Stars of Europe. How to honour the everyday heroes of Europe?
3 Feb 2022
Across countries, there are many ways of rewarding and celebrating individuals whose work and vision are dedicated to their community. These Honours (e.g. Légion d’Honneur, Bundesverdienstkreuz) often have their origins in military culture and bestow recognition on the achievements, missions and ambitions of people at the national level.
Why is there no such thing at the European level? Can achievements only be national or nationally rewarded? Are there no European achievements because national politicians simply only negotiate the best national deals in Brussels? And can European achievements only be attributed to politicians? We don’t think so.
We have been asking ourselves this question amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated Europe’s pre-existing divisions and created new ones. Nationalism and intolerance are on the rise. At the same time, we have witnessed so many big and small actions of solidarity and European cooperation that should not go unrecognised.
The idea of a European Honours System focuses on important aspects of building belonging: the recognition of one’s efforts for European cooperation, solidarity, European values, for European community. National Honours Awards are known to celebrate hard work and excellence. They also promote patriotism through the acknowledgment of the value of selfless and meritorious services. This could apply at the European level too. Indeed, this could lead to the creation and celebration of a community of everyday European heroes or stars whose accomplishments and devotion would be publicly recognised in some official way.
To discuss the merits, challenges, opportunities and practicalities of a European honours system, André Wilkens, the director of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF) and Hugo Scheubel, a Master’s student in European Affairs from SciencePo Paris, who was an intern at ECF, met for an intergenerational conversation.
Do we need a European Honours System, and why?
André: I came across the issue that we have all sorts of mechanisms, tools and systems to honour individuals in Europe, but always at national and local levels. These are systems that have been around for hundreds of years in some cases, often originating from military awards. They come from a tradition of honouring heroes who were fighting in wars, and more recently have also placed a focus on civilians and people who have achieved a lot for society. Why do we not have something like that at the European level? The question here is not to reproduce the same systems, evidently, but to draw inspiration from them. Especially during the current pandemic, we have grown to be even more aware of the many people who deserve appreciation, recognition and elevation in the public debate – and that should not only be at the national level. The pandemic is something we went through also as a European society and community. There should be a way to recognise and celebrate that.
Hugo: This is particularly relevant as I think we are in need of a European identity; we need people to feel like they belong to Europe. In that regard, I think the Honours System would focus on an important aspect of the identity building process – the recognition of one’s efforts for the continent, the territory and the community. We need a dynamic of recognition and celebration of Europeans by Europeans for Europeans. This will go against the narratives of the “us” versus “them” that populists across Europe are putting to the fore. We should also create a European Honours System because there is already a myriad of existing prizes to reward people at the national level, but there is also a sea of existing European prizes. However, these prizes are not necessarily followed by many Europeans, and are not even known by some of them. And I do believe that creating a system that resonates with national prizes (even if only by the name) will be something that hooks people’s attention and might also be a way to engage them within European questions and dynamics.
André: I would add two things to that. I would make a differentiation between prizes or awards and an Honours System in a sense, because it is true there are already a lot of existing prizes. However, these prizes usually go either to one or very few individuals or to entire organisations. However, what we’re talking about is the recognition of a hundred people per year, maybe even more. In France, Germany, the Netherlands and also in the UK, you look up to the Honours System because you look at the names. Some names you recognise – sports people, people in the music industry, for instance – but there is also the average person. It may be a nurse or a storekeeper. It is the combination and the mixture that makes it important also in terms of storytelling. We have a certain problem or deficit with storytelling in Europe, strangely enough. We have lots of stories, but we’re not able to tell them in a good way.
Hugo: To create and promote interesting conversations with and among European citizens, the importance of role models should be acknowledged. These Honours could be a way to put them to the forefront. This resonates with the issue of storytelling in Europe – and even if this might not be a way to rewrite the European story, it provides an opportunity to focus on it through a different prism. This is the prism of the individual: after all, Europe is about people and for people. A European Honours System might be a stepping stone towards changing the lens – and I think we need that, especially now.
André: When we tell the stories of Europe, it’s often through the founding names and the important treaties. To write the story of Europe, we must go beyond the famous leaders. Europe is also a story of you and me. We can be very contemporary and we can reinvent how to honour people in the light of this need for a change in stories about Europe. In the end, this is to appreciate publicly people for what they have done. Thus, naturally, it must connect with people.
Hugo: Definitely. I also think that the military legacy of the Honours Systems has made the institution rather elitist. As we’ve just said, we want to focus on something that celebrates Europeans and we want to make it inclusive. Therefore, we do not need to copy a system – we need to deconstruct it. This ought to be done to relate to people in 2022, to the new generations and the old ones. When it comes to recognising and celebrating people publicly, I also think new tools are available. I’m thinking of the internet and social media. We currently live in the age of virtual visibility where it is likely that people will principally follow the Honours System through social media. We should keep this in mind. The question is not just about what people want but also about what people use – the way they live their lives and how such a new European system could be included within that. Indeed, if an important issue within the continent now is the disconnect between Europe and its citizens, there might not be an incentive from grassroots European citizens to document themselves in such an Honours System. Then, we need to think about how to attract Europeans’ attention.
