As the vote to renew the European Parliament approaches, there is a growing awareness that we are faced with an event that is anything but usual in the evolution of Europe’s political and economic structures. Seventy years on from the first agreements, the EU institutions and rules are facing a bitter assault which denies the many positive achievements and magnifies the crisis data. At the same time, a worrying wind is blowing, bringing the old twentieth century evils of nationalism and local particularities back with it. We are facing a challenge that affects not only the EU and its structures, but the very substance of liberal democracy, well-regulated markets and development that tries to promote the coexistence of competition and social solidarity.

It is worthwhile to try and get a better understanding of the key issues and a business culture perspective of the current debate. There are a few good books that can help. Let’s start with history and move onto current events.

Following the path left by Saint Benedict and the abbeys of the order that he founded in the mid-sixteenth century, this very intense new book by Paolo Rumiz (Feltrinelli) explores Europe from its foundation to the current day. It is a ‘journey to the roots of Europe‘ that begins in Norcia (the birthplace of the saint), then travels up through Italy, across France and Germany and back to Norcia. Well-cultivated lands, libraries (“Ora et labora”), factories, studies that gave rise to new laws ‒ different from the declining Roman and Visigothic ones ‒ dialogue on constraints and freedom, history to endure and a new history to build. It concludes: ‘We cannot allow our world to submit to the nationalist and supremacist delirium again. Europa, the Phoenician mother goddess, who first crossed the Mediterranean with apprehension, reminds us that we have always been the end of the line for migrants and urges us to sort out the current mess and set a new path.’

We move from history to the future with: ‘That which we can do‘ or ‘The freedom of Edith Stein and the spirit of Europe‘, in Lella Costa’s reflections, published by Solferino. The words of a Jewish born theologian, who was deported to the horrors of Auschwitz, murdered and proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church, are remembered by Costa. In particular, the parts that insist on dialogue, peace, relationships built among different countries and cultures, are the very same values of Europe. It is a profound reflection on coexistence and the need to defend ourselves against the poison of nationalism and populism, which is still relevant today. These are strong words, which would be worth reading, together with those of Simone Weil, another great author of political thought and spirituality in the twentieth century.

These values also resonate in Oltre le nazioni (Beyond Nations) by Zygmunt Bauman, a concise essay from 2012. Laterza revived it to help us reflect on ‘Europe caught between sovereignty and solidarity.’ Bauman was an excellent interpreter of social change (the “liquid society”) and of the losses due to “the uncontrolled forces” of global markets. He gave a good description of the temptations to hide behind selfish clams to recover ‘lost national sovereignty’ and lamented the mistake. He now gives new life to Richard Sennett’s lesson that ‘the best way to understand differences is to cooperate openly and informally’ and suggests that: ‘offices and streets become less human when rigidity, utilitarianism and competition reign, whereas they are humanised if informal, open, collaborative interaction is fostered’. This is the idea for greater and better European integration, building bridges not walls.

There is a need to look at Europe with critical awareness and to try to change it. How? By reducing bureaucratic banalities, in favour of a better political union. To do this, it can help to play with irony and contradiction, as Robert Menasse does in La capitale (The Capital) published by Sellerio. Mensse is Austrian, a committed Europhile, an essayist and a novelist with rich creative flair. This is a novel full of fantasy and sarcasm that begins with a pig escaping through the streets of Brussels. The pig invokes the idea of lucrative business with China, but also represents a symbol of hostility towards Muslim immigrants, who cannot eat it. It holds public speeches, plays cultural games (or competitions) and devises economic plots, similar to many others who waste time in offices in Brussels. Stories of bureaucrats and their gloomy sexual adventures (‘He faked desire, she faked an organism. A perfect alchemy.’). This is a great opportunity to remember Auschwitz and the warning of “never again”, which degenerates in nationalistic clashes. Bountiful political visions are merged with wretched careers. The shadow of Brexit hangs over everyone. Will Europe re-emerge from the confusion of languages and interests? Maybe, as long as we never give up on the sense of common values, despite all the selfish stupidity.

Bruxelles (Brussels) is the title of the book by Beda Romano, correspondent for Il Sole24Ore (Il Mulino). It is a competent portrait ‘of an original and unusual capital, a true melting pot of cultures and experiences, which embodies the many souls of the European continent ‘. A land of stories and conflicts, of great Belgian intellectuals and refugees (Marx, Baudelaire, Van Eyck, Magritte), of immigrants and crowned heads, of autonomy and integration with the strong French economy: Brussels and Belgium are a melting pot of diversity and dialogue. The capital bears witness to the strength of the roots and the fruitfulness of supranational cultures. With its limits, it is a good paradigm for Europe and Romano communicates this well, from the best points of view.

