One of the most pleasant discoveries I made during a recent trip to China was the unwavering interest that Chinese scholars and officials have in Europe’s political architecture. No matter how much they believe that the West is in decline, they admire how Europe built an intricate system of institutions to create lasting peace. At the same time, Europeans seem to have forgotten the principles that underpin their success story.
As I wrote a year ago, when I had first stumbled across China’s admiration for Europe, Chinese observers have no illusions about the structural weaknesses of the European project. They also believe, by and large, that the European model is only partly transferable to Asia—if at all. But they give Europeans credit for a strong sense of togetherness, and for the robustness of the rules-based system through which EU member states can mediate and resolve their conflicts.
What is less enticing for the Chinese is the idea of sovereignty bargains that forms the basis of European integration: the notion that countries give up sovereign jurisdiction over certain policy fields in return for some greater common good that benefits all those involved. Since sovereignty is both a central building block of the Chinese national narrative and a political obsession for the country’s Communist Party, this central tenet of EU integration does not come easy to them.
Tougher still for Chinese observers is the fact that these sovereignty bargains are based on political trust. And that this trust, for the most part, rests on an unspoken agreement between European nations not to make history the common currency of political interaction.
To be fair, this arrangement is often misunderstood in Europe itself. There is very little awareness that an essential part of the European compact lies in the tacit agreement not to hold any nation’s history against it for political gain. European integration rests on the need to remember history (and to invoke it frequently as part of the EU’s raison d’être), but never to use it as a political weapon. Otherwise, once you start totting up history, Europe’s past is so full of everybody’s misdeeds against everybody else that the blame game would never end.
Only this way could France and Germany escape from their centuries-old fratricidal embrace. Only this way will there ever be a chance of peace in the western Balkans.
The precondition for this agreement is that all partners involved must be forthright about their own history and accept the responsibility that comes from it. Without open acknowledgement, there can be no trust. Without trust, no tacit agreement. Without tacit agreement, no sovereignty bargains. Without sovereignty bargains, no architecture.
While this reasoning, in principle, resonates well with Chinese counterparts, its consequences are often not fully understood. The Chinese point to the fact that Japan has acknowledged neither its role as an aggressor in the 1930s and 1940s nor the heinous war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. When the Chinese are reminded of their own reluctance to face up to the past, their reaction is avoidance or denial.
The suggestion that Chinese society will never be able to live at peace with itself and its surroundings without systematically facing up to the terror of the cultural revolution is not a welcome message in a country obsessed with the historical injustices it has suffered. The Chinese I met are often unaware that their ominous silence over these tricky and heartbreaking domestic issues is a significant source of distrust for the outside world vis-à-vis Beijing.
The bottom line is that Europe’s political architecture, which many Chinese admire and wish to learn from, is held together by an invisible mortar that has nothing to do with treaties or the acquis communautaire. It consists of a political and moral honesty that is hard to find in a closed, autocratic society. And it is all but impossible to create in a country whose regime draws large parts of its mandate to rule from its intention to compensate for the humiliations inflicted on it by others. As long as historical bookkeeping is a primary building block of the ruling class’s legitimacy, trust cannot be built.
For Europeans, it is good to remember this at a time when the EU’s economic and political crises are undermining the remarkable silent agreement on which peace in Europe ultimately rests. As the cracks in the architecture become all too visible, Europeans should remind themselves of the liberating exercise in honesty and forthrightness that launched their successful peace project.