André: Yes, let’s be inventive and make the appreciation visible and tangible to the honoured people, but also to the European public. However, and maybe that is part of the generational discussion we are having, I would also see an analogue element in that. For me, digital remains fleeting. If someone pulls the plug, it’s gone. How can you use the physical public space? Let’s say you have the Hollywood Walk of Fame where you have these stars, like Marilyn Monroe. All these people have a star in the pavement there in Hollywood and people travel there to see it. I like the idea that it is maybe in ways we might not necessarily expect that we can provide tangible and physical recognition. One way is to give some money, but we don’t necessarily want to do that.
Hugo: Indeed, there is a need for different ways of showing recognition and the analogue component remains very important. I also think the point you raised about monetary compensation and the fact that we don’t want to do that is important to mention. Criticism might follow. For instance, if we celebrate health workers who have been through the pandemic, is giving a symbolic honour enough? They have repeatedly emphasised over the past two years the lack of budget, the lack of hospital beds… Thus, Honours will never be enough. Nonetheless, we can think of them as something that might put these concerns and voices to the fore. We need to unite Europeans and we need to foster conversations. And this dialogue might be held on different terms if the people who are trying to have the debate are given new platform. I’m not saying that the Honours System should be seen as just another platform to create new debates. But this is something that should be considered.
André: If you start with money, you never know how much is enough. I would say one should probably separate from it, as it’s a rather capitalist means of recognition.
What elements are important for the European Honours System to work?
Hugo: We must acknowledge that the European Honours System implies a celebration of Europe – to celebrate European heroes is to also recognise the territory they inhabit. However, I think this must come with an ongoing conversation about what Europe entails and what feeling European might mean, because I do believe that can still be controversial today. If we take the example of France, many individuals have refused the Légion d’Honneur because they did not want to be associated with the values and the vision of the country. This should be thought about in the context of Europe, as we should consider the fact the continent is currently not the best place in terms of democracy and human rights, and racism, homophobia or misogyny are still prevalent. In my opinion, if we start with the European Honours System, we should always consider the conversations that are needed for it to be put in place in the first place. There’s a social and political component to consider.
André: There could be and can always be controversial cases. It is a question about how you organise, how you select, what kind of jury you put into place. There may be cases where people say they don’t want anything from this, they don’t like the system. If this turns into a debate, that can be very useful and important. Europe is imperfect, but it still runs. It is a cooperative of nation states. If you have countries like Hungary or Poland that are opposing the fundamental values of the EU and they can get away with it – that can be a reason to refuse receiving the Honours, but it is not a reason to not have Honours at all. The system can be part of highlighting these things. For instance, someone who provides shelter for refugees coming through the Belarusian border could be granted European honours. We should honour those who stand up for European values, even if they live in countries where these values are mistreated.
Hugo: Of course, it is not because we still have areas of intolerance, homophobia and racism within Europe that we should not have an Honours system. To be honest, I think it’s the contrary. We should not fall for the illusion that Europe is a safe place for everyone, because it is through the realisation that it is not that we can find another driver for a fairer and more inclusive Europe – reflected in the Honours System.
Who should give the Honours?
André: Usually, it is the president or the monarchy. In Europe, we have three presidents – of the Commission, of the Council and of the Parliament. Should it be one of these presidents? We might also investigate including ECF in order to give the Honour, but that doesn’t have the clout I think it needs. However, there can be a role for such a non-state organisation. ECF could, for instance, kick start the project, in the same way we did in the 1980s with the Erasmus programme together with the European Commission.
Hugo: I like the idea of potentially having the three presidents of Europe giving the Honours together. Logistically, this would probably be very complicated, but in terms of symbolism, that would be great. Another point to mention is the already existing criticism about the idea of this kind of Honours System. Last year, when the project was being discussed in the European Parliament, the first thing that came out is that there is no justification for dwelling on the federalist and nationalist symbols to honour European citizens. I do not believe that this is necessarily true because, as we’ve already established, there is a need for European identity. There is a need for Europeans to come together. And I think to dwell on a national symbol is quite important because that will attract people’s attention.
André: To question whether this comes from federalist symbols does not appear as relevant to me. We have European prizes for all sorts of things already, and is that a bad thing? The only thing that doesn’t exist is an Honours system for everyday European citizens. When you start something like this, you’re not specifically referring to the national systems, but you’re drawing inspiration from what already exists and what is similar to what you want to put in place. We want to honour European citizens, not say “as it is already done at the national level” – maybe we should just forget about this half sentence and not refer to it. We don’t need to make that connection. We have done so within this discussion, to lay the foundations of the project we want to put in place, but there comes a point when we don’t need to make that comparison all the time.
Hugo: This goes back to the idea that Europe is about narratives, conversations, celebrations. We decide to celebrate the people in Europe who are helping the community. This is the root of the project, and whether this comes from a federalist legacy is a question that could be asked and that’s been asked before, which is why I brought it up, but might not be of exponential importance.
