Having personally lived the consequences of European war and politics for all of his 98 years, Otto von Habsburg is recognised as a remarkable figure in the history of Europe. A Member of European Parliament from 1979-1999, his career as an MEP was distinguished by his unwavering conviction that true European integration could only be achieved with the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs).
To celebrate the 110th anniversary of von Habsburg’s birth, the Otto von Habsburg Foundation in Budapest organised, with the Historical Archives of the European Union, an exhibition and conference at the European University Institute. With the participation of academics and policy-makers, the event focused both on his contributions as an MEP, but also more generally on the role assumed by the European Parliament during and since the fall of the iron curtain.
“Thank God he was an MEP”
With those words Maastricht University historian Dr. Aline Sierp summed up the European Parliamentary career of Otto von Habsburg, based on archival research and study of nearly 100 speeches and dozens of proposed resolutions he made as MEP.
Insomuch as the European Parliament framed debates on the democratic change in the CEECs following the fall of the Berlin wall, Otto von Habsburg played an important role. “Otto von Habsburg was one of its main actors, paying particular attention to human rights and the importance of economic, political and cultural cooperation for democratic progress in the CEECs”, she stated.
The European Parliament past, present and future
In discussing the role of the European Parliament, members of the conference panel touched on perennial sticking points in debates on Europe, such as sovereignty vs. identity, subsidiarity, pragmatism, legitimacy and security. In all of these, von Habsburg was recognised and praised as an adroit diplomat and politician.
Alain Lamassoure, Former MEP and France’s Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, extolled the career of von Habsburg in a letter, applauding him for his pragmatism, his belief in the potential of supra-nationality, and his prescience regarding the importance of security for the long-term survival of the union.
Enikő Győri, Member of the European Parliament, described her personal recollections of von Habsburg as a “remarkable figure for Europe”, but worries about growing divisions between countries and expressed her concerns about a remaining gulf in understanding between citizens of Western Europe and citizens of Eastern Europe. “The western part of the continent still does not know much about the eastern part,” she said. “This is bad, because without knowledge of the other, you cannot understand their motivations.”
Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s Minister for Regional Development and EU Funds, also discussed the lingering difficulties of European integration, remaining optimistic, nevertheless, for the eventual emergence of a European demos on shared challenges like migration and climate. “Cultural attitudes can be divisive,” he cautioned, “but the upcoming decades can heal, and there are signs indicating a more united future. It is a work in progress.”
In closing remarks Mr Gergely Prőhle, Director of the Otto von Habsburg Foundation, and Professor Renaud Dehousse, President of the EUI, also suggested realistic approaches for Europe, grounded in resolving the issues at hand, such as climate change and security.
The conference was concluded by a visit to the Historical Archives of the European Union, during which Director Schlenker stated that “as a true European, Otto von Habsburg’s written heritage is a shared treasure of many archives in Europe, and the HAEU plays a key role in safeguarding his European memory.”