Why a Jean Monnet Prize?

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[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on November 9, 2018]

In late April, EuropeanConstitution.eu, a French non-profit — of which I am the President, full disclosure — started planning the Jean Monnet Prize for European Integration. Today, Friday 9 November, on the anniversary of Jean Monnet’s birth, we announced with great pride the #FreeInterrail campaign as the winner of the Prize’s 2018 edition. Their efforts to promote free Interrail travel vouchers to be offered by the EU to all Europeans turning 18 is not only an ingenious way to promote integration in practice for all — even those who could otherwise not afford it — but also a wonderful testimony of how much a few motivated citizens with a good idea can accomplish.

But, beyond this success, what does it mean, today, to create a “Jean Monnet Prize”? What purpose does it serve? Why go through this trouble?

Because trouble it was.

Having the idea was evidently the easy part. Then came checking the relevant regulations concerning the organisation of contests by non-profits, drafting the Statute of the contest in a sound and clear manner, coming up with a realistic and meaningful calendar (handing out the Prize on Monnet’s birthday), designing a logo and building the necessary page on the association’s website, designing an invitation to apply and a matching video, seeking out partners (the European Commission gave us its patronage through its representation in France), identifying relevant contacts to advertise the Prize, writing several times to all of them to ensure the publicity of the Prize, answering all requests for information, filing and acknowledging reception of all applications for the Prize, reviewing applications carefully and in depth, and finally deciding to add two runners-up to the official winner in order to do better justice to the number of high-quality applications. All the while reaching out to partners for more publicity about the Prize. Six-and-a-half months of work finishing today.

So, why? Why all this effort?

This answer starts with the meaning of European integration. Wikipedia says:

European integration is the process of industrial, political, legal, economic, social and cultural integration of states wholly or partially in Europe. European integration has primarily come about through the European Union and its policies.

The second sentence is particularly revealing about the way integration is carried out — or at least perceived. The bulk of the work is done by the European Union and its policies. In other words: « institutions will take care of it, thank you very much, citizens, you can go about your business ».

But is that really what Europe is about? States coming together? The interlocking of institutional, legal and regulatory frameworks? — and this, mind you, is coming from someone with a known fondness for institutions and institution-building.

It is particularly fitting that Jean Monnet himself would have a relevant quote for us here. He told us to “build Union among people, not cooperation between states.” 1

What makes local communities alive is the bond between their people. What makes the beating heart of nations is the sense of belonging, a willingness to be part of a the whole, and to come together at times of joy or peril. Likewise, we cannot abandon European integration to regulations and policies.

Europe already has strong foundations: it has a history, a culture, a people. What it lacks is self-perception; it’s the realization by the people that they already share this history and culture and that they form one people.

Many things can remind us or make us aware of this. Simple encounters, discussions, dialogue, travels. All we need is a little push. But we cannot expect this push to come from above. Like meeting your neighbours or exploring your own country, discovering your own belonging to a larger European community is a profoundly human and personal experience. One in which the citizens themselves must be at the front.

And they are. Across Europe, countless citizens endeavour to create these links and bring Europeans closer together. Through increased dialogue and information, through local projects around the corner, or through support to those who cannot afford to travel. Through visual arts, through research, through music, history, languages. Possibilities are endless and creativity is not in short supply.

But, sometimes, these efforts and endeavours are not so apparent, not so visible. Sometimes the constant flow of news, swarming with doomsday announcements of rising nationalism and Euroscepticism, is simply too overwhelming and eclipses long-running and well-designed projects.

This is the reason for this Prize. Many act in favour of Europe and integration, so that we may live in ever-closer union, and these initiatives need to be known. Our Prize aims at revealing all this work. After just a few months of work and despite limited funds, we received close to fifty applications from all across the EU — and even further, from Australia and Japan all the way to the United States — of people believing in Europe and having launched all types of projects.

We wanted to honour these people and their efforts.

Believers in Europe are a large and diverse community. Some of us are journalists and fight to spread news across borders. Others are well settled in their local communities and see what their neighbours would need to meet European expatriates. Others advocate for large projects at the highest level to give better chance to all. Others launch a pan-European party to do politics differently. Other still start a communications campaign and help spread the word on all sorts of activism.

We all do what we are capable of, at our own level and for the benefit of all.

We do it because we can. We do it because we care.

  1. Indeed, Jean Monnet also said that “Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions.”

[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on November 9, 2018]

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