Do we need quotas?
André: If half the recipients come from France, people would be unhappy. There must be some sort of balance also between east and west and north and south, for instance. The European Honours System should represent the diversity of Europe in every aspect.
Hugo: It is a contentious matter. We need to ensure that all countries are represented, and minorities as well. There is, however, also a risk in falling for a performative system where we just give Honours to people because they fall in the right category of people that we want to give the Honours to. However, I still believe we should put quotas in place.
How many people should we give the Honours to?
Hugo: In France, Germany and the Netherlands, we have around 2,500 recipients of honours per year.
André: The main thing is that we want to recognise people and not only the people at the top who already get recognition all the time. It’s about putting everyday people at the centre. So that’s how many people! Evidently, however, we need a balance. It can’t be everyone. It must be a number – celebrating as many people as possible but also holding a certain rarity, so that it remains special. But it can’t be too special that it is only one or two people. Let’s also say that you cannot nominate yourself. Someone must nominate you. Then it needs to go through a process where the nominations are being assessed. This is a big job. If ECF did it now, that could easily take up all of the human and financial resources of our foundation. Perhaps we should start with a small number as a pilot – a hundred people, to test it out. After the pilot phase then we could set a target level of a thousand, but then you probably must create a separate organisation.
Do we want to create a certain hierarchy within the system itself?
Hugo: Would we want to have different categories for the Honours system? The Légion d’Honneur has the Knight, the Officer, the Commander, the Great Officer and the Grand Cross…
André: When talking about these things, it goes back to the military system. That’s something we should move away from. For the different classes, I would then look at the Hollywood walk of fame again. Do you have a different class system there? Let’s say if you, Hugo, get to be a European star and Angela Merkel could too, that makes it attractive for all the Hugos to be in the same sort of league as all the Merkels, because we all made a contribution to Europe at our individual levels. Thus, I would be for more of an equal system. Let’s think about the system of the stars, because we have the stars in the European flag. We have the golden stars as a European symbol. We can reward stellar achievements. I see similarities with a kind of Michelin star system.
Hugo: I completely agree with you on the classes. I do not believe there would be any relevance in using military terms to celebrate European heroes. We need to break away from these legacies and these traditions. I like the idea of the stars. The goal is not to create a hierarchy within a system supposed to celebrate European heroes. It’s not about giving some individuals three stars and others just one.
André: Let’s keep things simple. If you make it more and more complicated, it’s a bit like the tax system, suddenly it’s so complicated that no one really understands it. And if you have so many categories, no one gets it anymore.
A community of European Stars
André: We talked before about the value of this to the person who receives this. If it’s not monetary, one specific value apart from the public recognition is that you become part of a community of European stars. You become part of a community where you can interact with other European stars, both in an analogue and digital way. Let’s think of an analogue way of recognising these individuals, maybe in Brussels. Let’s also think about a digital community that you only have access to when you become a star. When you are in, you are part of a community with other stars in Europe, from sports to music to entertainment to politics but also agents from civil society and from the media and health systems. These people from totally different backgrounds wouldn’t normally ever meet this way. We could create an interesting community whose diversity and work will be very beneficial in discussing the future of Europe and what can be done to improve it.
Hugo: I like the idea a lot. However, we’re currently seeing a rise of disinterest and disillusion regarding Europe and its dynamics. My first question would be – how to make sure people want to be part of this community? People like us, because we work for Europe and on Europe. We certainly would love to get such an opportunity. However, perhaps a grassroots European citizen might not see the appeal or the interest. We should create and work on this interest. Also, what language do we want people to speak? I’m not sure everyone would be fluent in French or English or German. One of the main areas of criticism around Europe and the European Union is its elitism and we should be wary of changing the paradigm.
However, I think the community of stars is a wonderful opportunity and prism to rethink the idea of the community – the idea of the self, the idea of the recognition and perhaps more broadly, the idea of Europe.
André: The question is how you can make it as inclusive and diverse as possible, with the common denominator being Europe. That’s a challenging thing – so that you are not just creating a bubble of usual suspects. A European politician, an Alsatian baker, someone from SeaWatch helping refugees to safety, a footballer standing up against racism – all these people are eligible to be a European star. That’s why the selection criteria and process are so important. We should make sure that language is not a problem. I have dealt with the issue of the European public space, where language is always a tricky issue. However, with language technology machine translation, you have so many new possibilities. You can be a Greek communicating with a German or with a Latvian without much problem. We should trust that. After all, things are moving very fast.
Hugo Scheubel is currently studying International Affairs at Sciences Po, Paris, specialising on European politics. He grew up in Alsace before conducting a Bachelor’s degree at King’s College London, where he understood how his love for the arts and fiction could be reconciled with politics and international relations. He conducted an internship at the European Cultural Foundation from September to December 2021.
Andre Wilkens grew up in East Berlin and drove in an old Lada to Brussels shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall to take up an internship at the European Commission. Now he is the director of the European Cultural Foundation, which was set up in 1954 by Robert Schuman and other European stars.
The discussion took place on Zoom and was recorded on 14 January 2022.