Václav Havel, the Charter 77 and the EU

An infinite finality

Andreas Pacher
21 August 2017

Václav Havel once wrote: ‘The goals of Charter 77 are without any limits, because they are moral goals’. His words are a reminder that the Charter 77, the Visegrád Group and the EU all share the same legacy: A legacy of a finalité which never ends due to their moral origins.

There was a sad moment during one of the many conferences on the 40th anniversary of the Charter 77. Elderly discussants had recalled anecdotes to evoke the repressive mood of the Cold-War-era Czechoslovakia. Their first-hand experience of suffering from pervasive surveillance that almost suffocated the dissidents’ nascent courage, their encounters with helpful ambassadors from neighboring countries, their political readings of exiled writers’ somber metaphors could not leave any listener unmoved. After an hour of succumbing into bygone memories, somebody from the audience suddenly asked: ‘So, does the Charter 77 still exhibit any relevance for today’s Europe?’ – The discussants were somehow at a loss, until one of them finally responded: No; the Charter 77 was born out of the particular conditions in Czechoslovakia, and does not carry any significance for present generations. The other participants nodded, with one of them reminding us that the Charter 77 was formally disbanded in 1992 – yep, apparently ‘its job’s done’, as the New York Times titled it that year.

This response was shocking. Nevermind the still active Charter 97 of Belarussian activists or the Charter 08 for which the Nobel Peace laureate and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was almost dying in prison the very moment this conference took place. Nevermind the reflections of Václav Havel, one of the main initiators behind the Charter 77: ‘The only escape out of a moral crisis’, he wrote on the tenth anniversary of the Charter, ‘is a moral response. […] The goals of the Charter 77 are without any limits, because they are moral goals.’

Who in today’s Europe would be so daring to assert such an infinite finalité rather than a technical roadmap of pragmatic steps? Take a look at the Juncker’s ‘White Paper on the Future of the EU’ by the European Commission which simply outlines five vague scenarios without really choosing any, and contrast it with the spirited manifestoes of young Europeans still capable of answering the question: ‘Why believe in European Federalism?

Václav Havel contended that never must the underlying values of the European Union’s original legacy be obfuscated, never must they become petrified into a glorified but lifeless, hoary past. Otherwise the EU risks mutating into a bureaucratic monstrosity which muddles through daily administrative tasks – a hypertrophic, remote, impersonal institution in which nothing is epitomized but Western industrial modernity in its ‘cult of consumption’ and ‘fanaticism of abstraction’ (Rupnik 2010, p. 140).

So, what is this legacy of the EU which, if we follow Havel, we should never be oblivious about? In 1957, the Treaty of Rome established an institution to pool coal and steel among six European countries. The Benelux countries’ participation was clearly based on quantifiable economic interests (Rittberger 2001). France, Germany and Italy, the other founding members, were likewise, albeit secondarily, enticed by economic rationales. So, is it an economic adroitness shared among profit-maximizing actors that poses the true legacy of the EU?

But recall that the Treaty of Rome 1957 was genealogically a descendant of the Monnet Plan 1943. In his war-time vision for a lasting peace for Europe, Jean Monnet declared: ‘There will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty […]. The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states must constitute themselves into a federation […]’.

Monnet’s strategy to combine ‘idea’ with ‘interest’ – a vision of peace with concrete economic allurements – was shrewd, and the sequence shows that the ideational part which embraces democracy, human rights and rule of law is the true foundational legacy of the EU. But it is also this value-laden part which so easily becomes forgotten amidst the pragmatic day-to-day needs faced by a strenuously operative bureaucracy. While Robert Schuman, the man behind the Treaty of Rome 1957, recognized that Europe only ‘becomes created through facts’, Jürgen Habermas recently diagnosed that the exuberance of ‘economic incentives’ have made the Europeans ‘democratically incapacitated’ (demokratisch entmündigt).

The loss of consciousness regarding the EU’s inherent ‘idea’ has created a paralyzing fatigue permeating our political attitudes. We go blind when asked about the timeless meaning of the Charter 77, we are uncertain about how supranationalism and a seventeenth century-concept of sovereignty are to be configured in 2017, and we hesitate to support democracy among our neighbours because we wrongfully deem it to be their democracies, and not ours (cf. Wagrandl 2017).

As long as the ‘interest’ rather than the ‘idea’ enjoys primacy, we remain helpless regarding our sisters and brothers who happen to be subjects of illiberal regimes blatantly violating ‘their’ (why not ‘our’?) rights and freedoms. Instead of emitting the transnational effects of a fortified democracy enshrined in Art. 7 TEU, the EU pulled a ritardando by instating a pre-Article 7 procedure which was dubbed the ‘new EU-framework to strengthen the Rule of Law’ and which expressed nothing but hesitation. To make matters worse, the EU seems to lose resolve of carrying on the procedure against violators of the rule of law in face of the Visegrád Group’s threat to block the required Council majority (cf. Hummer 2017).

It is tragic that these trespassings are undertaken by precisely those countries that Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – Václav Havel’s predecessor as philosopher-king – once hopefully called the New Europe (Nová Evropa). He designated to this region the role of a powerful barrier (bariéra) against all polities that stifle individual freedom (Baer 2000, p. 210). With the Visegrád Group’s founding declaration in 1991 enumerating the ‘full restitution of … democracy and freedom’ as its very primary objective, these should be the values constituting the lasting spirit of Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

How does it bear relevance in the contemporary politics of those states which ‘fail to see that the transition did not end in 2004, [but that] it is still ongoing’ (Merheim-Eyre 2015)? Today, the ‘shared feature’ of the Central European ‘barrier’ seems to consist solely of ‘a collective and individual selfishness’, to use the words of former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart who had witnessed the creation of the Visegrad Group in 1991. Another analyst found that Visegrád has already ‘run through various stages since its existence, and the region will certainly change its action plans and its self-perception in the future’. So long for the timeless moral legacy of the group. . .

Have the ‘unlimited moral goals’ of the Charter 77 really long reached its limit? Has it really lost all relevance, other than in recalling personal memories that took place in a country that already stopped existing decades ago anyway?

Václav Havel and the Charter 77 are a reminder of the finalité so absent in today’s European politics. It is a finalité that does not consist in a perfect system of economic incentives or in compromises driven by self-interested sentiments. A look at the original crises confirm that the Visegrád Group, the Charter 77, and the EU all share the same moral legacy – a legacy bearing an ultimate purpose which does not stop with the existence of an internal market, which does not stop with myriads of legal acts, and which does not stop with a numerical threshold of member states. It is rather a finalité which is infinite, which always keeps urging us and to press us away from the narrow boundaries that we are constantly tempted to set for ourselves.

Andreas Pacher is Editor-in-Chief of Nouvelle Europe.


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