European Union seems like a strange dream we had; it was a way of shaping and crafting a set of political values into a complex system which would place human values, a rich culture and ideas of equality at the very centre of our concerns. It turns out that as a system the European Union could withstand anything except a crisis.

Now, under the stress of a financial crisis, every country is sure of one thing only – that its own borders and its own interests matter more than any common good. While the old currencies may have gone, or most of them have, the old ways of thinking remain.

In our loyalties, once the pressure is on, we live in nation states, even though our banks function under a new global dispensation. Money moves now in the same way as air does, utterly free, being blown back and forth by the wind, unregulated, unstable, uncertain. It is ideas which have remained under lock and key. And with ideas, identities. We are sure now who is German and who is Greek; we are sure that we are Irish and you are Swedish.

Remember the dream

It is important to remember what the dream meant. It is important now at the periphery of Europe where I live to begin again to use the language of political and cultural idealism, to take the language which has been debased by our political masters and see if certain (or uncertain) words or concepts might mean something, even if only to offer us the comfort than poetry does, language used sonorously and responsibility, in a time of private hardship.

One aspect of our European heritage is a way of laughing. In our daily lives, our folk tales and our literature, mockery and self-deprecation are at the very core of the European sensibility. We have a right to laugh at the Emperor as he passes in all his pomp. He has no clothes. We have been laughing at our leaders all our lives. The general knows that the corporal, once he gets home, or has some drinks, will lose all respect for the general’s medals and uniform.

In Shakespeare, the Fool or the gravedigger will talk more sense than the king or the prince. In Cervantes, Don Quixote is a hero only because he is so obviously such a fool. And in Europe, if we feel like it, we laugh at God and think what a fool he must be. This is what makes us different from citizens of the United States, or China, or the Middle East.

Humanist culture

In Europe there is an idea of a humanist culture which is common to us all, something which comes from a freedom to write and read whatever we please, and think fresh thoughts and create fresh images. There were times when the European Union seemed to embody this, seemed to be a secularising influence on Europe, placing humanist ideas and tolerance and equality of opportunity and the possibility of progress at its very centre.

Europe came to mean progress, especially in countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland, which had bad roads and backward politics. It came to mean peace in the countries which had known war. We improved our infrastructure courtesy of Europe, and slowly our political culture changed too. But there were times when Europe came to mean money and power. We noticed, for example, that when Irish politicians or civil servants or judges went to work in Europe, their salaries seemed very high.

What also came was the secrecy that those who love power enjoy. The European Union based itself on a diplomatic system rather than, say, a parliamentary system. Thus what happened behind closed doors, and appeared in secret memos, affected our lives more than what happened in our own parliaments. When the members of the Council of Ministers met they issued bland statements and stood for a photograph. No one knew what they had really decided, or how. The European Parliament remains a large and expensive alibi for transparency.

Making an enemy of the people

The European Union seemed ready to take more and more power for itself. It appeared also to have no interest in reforming itself, or examining its own procedures. In using the systems which diplomats use, it created a strange enemy called the people. Thus there were two power blocs – the citizens of Europe who had less and less power, and the rulers of Europe who had more each year. The rulers often fooled the people; the rulers seemed to know what was best for the people.

Some of the changes they made were marvellous, however. We could cross borders in Europe without having our passports stamped, or, if driving, without having any controls at all. We could move goods, for the most part, without paying duty.

We could live and work where we liked within Europe. I loved how western Europe embraced the countries of the east after 1989. I loved the idea that Europe would become a place of cities rather than states, because our cities, and the ideas and images that spread in them, were our great European creation.

I loved the idea that the concept of nationhood and nationalism would belong to a 19th Century dream and a 20th Century nightmare, ended now. I even loved the euro when it came and was proud that Ireland had joined it from the beginning. I loved the new edicts coming from Europe on the environment; I loved the deregulation of air travel. I even believed that a time would come when Europe would mean something in the world, when our concept of human rights would stand powerful like the euro and make a difference to what happened in China or the Middle East.

Irish heyday

In Ireland during the boom years we had full employment. We did not have to emigrate as we usually do. We worked very hard. In a downturn, we would normally be able to devalue our currency, or allow for inflation. We cannot do this now. Just as the euro suits Germany and other rich countries and makes their exports competitive, it does not suit us. But we are locked into it.

In the meantime, Germany and other rich European countries speak as the source of all wisdom in Europe and, perhaps more important, the source of all authority.

Under pressure, the idea of a European Union has failed. There are only nation-states now looking after their own interests. We have woken from the great dream. It is daytime in Europe. All we have to comfort us are our ability to laugh at our foolishness and theirs; all we have is the memory of what was once possible. And then the paintings, the books, the songs and symphonies, the great galleries and museums and libraries and public buildings which make up our culture.

We can wander alone at night in the city streets in Lisbon and Riga, Athens and Dublin, Constanza and Stockholm, and know that the impulse towards social solidarity and political idealism may come again, perhaps more intensely now that we know how fragile it is. But not for a while.