Change: in which direction?

Some reflections in view of the European elections

On the 26th May, Italians will be asked to vote in the European Parliament elections. This democratic ritual, repeated every five years, usually passes by almost totally unnoticed. The voter turnout numbers in the European elections are on the decline, a possible reason could be that EU elections appear as something far away, or seen a reality that does not concern us and one that does not have a direct effect on our lives. This year however, it seems that politicians are putting greater emphasis on this election and putting forward various promises to change the EU’s direction in one way or another.

All too often “Europe” is used as a scapegoat by politicians from various countries to divert attention from other internal problems. The impression given then is that Europe is something that no longer belongs to us. Ultimately, Europe becomes something that we can no longer identify with. Nevertheless, even those who are in favor of the European Union, perceive that the EU needs to change. So the question is: What kind of change?

These elections fall on the anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles that decided what Europe would change into the conflicts that were known as “Great War” and later as the “First World War”. I believe these examples can offer us a couple of suggestions in the situation we presently find ourselves in. Several European and non-European countries were involved in these talks during which they tried to define a new balance in Europe. Profound changes had happened over a short period of years: the end of empires (German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman) that is, the end of multi-ethnic and supranational political realities; the birth of the Soviet Union; society changed in the countries that survived the atrocities of the worst war known so far. However, it was not easy to reach agreements: it was the different visions of the participants, in particular of the four “big” winners: Georges Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (United States of America), David Lloyd George (United Kingdom) and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (Italy), that were the main obstacles in achieving a stable and lasting situation. The issues about which there was greater discord were how to deal with Germany and the division of the Balkan territories, a topic about which Italy had much at stake.

Wilson’s moderate stance sought a new order that looked towards the future: a “peace without winners” aimed at the common good; the possibility of building a future based on the equality of nations; the self-government of peoples; a reduction of armaments. On the other side of the spectrum, Clemenceau kept a hard line. He sought revenge for the damage suffered during the war and entirely blamed Germany.

This divergence led to the outcomes we all know so well. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, was the greatest attempt to retaliate against a Germany that was already militarily defeated. The negotiations were held at Versailles, in the same room where Germany had proclaimed its unification 48 years earlier. No German participated in these talks, but the German delegates were forced to sign a “done deal”. With this treaty, Germany lost several territories and all its colonies in Asia and Africa. The country was stripped of the possibility of having an army, at a time when German society was very much linked to military institutions. It excluded from the future League of Nations (the ancestor of the UN) and, above all, Germany was blamed for the war. For this reason, in addition to the defeat, the state was obliged to pay a huge debt as compensation. It was so huge that Germany finished paying this debt on the 3rd October 2010, even after considering the various reduction on the amount due. The last payment amounted to around €70 million.

As we know, Italy did not fare any better. On one hand, it could make claims about Dalmatia and Rijeka, where Italian minorities lived, thanks to the treaties that it had stipulated before the war, such as the famous London Pact, but they clashed with the claims of the newly born Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Furthermore, these claims went against the principle of Wilson’s self-government. Furthermore, Italy’s two representatives, Sonnino and Orlando, were in conflict with each other on the line to be held. The end result: they considered themselves offended by the attitude of the allies, withdrew from the negotiations, and Italy obtained neither Dalmatia nor Fiume.

The political fallout of 1919–20 has something to tell us about our desire for change and what we hope for Europe. First of all, it teaches us that planning and cooperation are important. Also, we can look towards the future in such a way that we do not reject our tradition but proposes a shared goal and perspective, not based solely on past wounds and offences. Secondly, an attention to openness and equality is important. Building something together that excludes bits of society we find different or economically unhelpful risks making the shared effort ineffective. The League of Nations did not involve some of the main countries and ended up as a failure as it was not able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Finally, solidarity and respect for diversity are crucial. One must keep in mind the demand for debt and forced demilitarization led to the economic and political crisis in Germany and so were key factors that increased support for Hitler in his rise to power.

Perhaps today, unlike a 100 years ago, change is possible in a more peaceful and effective way. However to have effective change it is necessary to inform oneself adequately before voting. For this reason, I propose some sites where it is possible to find some information about Europe and the coming elections:

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