In love with Europe

10 March 2017
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“I spent my childhood in a dystopia, which I detested with my whole heart, and I now live in a utopia.” Lithuanian author Marius Ivaškevičius explains why Brexit felt to him like a betrayal, why Europe remains a beacon of hope for people living under authoritarian regimes, and why, despite the sceptics, the European idea will prevail.

Today, when Europe is being attacked and battered from all sides, my reaction is like that of a lover who puts all the shortcomings of the object of his love on one side of the scales and on the other – the question ‘Could I live without her?’ And not one of her shortcomings or even all of them put together outweigh the question. I would not know how to go on living without her. And so I do not want to and am unable to join the chorus of those giving advice or lecturing her as to how she should be, in what direction she should change: visit clubs less often and go more often to church, dress in one way and not another, spend money or save it, love certain people and not others. As a true lover, these questions today do not seem to be fundamental, particularly because the people who raise them like to finish with: if Europe does not do what I say, it is doomed.

Well don’t you bloody count on it!

Europe’s Cold War

As a faithful lover, I can affirm that a common Europe will outlive us all: both her critics and her enthusiasts. She will change and change more than once, she will change from within and from without, perhaps lose some members and gain new ones. But she will not disappear, because for those who care about her and love her, the question will increasingly be ‘Can I live without her?’ These will be people, who, when thinking about the European Union, will not be plagued by inner xeno-, homo- or other phobias. And they will not give any significance to them, as do the critics of today’s Europe, when forming the opinion that tolerating those who love in a different way and look different is the basic essence of a common Europe. In the future, people will not even understand what I am speaking about here. In fact, they are already among us, they are our children, born in Europe with her values. For them, the break-up of Europe, her disintegration, call it what you want, would be tantamount to a catastrophe. It would leave a void, something which they have not previously experienced.

In thousands of British families, a cold war has already begun. Children do not speak with their parents. And why? Because of ‘an insignificant vote’, entered on a ballot paper in a referendum, expressing the wish that Great Britain leave the European Union. The older British generation received this right to decide and took advantage of it, shutting the door in the face of their offspring. In effect they were saying that they didn’t want their youth gallivanting around a dirty and unsafe continent, socialising with suspicious types and with women of loose morals from eastern Europe – we’re going to spend the evening in our cosy family circle and have tea and cake instead. The only thing they didn’t fully appreciate is how deeply their children have been affected by that European virus, that they are people for whom the idea of a common Europe means significantly more than just a political entity – it is their way of life, their dream, their world of values. Unfortunately, on the day of the referendum, they were still too young to determine their own future, they did not carry sufficient weight in their society. Others did not even have a voice – the right to vote. All that was left to them was to observe with sadness how this dream of theirs was broken into pieces. By the hands of their parents, weary of problems, explosions, immigrants, refugees, convinced that the reason for all this was a common Europe, a Europe without borders.

If a British voter who voted for Brexit and thus basically for stopping the flow of labourers from eastern Europe knew the other side of this migration process, if they could see the deserted small towns of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland and our futile efforts to keep these people at home, if they could see the conditions under which they live, crowded together six, eight to a room somewhere in zone 6 of London, working like slaves, with no regard for their health, because suddenly an opportunity had arisen to earn enough money for their old age or even for several generations into the future – perhaps that British voter would have voted differently? I don’t know. I just think that it is sometimes worth looking beyond the confines of one’s village and see the whole picture – Europe in all of its space and time, this utopia cherished by thinkers over the centuries, a utopia which is slowly becoming a reality. Yes, today we have the right to decide, it’s our time; but we cannot forget those dreamers of the past, whose dreams were shattered by the bloodiest wars in Europe. In deciding Europe’s fate, we therefore take on a singular responsibility not only for her future but also for the expectations of the past. That is a huge responsibility, but also a huge gift not offered to people in every period of history: we are creating a large and very serious history, we are still creating it, despite all the shocks.

