A note on the European Dream

If you want to make your dreams become true, wake up! This phrase of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tsu has proved its value as a source of wisdom for countless calendar mottos until now. Besides its overextended use in popular culture, however, it may give quite an instructive counterpoint to the common understanding of popular dream images. Images that are equally overstretched in their affirmative use, like the US-American dream – or, in our case, the European dream.


Author: Leonardo Pape


The European Dream is quite an uncommon term; and most European patriots would probably rather refer to European values, beliefs or ideas. But notably, the groundwork for the European Union was laid not in a time of shared ideas, but of a shared hope. In the 19040s and 1950s, during the efforts for European reconstruction after WWII, any idea of common European values or even shared history would’ve sounded absurd. The continent had just escaped from the brink of collapse, after six years of war and 50 million deaths as well as millions of displaced and impoverished. Still, within this line of the events, the Marshall plan and its famous European campaign “All colours to the mast” already marked an early rise of European patriotism.

Let’s take a look at the German states to explore the situation: After the clearing of the war responsibilities, the division of Germany and the proceedings of other organizational matters, the German states stayed the politically most heavily affected countries in Europe. Within the official agenda of denazification of the allied forces, Western democratic principles were subsequently adopted in the Federal Republic of Germany. Despite that, there was little initiative for a broad societal and political reception of the recent trauma and responsibilities of National Socialism and WWII. Apart from the notorious warning incantation „No experiments“ under the reign of Adenauer, the early Republic seemed rather focused on creating a new future without a past. Speeches of Adenauer and Churchill after the war stressed the hope for common forgetting both alike. On the other hand, programs of settlement for late repatriated „ethnic Germans“ who immigrated to Western Germany, promised a new homeland while the public and political leadership cared little about past losses.

This tendency was even similar in both German states – as the newly constructed GDR radically denied any historical continuity with and thus, responsibility for, the crimes of the Third Reich. Under international law, the GDR was a new sovereign entity, and therefore wanted to step off the German special path (Deutscher Sonderweg) even retroactively. Of course, this procedure blocked any attempts to cope with personal and institutional responsibilities in the GDR, and also hindered the acceptance of late repatriated in society as they were not seen as a product of the crimes of a state related to the GDR.

This episode in the development of the new German states forms a prelude to the European Dream and its receptions. The European Dream developed more strongly with the creation of the European Economic Community which created a factual interdependency and exchange between European countries that would contribute to peacekeeping and, increasingly, also to mutual recognition and understanding.

Of course, the European dream was also fired by imagination along the lines of the German „Wirtschaftswunder“, the economic miracle. In the 1960s, this rapid re-industrialization and modernization of Western Germany created a higher standard of life, or so it was perceived.

At that time, Western Germany itself was a newcomer in the united Europe. And of course, political and economic ambitions aimed to promote the European Economic Community for the countries’ own sake. Yet, even more generally, Europe somehow was seen as a promised dreamland, and this perception gave power to the European idea.

In the meantime until today, one could say that Europe has fall prey to its own success, at least partially. The populations in the settled Western European countries have become used to the notion of a united Europe – established over time with such milestones as the increasing European integration, the Schengen treaty and the Euro. The young generation in many European countries never experienced war in their lifetimes. Moreover, the “European values” of liberty and tolerance are so widely shared – or at least the terms are – that they have lost the energy of their initial rise. Such is the irony of the European Dream.

Now, the European Union faces several problems at a time: the growing tendency of regionalization and, partially, isolation from Europe, the refugee crisis and the strengthening of populist right-wing movements, among others. One deciding question is – do we need to revitalize the European Dream – or to wake up from it? In the case of the recent majority vote for the Brexit, the referendum has surely woken up the British people from a shared European dream. But now it seems to be sliding into a British nightmare. The vision of ‘splendid isolation’ appears as an irritating ideal of the past, and it has isolated only Britain itself. In turn, the young generation of Great Britain voted overwhelmingly in favour of the remain-campaign – in case of young people who did vote. Now tens of thousands of European patriots are marching in London – a late sign of faith but still unique for Britain. Again Europeans outside the EU seem to show the greatest trust in the power of the European dream. Or, as less idealist interpretation: Could it be that communities and countries only believe in the EU if they don’t share its reality?

Of course, the answer is not ruled out by a simple either or. Historical experience shows that the European Dream proved to be a powerful image to establish egalitarian patterns of identification and readiness for inter-European exchange. Yet, it was the most effective for countries outside the European community with strong incentives to “join the club”. That was the case for early Western Germany, many Eastern European countries after 1990 and even for Great Britain until the 1970s. One could say that their willingness decisively pushed the European dream – so that the spirit of Europe was formed by Europeans outside the European community. Regarding the steady increase in EU members, idealists would’ve liked to see this development continue until the most outer parts of Europe – maybe so far that Israel or even Australia wouldn’t be limited to participate only in the Eurovision Song Contest. Anything is possible in a dream.

