It was overwhelming. I had visited many of the cities and regions we passed by before, but that was just after the fall of communism some 20 years ago. What I was witnessing now was a social, economic and political miracle. The changes can only be compared with the record years in western Europe between 1945 and 1970. But while the recovery in western Europe was dependent on the US, eastern Europe has risen on account of the EU’s own power.

Reports from Paris, Brussels and Berlin about new crisis meetings to save the euro kept on coming as we travelled. But during warm evenings on the square in Prešov, the crisis felt both distant and embedded in another course of events. It was like I needed to transport myself to the geographical outskirts of the Union, in order to see the full picture.

The European obscurity has become paralysing. Who understands the direction in which politics is going, where the EU is heading? All the important political standpoints and decisions are taken behind closed doors. The euro crisis leads inevitably to the question of Europe and democracy.

You become a European in Auschwitz

Who can still avoid thinking of the prelude to the outbreak of the war in 1914? Nobody understood the point of a war, nobody wanted it, but nobody managed to leave national prestige behind in order to prevent it. A similar pattern has returned in the game about the euro. Every time the European Parliament and the European Commission put forward a policy proposal suggesting common responsibility – eurobonds for example – the heads of governments stop them. Privileged countries such as Germany, Finland and Sweden look after their interests in conservative self-deception. They are driving the continent – and themselves – towards the abyss.

Our summer journey developed into a European pilgrimage. We explored the outskirts of the big regions that historian Timothy Snyder has called Europe’s “Bloodlands” or “Killing fields”: the geographical centre of Nazi and communist genocides where twelve million human beings were killed between 1933 and 1944.

It was a journey that became a reminder of the fact that the European project was not born in naïve euphoria but because of the fear of what the continent had brought about. When you see tourists flocking to empty synagogues in Prague, Krakow and other cities, you realise that a European self-consciousness -- founded on historical gravity -- is assuming a more definite shape. You become a European in Auschwitz.

The EU has been tormented by an evident crisis of legitimacy for two decades. Since Denmark voted no to the Maastricht treaty in 1992, the barest idea of alteration has provoked demands for new referendums. The “Non and Nee” in France and the Netherlands [in 2005’s referendum on the European constitution] became the most upsetting.

The political elites have always regarded the demands for referendums as a curse. But they should interpret them as a breakthrough for the European project. Finally the people of Europe wanted to have a say in important, common matters. The commitment revealed that the political debate in Europe had become...European.

Why do politicians seem to regard the basic principles of democracy as self-evident on the national level, but threatening on the European level? Their main argument is that a European people have not yet appeared in a common, political and public sphere – a so-called demos. Without such a demos, democracy is only a chimera.

The euro crisis and the question of democracy

The Swedish Social Democrat Carl Tham formulated the argument in an article this summer: “a living and democratic political union can only be created in a situation when the European people feel a strong sense of belonging and solidarity with each other, when they think of themselves as part of a European people and have confidence in the political institutions.”

But isn’t this very common conclusion built on a misconception? It is highly doubtful that a “strong sense of belonging and solidarity” existed in the different nation states when the major democratic breakthroughs occurred in the beginning of the 20th century. “Confidence in the political institutions” certainly did not exist, and there was no widespread political and public sphere.

A debate about the deceit of intellectuals began a year ago: where were they when the European project was about to implode? Many of the contributions to the debate were published on the impressive site Eurozine. But the absence of an outspoken debate and explicit standpoints from Europe’s politicians is in reality more alarming.

So it was elevating to read an editorial by Gerhard Schröder in the New York Times this spring. An influential politician who saw the connection between the euro crisis and the question of democracy. Schröder summed it up in three points: The European Commission must be developed into a government elected by the European Parliament. The European Council -- the heads of states -- must abandon power and be transformed into an upper chamber with a similar role to the Bundesrat in Germany.

People proved to be sensible

One doesn’t have to agree with all of Schröder’s proposals. But he is suggesting a direction towards a possible European democracy. This can, of course, be criticised as an attempt to impose democracy “from above” -- but it can also be regarded as an acknowledgement of the challenge posed by Europe’s citizens during the last 20 years.

The square in Krakow is one of the most magnificent on the continent. In the bell tower of the cathedral, the passing of time is marked by a man with a trumpet. History throws long shadows. It is a good spot to observe Europe. Here you can reflect on the political miracle, the new prosperity and civilised democracy.

Many Europeans in the west feared chaos when the dictatorships of the east fell. They were wrong. People proved to be sensible. That should instill hope and confidence. But only 30 minutes by car from the square you will find the foremost reminder of the fear of Europe’s darkness that brought about the European project – the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Democracy must always be widened. It will be thrust back as soon as you settle down in comfort. In the autumn of 1940, when the situation in Europe was at its darkest, the Swedish feminist Elin Wägner compared ideals to bicycle lights: They don’t light up until you pedal forwards.

The social democratic mission in Europe in the autumn of 2012 can easily be summarised by Wägner’s metaphor and two words: democratise and politicise.