Europe has been betrayed by its elite

We have failed to sell the European idea to people who don’t see the value of it

As the terrible news of the atrocity on Las Ramblas hit last week, after the initial shock and horror, my wife and I had the same thought: this is getting personal. In the early 1980s we were both living in Barcelona, and had first met in a cafe on Las Ramblas, introduced by mutual friends.

But that's not the only special association Las Ramblas holds for me. On the night of February 23rd, 1981, Lieut Col Antonio Tejero attempted to overthrow parliamentary democracy in Spain. The tanks were out in Valencia, and Barcelona was in lockdown. The media reports were confusing, and while my flatmates – Communist exiles from Argentina – were busy burning documents and wondering if they should drive to the French border, I headed for Las Ramblas to see what was happening. Myself and one of my Catalan students were the only people on the eerily deserted Ramblas, apart from a few very nervous-looking National Policemen. We ended up in a bar in the Barrio Gotico, where the owner dispensed free cake and Champagne all night, on the basis that tomorrow we would all be dead, in prison or in France.

Of course, nothing happened, and like many I felt that this was a new dawn for Spain and for Europe. The last pool of darkness had been drained, and Europe seemed to have finally made it into the light after the nightmares of fascism, the second World War and the Holocaust. Nobody expected the European future to be perfect. But the tendencies in some eastern European states towards an authoritarian nationalism, and their lingering traces of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, could eventually be eradicated by prosperity and education.

There was always the special case of Ireland, but I was confident that once my fellow countrymen got their snouts into the European trough, no amount of imposed liberalisation would convince them to remove them, and eventually European norms would prevail here, too.

Beyond satire

Britain, of course, was another matter. I had worked for the British Council for some years and rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with the products of Eton and Harrow. Their condescension towards other Europeans was beyond satire, and in many ways it was clear they were never going to play a serious role in the European project. But no one saw terrorism allegedly inspired by religious beliefs as the upcoming danger to the European way of life.

In our own personal case, it had brushed against our lives often enough before Las Ramblas. My wife had spent her childhood near Nice, and for her the Promenade des Anglais was the scene of many happy childhood memories. We had met cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo, and we were no strangers to the Bataclan and the cafes of the 10th and 11th arrondisements in Paris. Soon after we came to live in Ireland in 2003, our Amsterdam neighbour and colleague Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making an allegedly "blasphemous" film about Islam with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. My wife often dined with her at the home of mutual friends, while heavily armed guards kept guard outside the Dutch suburban house.

Ultimately of course, this is not a coincidence. We, people like myself and my wife, are the target audience. There are millions of people like us, more or less privileged, more or less white, middle class and secular, who walk down the Ramblas, the Promenade des Anglais, and the Boulevard Voltairel, who enjoy and fully appreciate the freedom to live and work in whatever European city takes your fancy. For a brief window of time, this was something we took for granted. Now we have to think about it, and face some hard facts.

Firstly, some commentators refuse to face the fact that this is an enemy within – many of these people are born and raised at the heart of the European society, in the great cities of Paris and Brussels, but apparently feel no allegiance to it. We need to ask why. At best we suffer from complacency , at worse it is a case of the trahison des clercs. We have failed to sell the European idea sufficiently to people who don't see the value of it. Witness the dismal and reprehensible failure of the English left to persuade their voters to vote in their own self-interest.

The culture war

So what should we do? A few years ago I was teaching a group of teachers from the various European countries. After some talk, I realised that this disparate group of Germans, French, Italians, Austrians and myself all had one thing in common: we all had grandfathers and great grandfathers who had fought and in some cases died in the first World War. And it gave us a special feeling to have this shared history, the difference in the colour of the uniforms fading away. We could congratulate ourselves for being the first generation of Europeans in a long time who would live their lives untouched by war. We were wrong. The kulturkampf – the “culture war” – of free ideas in a secular society against the tyranny of religion, which would define modern Europe, started in the 1840s. It is time to recognise that that particular war is not over yet. And it is one we need to keep fighting if Europe is is to survive.

  • Michael O'Loughlin is a poet and a writer