Europe’s expansion

I shan’t hide the fact that on that June day when I heard about the British decision I experienced a shock. I was on tour in Vladivostok with a Moscow theatre troupe when I received a text message: ‘The Brits are leaving the EU.’ I was sitting at a large table laden with Russian refreshments, outside one could see the impressive view of the Sea of Japan, while inside myself I felt a terrible sadness and emptiness. When the Russian actors began asking me with concern what had happened, if there had been some calamity, I couldn’t explain properly – that about eleven thousand kilometres away a referendum had taken place and the British people had voted to leave the EU, and that for me, a Lithuanian, sitting at the other end of the Eurasian continent, it was a very painful and terrible experience.

At the time I was unable to articulate coherently what had really happened and why it had shaken me so badly. Now I think I can. On that day, a massive part of my dream had broken off. It was as if one of your like-minded, closest friends, who had enticed you into creating a better world together with him, had suddenly got up from the table and left, saying: it’s all in vain, none of it has any meaning.

How were those of us, left behind, supposed to feel. All we could do was watch with schadenfreude England’s humiliation in the European football championships, knocked out by little Iceland. After that to share on Facebook a photograph of England’s manager Roy Hodgson with the ambiguous caption: ‘I voted leave’.

Yet pain can have its positive side. Only something that is a part of you can hurt, and Brexit, which caused the pain, sent a signal that a European identity was no longer just a high-sounding slogan. It became reality. To me and, I think to many others who had idly imagined that a united Europe was an eternal certainty, not threatened by anything, it was a wake-up call, a warning that the old creators of Europe had become tired of the proximity they lived in and wanted a separation. They were frightened by the sight of how this union had suddenly expanded, of how it had entered their children’s brains, and of how the latter didn’t give a damn about the coal and the steel, the milk and the sausages. Their children saw Europe not only as a space of security but also of their own values, rules and freedoms.

A university friend, who married a German and moved with him to Dubai, would for many years tell me with gushing enthusiasm what a dynamic city it was and how fantastically well she felt there. But this summer everything changed. Suddenly she announced that she wanted to return to Europe. Not necessarily to Lithuania, perhaps Spain or Portugal, as Lithuania would now be too cold for her. But it absolutely had to be Europe, because she had suddenly begun to feel that common threat: the world which represented her values and had seemed unshakable, eternal, had now become very vulnerable. She wanted to be able to enjoy it still, to breathe ‘Europe’ before it sunk into non-existence. In short, she was frightened.

‘Europe’, ‘European’ – here in Europe, these words sound commonplace, even banal. But for people beyond Europe’s borders they have an almost sacred meaning. I saw that in Kiev, during the Maidan revolution – that gigantic field of battle with the flags of the European Union flying. Without knowing the real Europe, they were fighting for the idea, which for them embodied the dignity of human beings, government that served the people and not the other way around, a fair system of law and order, and a politics that was not corrupt. What do I want to say? That absorbed in our own discontents, we do not always see and understand what effect today’s Europe has on the rest of the world. For some, like my friend, it is a buttress. For others – a direction and a dream. An imperially-minded Russian once said to me that I am also an imperialist because I support European expansion. I didn’t attempt to argue with him. If such a thing as an imperialism of values is possible, then I am for the soft expansion of Europe, with her attractiveness winning over the minds and souls of people throughout the world. Of people who wish not to put up with the regimes they live under, regimes that trample on their rights and dignity. For them she is a buttress, a direction, and a dream; and if one day she were no longer to exist, they would lose everything at once.

Europe’s gravitation

In fact, I myself am a victim of this expansion. A lover. We dreamed secretly about Europe when I was still a child, a citizen of the Soviet Union. We felt imprisoned, separated from her by force. And then a miracle happened: we gained our freedom and Europe became a direction for us to go in. Only, it became clear that we were too poor, too Soviet to become a part of her immediately. But this dream drove us forward. We had a purpose, one that did not allow us to slide into authoritarianism or take the wrong road, as happened in Belarus and in many of the other post-Soviet countries. After all, our experience of democracy was almost as poor. Interwar Lithuania was democratic for only a few years. Then there was a military coup. Then war, the Soviet period and liberation, which was far from a guarantee of further democratic development, since for many older Lithuanians the roadmap was that of the other, interwar Lithuania – independent but authoritarian. Had there not been that purpose, that gigantic ball of freedom next to us, anything could have happened. I can therefore safely say that today Europe is a part of me, of what I am; she formed me, while she gifted my country and my people with a modern Marshall Plan. I am not even talking about economics, about the money, the billions, which are helping us to recover. I am speaking about the thinking, the mentality, which was crippled by the Soviet period – its reversal requires much more effort than all that material wealth.