One other concern remained rather unaddressed, though: what happens with countries once they have joined the club? Former Warsaw pact countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary, for instance, have turned their backs to European solidarity. Their governments before also wanted to share the European Dream – and EU privileges and relations – but don’t want to face the European reality. Some 20 years ago, many of their citizens were more patriotic for Europe than most members of the European community itself, but while they may have fuelled the European Dream from the outside, they seem to have woken up from it alone now. Psychologically, this is even logical: Dreams are manifestations of the unconscious, and thus dreamt most easily apart from reality, giving them more space for imagination. In contrast, the European reality appears as an administration apparatus, a jungle of guidelines and decrees, frankly: not such stuff as dreams are made on.

Let us halt for a bit and reflect briefly, how imagined communities such as the European one are constructed: In the traditional theories of nationalism, group identity may be formed by separation of groups through political inclusion and exclusion. Another classical approach constructs “objective” criteria such as language, traditions, culture etc. However, those approaches don’t captivate the European patriotism, as it is not created by homogeneity, but, arguably, powered by diversity.

Then, one could separate formed group identities by the lines of shared history or shared dreams. History has often firmed as one assumed objective criterion of nationhood or other group belongings, although a “common history” is actually just the result of a political nationalism, and not its origin. Shared dreams however, do not live off the past, but just off a common image for the future. The (US-) American dream, constituted by settlers in a new promised land, is such a community. It has also faced some difficulties with the (US-) American reality, and the insight that the realization of it is not done with dreaming. The American reality has proved its normative force against the factual force of the normative dream persistently, and the latter one has turned a nightmare. Did something similar happen to Europe?

Regarding the state of the European Union, some indicators suggest this. But at the end, Europe is more than a dream: it is also a historic community – geographically and politically. Even though history always is an interpretation, and can be used to create difference as well as unity. But this conclusion should be the starting point of a new European reality.

The refugee crisis has brought up many indicators of the inner-European division – relapses into aggressive nationalism, xenophobia and populist propaganda. But, coming back to our calendar motto hero Lao-tsu, “every crisis is a chance”. Europe faces its internal divisions most strongly at a time of an influx of immigrants and their demanded adoption of European, or even better, national values. Ironically, this same process has revealed the disunity behind the label Europe. This is a double tragedy – for European patriots and for many immigrants who came for the European dream and have suffered their first shock of reality. One could say, cynically, that Europe works at its best as an image of the mind, and loses its attraction automatically in the factual world. And as we saw, dreams may have a quality, the notion of the possible, that reality never contains.

However, not all dreams are deluded illusions. Psychological theory and practical experience recognize the existence of lucid dreaming. In those cases, a dreamer is able to exercise some control over the dream characters, narrative and setting. The conditions for lucid dreaming include the awareness of the dream state, of the capacity to make decisions, of memory functions, of self and of the meaning of the dream. So the first step of conscious dreaming would be gaining the consciousness of dreaming. In case of the European Dream, some naïve European patriots may have already failed in this state. The following prerequisites for lucid dreaming deal with the enabling of active decision-making in dreams, i.e. to make dream a lived reality. Of course this perception only applies for the time of the dream, the biggest difference to our European Dream. Yet, the conclusion remains: Those who can control their dreams have the power to shape their reality (Leonardo Pape, quote freely adoptable as a calendar motto).

Psychological theory also describes methods of inducing lucid dreams. The decent, involuntary technique is the so-called DILD – Dream Induced Lucid dream. In a DILD, usually the unrealistic or absurd feeling of the dream itself create a sudden distance between dream and dreamer, provoking him to develop awareness of his*her state. Actually, those incidents happen frequently during reality checks or the exertion of common “real-life” tasks in dreams. One could say that the European society rests at this point, confronted with the “real-life” task of a global refugee movement, a reluctant rendezvous with the downside of globalization among many. Now, the European Leviathan snorts and turns over, between lucid dreaming and unpleasant awakening. Fortunately, there is a second form of lucid dreaming – wake Induced Lucid dreams or WILD. During a WILD, the consciousness is transferred directly from the awakened state to the sleep state by the dreamer. Technically, WILDs are a form of meditation and may be triggered voluntarily after concentrated exercise. This is the technique of choice to save the European Dream – by passing it to reality.

Historical studies have written a lot about culture of commemoration, the art of making history. History firms as a historical construction itself, and this awareness enables a responsible interpretation and reflected creation of common narratives. The European Dream similarly requires a reasonable update – a European culture of dreaming. Only then, it may become reality.