The flames of Notre-Dame could be a symbol with wider meaning

This article was first published in the Times of Malta

Watching the cathedral of Notre-Dame in flames felt like the heart of Europe was being ripped out; and with it some of our own hearts too.

This tragic event strikes a cultural and humanistic blow from which it will be hard to recover. It could also be a symbol of a wider malaise the answer to which none of us yet know.

In the midst of reporting the fire ripping through the cathedral’s heart, there was criticism of poor maintenance due to the levels of funding available and the bureaucracy surrounding such spending. We don’t yet know whether this contributed to the fire or the extent of its effects. But it raises important questions of what our economies can and cannot afford.

For decades it has been known that Italy could no longer afford to maintain its almost endless cultural heritage. Some countries, such as the UK and Italy itself, have pursued market-oriented policies by charging for entrance. Even that, while helpful, has not totally resolved the issue, particularly for places of important cultural heritage that are not on the tourist trail.

It has also led to the explosion of commercial practices that, in some cases, detract rather than enhance the standing and emotional impact of cultural icons.

French President Emmanuel Macron has, reportedly, gone the other way, arguing that cultural monuments including museums should be totally funded by tax money with access at no charge. This stance seems hard to justify. It might well be revisited in the wake of the Notre-Dame fire.

But the deeper issue is that European governments can no longer afford to support that which its citizens have become used to – from cultural heritage to healthcare to the welfare state. Ever increasing public debt cannot be the answer. Yet it is hard for anyone today to imagine a return to previous decades of runaway economic performance and flush public coffers, all combined with a reversal of the ever-increasing environmental damage.

The reality is that our economic model seems to be running into the wall. And we don’t know what to do about it. So we keep bashing away at the same model and hoping. Or some suggest a return to the failed socialist models of the past.

The difficult question of what new economic model could evolve is not something that can be resolved by a few bright people in a think tank or academic department and coming up with ‘the answer’. It will require a broad public conversation where nothing is sacred, where radical ideas are seriously entertained and where people have an open mind to explore hitherto unknown and untried approaches.

The financial and eurozone crises should have provided a stimulus to such a discussion. But they didn’t. Everyone was seemingly focused on the impossible task of returning to the status quo ante; to which was added an economy-killing dose of bureaucratic regulation that has achieved little or nothing.

Maybe the tragedy of Notre-Dame could provide another stimulus for this much-needed radical conversation. If not, our whole system of political economy may be the next thing to go up in flames.

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