Do not believe those who say that the pan-European public sphere is impossible

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In Jean Renoir ‘s 1937 film Great illusion, German World War I commander Rauffenstein invites his prisoner Boeldieu, a captured fellow officer and aristocrat on the French side, to dinner with him. They connect because of the discovery that they often visited the same institutions in Paris. Partly elegiac, partly satirical, the film remains a significant commentary on European history.

It also serves to expose the old critique of the European project: that it could never succeed because there was no sense of common belonging or purpose between different European nations. In fact, Europe has always been intertwined with social, political and personal ties, often stronger than national ones.

As Renoir illustrated, members of the same social class have more in common with each other across borders than between classes in the same nation (working class characters also fraternize over food and shared destinies). In different periods of history, the European community has equated or surpassed national compassion in institutions ranging from the royal family and church to the communist movement, football, and artistic and intellectual activities.

Even today, the European public sphere is visibly emerging. “There are more and more trans-European debates,” said Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank with subsidiaries in Brussels and Berlin. “There are still national bubbles, but the feeling that we are all together in this debate.” Growing interest in other countries’ policies stems from an awareness of interdependence – Odendahl says it began with the eurozone crisis – and even if it happens mostly at the elite level, they “transfer” it to the national debate.

“The European economy definitely exists,” said Beatrice Weder di Mauro, president of the Center for Economic Policy Research, a network of economists. It serves the community of “people deeply interested in. . . how to keep and grow and deepen the European project ”. CEPR’s online platform VoxEU was a place where economists share ideas on European policy issues.

This intellectual ferment is not limited to political mischief. A pool fund is underway to launch a European Book Review (discovery: I donated), an echo of the New York and London incarnations of that genre of cultural publications.

Nor is it always driven by privileged classes with their own interest in legitimizing the institutions in which they work. The deepest exchange of ideas lately has been about what European identity means to Europeans with roots in places that have suffered European colonialism. Writers such as Johnny Pitts and Hans Kundnani expand our understanding in ways that are critical, provocative, and a source of much richer pan-European compassion in the future.

Brexit is an obvious anomaly in this picture. It is ironic that the British referendum on Europe accelerated the emergence of the European public sphere. This prompted CER to open offices elsewhere, while CEPR is relocating its headquarters from London to Paris, thanks in part to a public funding offer. Probably the French government sees the value of bringing together people “who want to think about how to run Europe,” according to Wedera di Maura.

Does this matter? The days are early. But the risk is that, just when a strong European public sphere emerges that many in the UK have declared impossible, British ties with it are weakening. Domestic preoccupations, as well as the government’s desired global orientation, could push European issues beyond Brexit-related issues from the British national conversation. To many, the Channel already seems wider.

In contrast, there are efforts to maintain and strengthen ties. The Europe, a group of top European universities set up specifically to increase their interconnectedness and promote thinking about Europe, includes Oxford and St Andrews. And English rules as the language of European debates. But even at this peak of remote connectivity, where conversations are taking place and it is still important who convenes them.

Great illusion illustrated something else. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu had much in common, but none of this prevented them from meeting as enemies in a devastating war. A strong sense of European community is no guarantee of common interests. But even without that, we would surely be doomed. We should be glad that skeptics are wrong when they say that it is impossible.

martin.sandbu@ft.com

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