Pains of an empire lost

PARIS — Mohsin Hamids “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is the story of a Pakistani mans tormented journey as he seeks a better life in self-imposed exile in the United States. Unlikely as it may sound, it also offers also a glimpse of what Europes future might look like if we continue on our current path.

Hamids young protagonist has a promising future: He is a Princeton graduate, recruited to a prestigious New York consulting firm, and head-over-heels in love with a beautiful Upper East Side heiress. But despite his success, his friends questions about Pakistan are still heavy with thinly veiled condescension. He knows theyll never consider his home country to be anything more than a peripheral place — a country that no longer writes history.

On a visit to Lahore, he is surprised to feel ashamed of the crumbling facades and poverty on the streets of his hometown. Like a slow spreading poison, anger and resentment seep into his mind. He is filled with rage. A few centuries ago, when the 13 American colonies were still battling to feed themselves from virgin lands, his ancestors constructed the sumptuous Shalimar Gardens and the Badshahi Mosque. His country was a land of conquerors and builders.

As a young European, this feeling resonates deeply. It is a foretaste of the pain of being from a land that once led the world but now finds itself in danger of belonging only to the annals of history.

Europe has become a witness rather than an actor capable of transforming the world around it.

The cynics and skeptics who have resigned themselves to a new world order need to be reminded: Its not too late.

In diplomacy, Europe is tentative. We do not dare raise our voice against those who threaten us. Generations of Europeans have fought and in many cases sacrificed their lives to advance human rights. Today, we cant muster the courage to condemn an oil-rich monarchy guilty of savagely murdering a journalist, because were reluctant to sever economic ties.

When it comes to technology and the economy, the numbers speak for themselves. The United States and China have 125 and 77 unicorns — young companies valued more than $1 billion — respectively. Europe has barely 30. And culturally, weve left it to others to take creative risks. The time when Paris was the City of Light, attracting intellectuals and artists from around the globe, feels far way.

At best, Europes slip into irrelevance will be largely apathetic. The continent will drift into irrelevance, overtaken by other, more ambitious powers. At worst, it could be explosive.

The destruction caused by the violent Yellow Jackets protests in France is an uncomfortable reminder that stagnant, directionless societies do not tend to be happy ones. Fear of the future and feelings of powerlessness provide fertile soil for discontent.

Finding our way back to the ideological center of the world will not happen without a fight.

The cynics and skeptics who have resigned themselves to a new world order need to be reminded: Its not too late.

Europes decline is not inevitable. No other people is better placed to speak with one voice on the environment, social justice or gender equality. Our rich, and sometimes painful, past puts us in a unique position to be the global power that shapes the direction of humankind — a power that tirelessly defends both our values and our interests in the four corners of the world.

But if we want to rebound, to live up to our history and our potential, we cant waste any more time. And we can only seize this opportunity if we are united. Two or three countries alone cannot restore grandeur to our continent.

Let us support, in the words of the French writer François Mauriac, the fact that Europe is a “sacred land” where all the “sources of human genius, French, Italian, German, English, Flemish, Spanish, Slavic … without being diluted, have sprung up so close to one another.”

Finding our way back to the ideological center of the world will not happen without a fight. It demands difficult conversations, creative policymaking, bold action.

We are only six months away from the most important European election of our lifetime. If Europe is to survive as an actor with agency over its own destiny we urgently need to articulate a European ambition that goes beyond a series of well-intentioned technocratic measures.

Only by reclaiming European history can we begin once again to write it.

Jérémie Gallon is the author of “Journal dun jeune diplomate dans lAmérique de Trump” (Editions Gallimard, 2018).

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