Public history as “useful history” before voting for Europe, May 22-25, 2014

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French poster for the first direct elections to the European Parliament - CVCE

Since the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, European citizens are able to better decide the kind of Europe they would like to live in: the EU Parliament influences the choice of the President of the European Commission. The EUandI project (EUI) provides European citizens with a tool that helps them deciding which party to vote for in the EP elections (May 22-25), based on their preferences concerning best policies for tomorrow’s Europeeuandi-EUDO-EUI

But communicating to national public opinions why such a democratic activity is a fundamental issue influencing the future of Europe, has become a very hard task today. The EU hardly speaks directly to its citizens. More important, the EU does not refer to the historical construction of a united Europe and it is silent about European Memories with the only exception of the Holocaust. History and Memory do not offer decisive arguments to bring European citizens to the polls, building the future on a common knowledge about the past. Moreover, digital social media -Twitter uses the hashtag #EP2014 for the polls- are often silent about the historical dimension of the European Integration process and its importance today. History is sometimes abused to support present political goals but it remains often far away from political debates.

The broader narrative about the history of Europe encounters also negative criticisms reaching far beyond an interpretation of the historical process. Sometimes European intellectuals  (including contemporary historians) are eager to stress all the problems experienced by the EU integration process. History, however, is not only about facts, but also about which facts are selected to interpret the past. And the writing of history takes into account contemporary contexts, ideologies and cultures. Historians are divided in their visions of the European past: should they still promote the idealistic contribution of the peace-keeping effect of European integration, as the Commission does? Clearly, today, unemployment and the power of the banks are far more visible than the results of the recent enlargment, which created a new peaceful space that includes Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The enlargment, however, also entails putting together conflicting pasts and memories. Today’s enlarged Europe faces huge problems: how to integrate all new and old countries and how to renew the western European idealism in the postwar era and applying it to these new but different pasts and active memories ? 

National public opinions are not interested in the historical dimension of our common pasts, but, rather, in today’s unemployment in the Union. European citizens and politicians are generally unable to interpret the broader EU historical framework. Their public discussions revolve around very short term social, economic and financial issues. The whole EU byzantine institutional architecture, including the directly elected European Parliament, and the EU decision making process, are perceived as far away from ordinary lives. EU citizens know about their family memories, but they don’t feel part of a wider European history.

There are not enough cultural initiatives dealing with conflicting memories and engaging the public with the broader European past and its contradictions. 

Museum-Europe-BXLFor example, the Museum of Europe in Brussels in 2010 held an exhibition called America, it’s also our history and remained inactive from then.

The House of European History (expected late 2015) in Brussels, an initiative of the European Parliament itself, aims at establishing a large interpretative forum about different European pasts. The visitor experience will be shaped through a permanent exhibition, with the purpose of educating the public about European history beyond national boundaries, a history made of divergent pasts.

House_European_History_BXLBuilding museums, commemorating past events, creating exhibitions, are the kind of cultural initiatives needed today. The vision of the European founding fathers, their dream of a united and peaceful Europe has disappeared from political discussions and although it remains a central theme in academic historiography, it has no impact on the wider European public.  But voting for the EU parliament is a concrete political action that allows each citizen to be part of a shared process started with the long peaceful transition between the 20th and the 21st centuries in Europe.

The “United Europe” imagined by Churchill in January 1948, had to be unified looking at moral, cultural, sentimental and social unities and affinities throughout all Europe.... ” Two years later, Robert Schuman wrote confidentially to Konrad Adenauer on May 7 1950, just before submitting his famous “plan” to the French Government, that a peaceful European construction for the future had to be built remembering the violent pasts and conflicts between France and Germany. For Schuman, Europe integration needed concrete steps. And the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) was the first concrete initiative towards a unified and peaceful Europe. Many other concrete steps followed since then, until the signature of the Lisbon Treaty (2007). But the European integration process is slowly growing generation after generation. In this letter (republished in a very interesting French digital history project called Des Lettres), Robert Schuman wrote: 

Robert_Schuman-1929-640x600Monsieur le Chancelier, 

A la veille de proposer au Gouvernement Français de prendre une décision importante pour l’avenir des relations franco-allemandes, de l’Europe et de la Paix, je […] désire aussi vous expliquer l’esprit dans lequel j’ai rédigé cette déclaration. La paix mondiale ne saurait être sauvegardée sans des efforts créateurs à la mesure des dangers qui la menacent. La contribution qu’une Europe organisée et vivante peut apporter à la civilisation est indispensable au maintien de relations pacifiques.  […] L’Europe ne se fera pas d’un coup ni dans une construction d’ensemble. Elle se fera si des réalisations concrètes créent d’abord une solidarité de fait. […].” 

