Some images are strong enough symbols by themselves. That of the tribute paid to Helmut Kohl on July 1st at Strasbourg is one of those images.
Wrapped in the European flag, the coffin of the former German chancellor, who died on June 16th, was placed at the heart of the hemicycle, for a ceremony without precedent. Kohl was one of three European “citizens of honour”, along with “founding father” Jean Monnet and the former president of the European commission, Jacques Delors.
Many figures who had known Kohl when he was in power (1982-1998) were present, such as the former Spanish prime minister Felipe González, the Russian ex-president Dmitri Medvedev, and American ex-president Bill Clinton, who delivered a particularly personal address. The German chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom Kohl was a political mentor, as well as the French president Emmanuel Macron, were also present, along with the EU leaders. The image is a powerful one because, while a reversion to nationalism has made itself felt in many countries, the image testifies to a genuine European spirit, embodied in a figure who dedicated his life’s work to European unity, not just that of Germany.
The symbol is all the more powerful, since the previous day we learned of the death of the first elected president of the European parliament, Simone Veil. Holocaust survivor, militant activist for women’s rights — the law which liberalised abortion in France in 1975 bears her name — proud European and a figure unanimously respected throughout France and Europe, she personified, suffered, and shaped like few others, twentieth century Europe.
While the EU is often reproached for leaving the hearts of Europeans cold—how many times have we heard phrases such as “faceless Brussels bureaucrats”—and for lacking figures capable of understanding and representing the aspirations and fears of Europeans, Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil demonstrated that ability through their personal histories and their political visions and actions. They understood that the peace and prosperity of the continent (and their respective nations) could only be realised through the pursuit of a shared European destiny that went beyond national interest.
It was a different era, one might argue, optimism was the order of the day, and the challenges were more serious—and probably more stimulating—than those that Europe and the world face today. This may be true in part, but does it justify the lukewarm attitude that so many European leaders today hold towards the future of Europe?
Translated by Ciaran Lawless
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