Of course, I would be lying if I were to say that absolutely everyone in Lithuania shares my enthusiasm. Not everyone does. Older people are simply unable to cope with the pace of change which befell them around 1990 and has not slowed down since. Imagine a person who has lived for forty years of their life or even longer in the slowly rotting but at the same time stable and unchanging Soviet Empire, who then suddenly like a cannon shot has been invited to enter a completely different world: initially into a brutal, savage, ruthless, post-Soviet Lithuania of gangsters, and then straight from there into the European Union, with its political correctness and tolerance. Of course, they will experience a terrifying overload physical and moral, their value system has been attacked more than once before, and so they naturally begin to resist and apply the brakes. This is what happened in Russia, which, because of its size and separateness as a civilization, has not entered, as we have, the European orbit. There the brakes worked, and not just that, the reverse gear was applied, with people giving up their freedoms and rights to a regime which promises them a quiet life and stability.

Lithuania avoided this because the pull of Europe was too strong. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who wish to turn everything back to how things were, and if not back then to shunt them to one side – in the direction of the nation state, restoring the values and the rhetoric of a century ago. Today they are marginalised and will remain so as long as Lithuania is in the European Union. But if it were to destroy itself, the third way proposed by them will become the first way and could attract supporters who have lost their bearings in the geopolitical chaos.

Totalitarian Europe

From time to time I receive emails inviting me to take part in local forums where I am offered the opportunity to listen to speakers talking about ‘European political correctness as a threat to national security’, or perhaps speak on the subject myself. And also about the ‘ideology of totalitarian genderism and multiculturalism, which continue the worst traditions of the Soviet period, and which are spread by European political correctness in order to destroy Lithuania’s statehood and independence’.

I see the authors of these lines highlighting in bold the words ‘totalitarian’, ‘regime’, dictatorship’, ‘repressive system’, rejoicing in how successful they have been in revealing the conspiracy of Europe’s freemasons, who are cunningly luring poor Lithuania, only recently escaped from Soviet captivity, into an even more terrible trap. ‘Neo-communism’ is another of their favourite terms, applied to the European Union, which is ostensibly no different ideologically from the Soviet Union, only now is promoting multiculturalism instead of the Soviet friendship of nations and replacing the Marxism–Leninism with tolerance–political correctness.

Because of their terrible style and weak arguments, none of that seems serious. But if these populist thoughts were to be set out with greater literary proficiency, I am afraid that they might reach more than one disappointed soul and find acceptance. Because disappointed people, when they are few, are simply unfortunate, but when they become many they are dangerous. It is then enough to unite them under a common cause of disappointment, convincing them that this is where all their misfortunes originate, to show them the supposed way out and thus to turn them into a powerful destructive force. This has happened more than once in Europe, this is how fascism, Nazism, communism and a host of minor ‘radicalisms’ were born, the minor ones simply not having enough time to kill the masses of people that the major ones did.

Today’s radicals have not invented anything new, they are still using the same tried and tested method – they bring together the disappointed and try to let them loose on the new enemy – a Europe without borders. Because it is this which holds them back the most and reduces their impact even when they manage to come close to power in one or another European Union country. In Lithuania, if one looks hard enough, one can also find reasons to be disappointed by Europe. Over the last twenty years Lithuania has lost about twenty per cent of its population. one per cent every year. One fifth. That is a large part of the nation and it is felt in everyday life. It would be the same as if sixteen million Germans were suddenly to leave or twelve million from France and Great Britain. The opponents of European integration have, of course, some cause to shout that Europe, in ‘sucking up’ our people, is destroying the Lithuanian nation. Meanwhile, the British at the other end of Europe are applying the brakes and are saying ‘no’ to the European Union, because those that have been ‘sucked up’ are taking their jobs and are basically spoiling the image of Britain and creating a bad odour.

