The European Parliament will this week vote on making 23 August a Europe-wide day of remembrance for 20th-century Nazi and communist crimes.
This week's vote on the draft resolution, set for 2 April, marks the culmination of a process which began last June at an international conference on 'European Conscience and Communism' in Prague. The conference produced a declaration which has since been signed by just under 50 MEPs.
Last November, 18 EU member states took part in a workshop setting out a framework for international cooperation on the "elucidation of the crimes of the totalitarian regimes that reigned in Europe".
Earlier this month (18 March), Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, responsible for European affairs, EU Culture Commissioner Jan Figel’, MEPs and NGO representatives attended a public hearing on reconciling Europe with its totalitarian legacy.
The hearing was organised by the Czech EU Presidency in conjunction with the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and a group of twelve MEPs.
The European Parliament debated a draft resolution on the issue tabled by members of the EU assembly’s centre-right EPP-ED group last Wednesday (25 March).
Europe needs to enlarge its "conscience and awareness" of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes last century by establishing a Europe-wide day of remembrance, argued MEPs from the centre-right EPP-ED group last week.
In their draft resolution on the issue, MEPs Tunne Kelam (Estonia), Jana Hybáškova (Czech Republic) and József Szájer (Hungary) asked EU governments and the European Commission to designate 23 August as a 'European Day of Remembrance of the victims of Nazism and Communism'.
The parliamentarians also want the EU and member states to "contribute financially and politically to the establishment of a 'Platform of European Memory and Conscience'".
"To complete the building of our common European house, we need to create a balanced and integrated perception of our history," explained Estonia's Kelam.
The MEPs' call echoes that of Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency. Vondra had told an earlier hearing (18 March) that the EU 27 should create a "single platform that would coordinate research into totalitarian regimes in member countries," the Prague Daily Monitor reported.
Responding to suggestions that such an office could be hosted in Brussels and part-funded by the European Union, EU Culture Commissioner Jan Figel' said finding the money was unlikely to be a problem, the newspaper reported.
The goal of such an information office would be to provide an "honest and open assessment" and "raise the public’s awareness" of "the causes and consequences of totalitarian regimes," Deputy PM Vondra continued.
The public hearing had concluded that existing EU financial instruments to commemorate victims of Nazism and Stalinism should be strengthened, particularly under the 'Europe for Citizens' programme.
Previous efforts to highlight the common identity and history of Europeans have stumbled on political or religious grounds (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'European values and identity'), with reflections on Europe's communist past a particularly sensitive issue for the left in the EU's new member states.
MEPs will vote on the draft resolution on Thursday (2 April).
"In life, one cannot have a good future without understanding and coming to terms with one's own past. The same applies to Europe and its common memory. This is not just an exercise for one generation or one country, but a continuous need for the whole of Europe," Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, responsible for European affairs, told this month's public hearing.
"Only thus will be able to better understand each other," the Czech minister concluded, before adding: "Symbols such as the Iron Curtain still have tremendous power. Knowing our past is also an essential tool to teach our children how to avoid intolerance, extremism and the recurrence of totalitarian rule in the future."
"Only overcoming regional thinking, ignorance and different prejudices will lead to an all-European understanding that all historic events, tragedies and crimes are part of our common European heritage for which we as EU citizens bear responsibility," argued Estonian centre-right MEP Tunne Kelam (EPP-ED).
Lamenting the Socialist group's failure to back the resolution during last week's plenary debate, Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin (EPP-ED) argued that "without a thorough scrutiny of its past, the left in some post-communist countries compels itself to live with a false past, screening out all painful events. As the Western left seems to fully accept this unreconstructed post-communist left, it too finds itself obliged to defend an indefensible past".
"Most Europeans are still not aware of the crimes committed by Soviet totalitarian communism in Europe," Latvian MEP Roberts Zīle (UEN) told the hearing, according to the Baltic Course magazine, calling for the establishment in Brussels of a museum dedicated to the crimes of totalitarian regimes.
Pavel Zacek, who heads the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), said "the establishment of a small information office in Brussels" could be a "first step" towards a future European platform, reported the Prague Daily Monitor.
"When thinking of Europe’s future, one must bear in mind Europe’s past," Andreja Valic of Slovenia's Research Centre for National Reconciliation told the March hearing, according to STA, the Slovenian press agency. Although Slovenia has done much for reconciliation, progress so far is still too little, she explained.
Calling upon the opinion-makers of Europe "to promote Europe as an historical reality and as a project," Israeli historian Elie Barnavi told EurActiv in an interview, stressing the need to "show Europeans that they have common roots; that they are a civilisation".
"There is nothing to be invented here. There is a lot to be shown. People simply do not know. When I talk about history and the past, I am not talking about communism. I am talking about very long and profound roots of Europe. It is a very ancient, old story […] You do not have to invent it: it is there," he continued.
For Barnavi, "tackling the past is extremely important in order to build a future. By failing to tackle the past, you cannot really build the future and enhance this petty thing which is daily Europe, which is so boring in the eyes of its own citizens".
(Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009 )
Europe ponders 'remembrance day' for communist, Nazi past