The EU's approach to Western and Eastern European collective memory

The European Union has built its normative concepts on Europe's postwar consensus, focusing in particular on Holocaust trauma. But Francesco Spera argues that through past and future enlargements, it is also adapting to Eastern European states' mnemonic paths as they move away from their communist histories

The 1992 Maastricht Treaty emphasised a foundational myth for promoting collective memory in the European legal order. EU citizens' collective memory lays the foundation for a pan-European identity. The symbolic core of this identity is built on the ethical lessons of World War II. In fostering Europeanness, EU institutions capitalise on a moral commitment to overcoming a traumatic past to promise a better future.

Accordingly, the foundations of European collective memory lie in the Holocaust, commemoration of which has gradually become more transnational. The European Parliament passed two anti-discrimination resolutions in 1993 and 1995, indicating its increasing focus on Holocaust commemoration. Through the late 1990s, national days of commemoration became more and more common in Europe. However, all this began to change on 1 May 2004. On this momentous day, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia all raised EU flags.

The post-communist problématique

In the mid-2000s, most Western European countries believed the Holocaust could become a shared memory for the EU. But the majority of East European countries challenged this view. They argued that exclusive emphasis on the Holocaust would fail to do justice to the victims of other totalitarian regimes.

New Eastern European member states argued that exclusive emphasis on the Holocaust would fail to do justice to the victims of other totalitarian regimes

This contention in European memory politics was influenced by the anti-communist agenda of East European ruling parties and their proponents. Few of them questioned the uniqueness of the Holocaust, declaring Nazism and communism 'equally criminal'. East European parties claimed the EU focused on Holocaust victims at the expense of victims of other totalitarian regimes, who they felt were treated as less deserving of sympathy.

Overcoming the East-West divide

This contrast in the mnemonic paths of Western and Eastern societies led the EU to develop a common collective memory. The EU considered this essential to its European unification project, and collective memory thus formed part of the new European Neighbourhood Policy in the early 2000s.

EU institutions have since adopted soft-law acts that influence institutional and national policies. Two examples are the Solana-Patten joint letter and the European Parliament’s resolutions described below, which were key influences on post-Soviet countries. Over the decades, these soft-law tools have helped EU member states and candidates preserve and promote EU cultural heritage.

The Solana-Patten letter

An important step in the EU's aspiration to promote its vision of Eastern Europe was the 2002 joint letter from European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten and EU representative for foreign and security policy Javier Solana. The letter set out the essential issues the Union would have to consider in cooperating with Eastern European countries.

It said the EU sought to create close cooperation with its neighbours, fostering mutual exchange of human capital, ideas, knowledge, and culture. This cooperation would be based on what the Union defines as 'shared values'. These values include, in particular, democracy, and respect for human rights and the rule of law, as set out in EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The preamble to this Charter refers expressly to 'the peoples of Europe' in the European continent. This demonstrates clearly that those values enshrined by the Charter are not limited only to then-EU citizens.

Ukraine may appear a challenge for the European Neighbourhood Policy, but the country has high hopes for EU accession

New EU accession candidate Ukraine is an interesting case for discussing harmonisation of the EU collective memory framework with regard to Eastern Europe. On the one hand, Ukraine appeared the most immediate challenge for the European Neighbourhood Policy. On the other, Ukraine’s European aspirations have been high. Solana and Patten felt the EU-Ukraine partnership would require an ambitious but workable policy framework for the next ten years without closing any options for the distant future. Their letter has informed key European Neighbourhood Policy choices, particularly regarding geographical scope, objectives, and methodologies.

Towards an EU collective memory?

In 2005, the European Parliament proposed an act banning Nazi and communist symbols. This resolution marked a milestone in EU memory politics. It was the first time the EU had emphasised not solely Holocaust trauma but also Eastern Europe's communist past.

The European Parliament's 2005 act banning Nazi and communist symbols was the first time the EU had emphasised not just the Holocaust, but tragedies in Eastern Europe's communist past, too

Finally, in 2009, another European Parliament resolution reinforced a united European memory of totalitarianism. The resolution strongly condemns former totalitarian and undemocratic communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. It also commemorates the Holodomor alongside the Holocaust. Eastern European tragedies, too, are now considered part of Europe's shared history of democracy and of postwar respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.

The EU’s actions show how shaping common collective memory plays a key role in constructing a common EU trajectory. Any future proposal for shaping EU collective memory, including for future member states, must therefore involve proper democracy mechanisms, transparency, and open debate.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Francesco Spera
Francesco Spera
PhD Candidate, University of Salento

Francesco's expertise covers the field of EU institutional law, EU constitutional law, EU environmental law and EU external relations law.

He has recently published in the Austrian Review of International and European Law, EUWEB Legal Essays: Global & International Perspectives, Papers di diritto europeo, and Rivista scientifica online.

He tweets @francespera

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