Ideas on Europe

Collective memory - Francesco Spera

© Patrick Tomasso sur Unsplash Collective memory - Francesco Spera
© Patrick Tomasso sur Unsplash

Every friday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research.

Francesco Spera, your research, at the University of Salento, in Lecce, looks, among other things, at the legal framework of the EU collective memory.

Yes, we all know that collective memory in the European Union has always been built on the ethical lessons of World War II. From the start, EU institutions have capitalised on a moral commitment to overcoming a traumatic past and promise a better future.

Accordingly, the foundations of European collective memory lie in the Holocaust. Through the late 1990s, national days of commemoration became more and more common across the member states, while already in 1993 and 1995, the European Parliament had passed two anti-discrimination resolutions, indicating an increasing focus on Holocaust commemoration.

But then came the big enlargement of 2004, with ten new countries joining.

And it brought a major change. Most Western European countries believed the Holocaust could become a shared memory for the EU. But the majority of East European countries challenged this view. In their perspective, exclusive emphasis on the Holocaust would fail to do justice to the victims of other totalitarian regimes.

This attitude was influenced by the anti-communist agenda of East European ruling parties, who claimed that the EU focused on Holocaust victims at the expense of the victims of other totalitarian regimes, who they felt were treated as less deserving of sympathy. They repeatedly declared Nazism and communism “equally criminal”.

Do you think the EU has in the meantime overcome this memory gap?

It has definitely worked on it. In the early 2000s, collective memory formed part of the new European Neighbourhood Policy.

And it's worth looking at some of the so-called “soft-law” acts adopted by EU institutions at this time, and which have helped EU member states and candidates preserve and promote a common heritage.

Can you give an example or two?

One important step in the EU's aspiration to promote its vision of Eastern Europe was the 2002 joint letter from Chris Patten, who was Commissioner for External Affairs, and Javier Solana, the first High Representative for foreign and security policy. The letter set out the essential issues the Union would have to consider in cooperating with Eastern European countries.

It said the EU sought to create close cooperation with its neighbours, fostering mutual exchange of human capital, ideas, knowledge, and culture. This cooperation would be based on what the Union defines as 'shared values'. These values include, in particular, democracy, and respect for human rights and the rule of law, as set out in EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Ukraine is an interesting case in this context. On the one hand, Ukraine appeared the most immediate challenge for the European Neighbourhood Policy. On the other, Ukraine’s European aspirations have been high. Solana and Patten felt the EU-Ukraine partnership would require an ambitious but workable policy framework for the next ten years without closing any options for the distant future. Their letter has informed key European Neighbourhood Policy choices, particularly regarding geographical scope, objectives, and methodologies.

And there also have been important acts adopted by the European Parliament.

That's right. In 2005, for instance, the European Parliament proposed an act banning both Nazi and communist symbols. This resolution marked a milestone in EU memory politics. It was the first time the EU had emphasised not solely Holocaust trauma but also recognised Eastern Europe's communist past.

Finally, in 2009, another European Parliament resolution reinforced a united European memory of totalitarianism. The resolution strongly condemns former totalitarian and undemocratic communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. It also commemorates the Holodomor alongside the Holocaust. Eastern European tragedies, too, are now considered part of Europe's shared history of democracy and of postwar respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

The EU’s actions show how shaping common collective memory plays a key role in constructing a common EU trajectory, especially if it is done with transparency, in an open debate.

With regard to future enlargements, this is an important lesson.

Many thanks, Francesco Spera, for sharing your thoughts on this historical lesson. I recall you are currently a PhD candidate at the University of Salento, in Lecce, in Southern Italy, and an invited lecturer at the University of Warsaw.

A first text version of this contribution has been published on The Loop, the blog of ECPR, the European Consortium for Political Research.