Values and criticisms. Reread Le tre profezie (The Three Prophecies) and use it as a guide for ‘notes for the future‘, as Giulio Tremonti wrote for the publishing house Solferino. The book tells of a Europe in crisis, the limits of globalisation, political and social conflicts. He focuses on Marx and his Manifesto, certain that ‘ancient national isolation will be replaced by a universal interdependence’, on Goethe and the forecast of ‘winged tickets that will fly so high’ that they cannot be reached or controlled by the knowledge of most of mankind (a lucid premonition of the follies of finance and the paper economy), and on Leopardi’s Zibaldone, which is particularly critical of the slipping of national customs. It reads: ‘When the whole world was a Roman citizen, Rome no longer had any citizens; and when a Roman citizen was the same as Cosmopolite, there was no love for either Rome or the world.’ Tremonti goes on to quote Nietzsche and Shakespeare, the Weimar crisis and the Ventotene Manifesto, the projects of Gates and Zuckerberg (which he has little time for). He criticises the market ideology, EU bureaucracy, the fanaticism of the digital future, the roots from which populism and sovereignty is born. This stimulating read leads to discussion on how to build a better common future on more solid and fair foundations.

These themes recur, in a different way, in Stare in Europa – Sogno, incubo e realtà (Staying in Europe: dream, nightmare and reality) by Riccardo Perissich (Bollati Boringhieri). As we approach the May vote, it is worthwhile to reflect critically on a “community model” that was created 70 years ago and is now inadequate in part. It is also important to avoid negative, anti-Brussels rhetoric. We need to take note that when faced with global challenges (supranational economic powers, the development of the cyber economy, Islamic terrorism, great waves of migration), the asphyxiated nationalism of the “small country” does not provide answers. ‘Greater political integration‘ is needed instead, because ‘the battle to preserve the EU, and liberal democracy in Europe along with it, deserves to be fought and is perhaps the greatest challenge of this century’.

With all its rules, Europe has long been regarded as a necessary ‘external constraint’ to force ‘undisciplined’ Italians to adhere to good governance, reforms and orderly public accounts. However, a certain “sacred” idea of the Maastricht parameters and the ideological inclination of the “ordo liberalism” of the Northern countries have caused reactions that have hurt both Italy and the EU itself, fuelling populism and the desire for sovereignty. Federico Fubini explains it well in Per amor proprio (For self-love) published by Longanesi: ‘Italy needs to stop hating Europe and being ashamed of itself.’ The “common rules” have caused ‘different effects’ in the various countries. Bureaucracy has filled the gaps left by policies that lost momentum. For the Italians who are fascinated by neo-nationalism, Fubini recalls the merits of our businesses, the virtuous saving of millions of citizens, the proper functioning of some public and private services. He insists on a better Europe. The choice to make is between European integration ‘and some further away empire that is less democratic, which we would end up having to submit to in exchange for a bit of help, without having any say in our destiny’.

Let’s take a look at the new international balances. Danilo Taino does this well in Scacco all’Europa – La guerra fredda tra Cina e Usa per il nuovo ordine mondiale (Checkmate to Europe – The Cold War between China and the US for the new world order) published by Solferino, a book full of rational geopolitical analysis. Taino is well aware that ‘every world order is destined to collapse: the Eurocentric order is long since over and the Pax Americana that took its place is in decline, challenged by the “young” Chinese power’. Who’s trying to regain the upper hand? Trump’s White House is through a trade war it started with China and the main European countries. The Chinese strategies are too through the Belt and Road Initiative, with thousands of billions invested in infrastructure development to link Beijing with Europe and Africa. There is no lack of political or economic tension. Nor of conflicting strategies. They are investing in ‘a sick Europe, in the throes of a political and economic crisis, and destined to be transformed into a land of conquest by Beijing and Moscow, if it does not abandon the illusion that it is still at the centre of the world’. A Europe, therefore, to rethink.

In conclusion, we could say Europa nonostante tutto (Europe despite everything), borrowing the effective title from the slender volume written by Maurizio Ferrera, Piergaetano Marchetti, Alberto Martinelli, Antonio Padoa Schioppa (as well as by the author of this blog) for La nave di Teseo, to make a point about the main characteristics of the EU. It is a tale of an extraordinary political choice, starting from the Ventotene Manifesto (written in 1941 by the liberal minds of three Italian anti-fascists in confinement, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni), institutions, European citizenship, the euro, the economy and markets, and the best welfare systems in the world, all of which is to be valued, defended, reformed and strengthened. Europe has a positive value. Europe has a future.