the best time to restart, rethink, recover the spirit.

So what should be done for example?

Something that could be done is listening: at all levels in the European Union. Do not go to meetings with your goal, objective in your mind that you need to put forward, but try to go and listen.

How to do it practically?

When the heads of states meet, it can not go like the Greeks saying: I want help with financial crisis, the Italians saying: I want help with refugees, Germans saying: I want improvement in banking system etc. The Germans should think about how the Greeks feel, if the Greeks think about how the Italians feel and they all try to find solutions together, everything can change. If you go back to the idea of common good of St. Thomas, then it´s a different way of solving the problem, because you are sharing concerns. It can be done at the Central Bank, when mayors meet to discuss pollution…

Does Europe need to go back to the roots or a new vision? And is there such a thing as a European value or values?

We need a new vision based on the original one. You can not go back to the past, but you can find the inspiration and the Founding Fathers are still inspiring in a new globalized world. There are many books about what is truly European and one characteristic is diversity as in Europe, we really appreciate diversity as it is a very diverse continent culturally, historically, in terms of languages…

A book I really enjoy is Rémi Brague´s “Europe, La Voie Romaine” (Europe, The Roman Way) where he explains how Europe has been able to integrate the best things of different cultures on the basis of Greek philosophy, Judeo-Christian religion, Roman law and Enlightenment, but with an attitude of openness and integration. The book is called The Roman Way, because the Romans were able to identify what is good in a different place as they had good “engineering” and take it without any problem. Today, we need to keep that attitude to face the challenges of globalization, not to be afraid of change or of other cultures permeating Europe.

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