Schuman’s plan was all about a peaceful Europe. He started from an economic agreement. But behind economy, Europeanism was making a first concrete step towards integration. This process accelerated in the 21st century with the accession of central and eastern European countries to the EU. As the Ukraine example shows, the EU is an appealing ideal of peace, democracy and human rights for many. 

Expo  14 18  c'est notre histoire

Academic history is about free individual research and can be defined as “deep history”, a critical analysis of the past with no need to link contemporary issues with it. But there is also a useful history for the present based on the findings of academic historiography: public history. The latter engages with memory issues in society and reaches a broader public opinion aiming at a more diffused knowledge of the past. This could become the role of the House of History

A “useful history” also caracterises the one year exhibition in Brussels, commemorating the centenary of the 14-18 conflict: the First World War is our historyAt the end of the visit the public is asked to answer questions, such as: what would you have done at the eve of WW1? But, more important, the exhibition ends with a slide showing the EU receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace 2012. This connection with the violent 20th century history is a metaphor: a peaceful Europe was created from the battlefield of Verdun to the Lisbon Treaty. This exhibition integrates the past as a living dimension of contemporary reflections about EU policies.


Public Historians in the Museum of Europe, together with Tempora, a Belgian private society specialized in design and management of exhibitions, have organized 14-18 It’s Our History, (video available) which connects generations throughout the 20th century with today’s Europe. Academic historians adopt a critical approach to the past in all circumstances and are skeptical about creating a “useful” historical connection between the traumatic battle of Verdun and the 2012 Nobel price. But such an approach could also be valid to narrate 20th century history.


The European Integration process is not taught in many EU educational systems. Digital media and the web can help building a better public awareness of the recent European past. Public historians can make an important contribution in this respect. In order to add a concrete historical dimension to the present, and a broader dimension to the European election, public historians in the Historical Archives of the EU at the European University Institute and in the Centre Virtual de la Connaissance de l’Europe (CVCE) in Luxembourg, have published online key historical documents concerning the process of EU integration. These include symbolic contributions to the European construction such as the Folon painting (1979) with the words, Europe is Hope A digital communication of primary sources concerning European history promotes European citizenship and, maybe also a growing participation to the polls at the EU parliament elections in May 2014. 


The CVCE published a short history of the EU Parliament with primary documents. The Center offers further readings to understand better the history of the European Parliamentits compositionthe election of its Members and the number and distribution of seats as well as the single Statute for MembersIn view of the forthcoming European elections (22–25 May 2014), the CVCE offers a selection of resources (synopses, photos and graphics) and oral accounts about the European Parliament from its establishment in 1952 to the present day. This wealth of resources is available in French and English. In this way, the CVCE hopes to help improve public awareness of the European Parliament and contribute to a greater understanding of the issues involved in the European elections.”

A Digital Public History approach to the history of the European Parliament (access to digital primary sources), is also a way through which the European University Institute Historical Archives of the European Union promotes a reflection on the past. A virtual exhibition, “L’Europa Vince. 35 years of European Elections“, illustrates some important historical moments of the 35 years old EU Parliament. 

L’Europa vince – 35 Years of European elections

The European Parliament represents over 500 million inhabitants divided among the 28 Member States of the European Union. It is the only institution of the EU which is elected directly by its citizens every five years, it constitutes the principal democratic basis of the Union. With the entry into vigor of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Parliament received equal status as the Council in the framework of the legislative procedure. […] The background to the European elections is well documented in the archives of the European institutions and in the private fonds held in the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence. To illustrate the richness and the diversity of these fonds, the HAEU in partnership with the Archives Service of the European Parliament is offering an historical journey of the European Elections by means of a weekly selection of photos, posters, press cuttings and official documents.”

Should we accept that Europe today is only about financial crisis, the power of banks, and unemployment? Such issues are certainly essential, but nevertheless, we should not forget Schuman’s message delivered after the Second World War. Remembering history enlarges our narrow daily perspective and questions the fundamental reasons behind the vote itself and the possibility for each citizen to bet on a better future.

It is hard to understand how much a digital public history approach to European History, together with public exhibitions and public commemorations of the past could help stimulating a renewed European idealism or, more directly, a better understanding of the European integration process and participation to the vote in May.