If this was indeed the reason for the British ‘no’, they were a little late, because those Lithuanians looking for a better life have long since found a new direction in which to emigrate, a new Mecca to earn money: Norway.  A country which is not and has never been a part of the European Union. That only proves and confirms that all the problems, whose origins we look for in a common Europe, a Europe without borders, have nothing in fact to do with it. Migration, terrorism – all that isn’t going to disappear if we separate again. People will go on migrating, terrorists will go on setting off bombs, though perhaps not so enthusiastically, since they will have achieved their goal of destroying the hateful bastion which has spread the ‘blasphemous’ ideas of free speech, religious liberty, women’s rights and gender equality. But new threats, new challenges will emerge, and then each of us will have to deal with them individually, and the security which we hope to achieve, after we have stuck our heads in the sand, will appear ephemeral and temporary, and the problems which we now make so much of will seem insignificant or be long forgotten.

Europe’s Utopia

When an Indian writer recently asked me to compare life in the Soviet Union with that in the European Union, drawing on my own experiences, I replied that I had spent my childhood in a dystopia, which I detested with my whole heart, and that I now live in a utopia, the thought of which then never even entered my dreams. I am not exaggerating. The perception of these changes must remain in the subconscious of Europeans. Perhaps at this moment it is muted, but in the event of serious danger it will return – like a reflex, an instinct for self-preservation. Therefore, I don’t doubt that Europe will remain united, and that her present crisis is only a hesitation, caused by external reactions and inward uncertainties. The European Union with its declared values does indeed, in a global context, appear to be a somewhat utopian creation; that is why its durability is being tested with the attacks on it. Many of the elite in its member states are not yet the people for whom a common Europe has become rooted in their being and part of their identity. The real Europeans are only now strengthening their muscles – political and cultural – and their voice will be heard several years into the future, perhaps after decades. Only when that happens will it be possible to move forward.

Therefore, if the Exit question arises in another of its member states, before chucking one’s ballot paper into the ballot box, ask your children at the breakfast table what they would do in your place. Or better still, come to Lithuania, breathe the extraordinarily pleasant and friendly air of Vilnius, spend some time with the inhabitants, who absolutely adore their city and, if one looks more closely, Europeanism itself – lightness, freedom, everything with which this city has been suffused over the last dozen or so years. And then, for contrast, go to Belarus, which is barely thirty kilometres away. Twenty-five years ago, our starting positions were very similar; today, as sorry as we feel for our neighbours, there is a chasm between us, it is as if we belong to different epochs. Everything is different: faces, body language, the feeling for inner freedom and human dignity. And all of that is only because at the time we, like real lovers, rushed headlong without hesitation into Europe, while they, marking time and unable to decide, remained where they are.

And then go back to the ballot box and decide whether this dream is so utopian.

P.S.

I know this article will irritate many sceptics and it might even nauseate a few. Lovers see the object of their love through rose-tinted spectacles, and I won’t hide it: there is a sort of mist in my eyes. But I want to ask what those who promote a Europe sinking in the sunset see through their darkened glasses, when predicting her quick death with such glee. Can they offer something in place of the twilight which will descend on Europe after it disintegrates? Can they foresee all of eastern and northern Europe falling under the influence of Russia, southern Europe being choked up with refugees and economic stagnation, while everywhere local ‘saviours’ come to power, offering a third way – a ‘special democracy’, but in fact only an imitation of democracy? Destroyers will always have the advantage over creators, since they don’t have to prove anything, only to be negative, but as soon as they have done their work, they go off to hide in the bushes or disappear into a crowd. Isn’t that how Brexit’s flag-bearers have been acting? So don’t sprinkle me with your fairy dust, I have my own, through which I can see the greatest problem for today’s Europe – your never-ending chatter about her unsolvable problems and inevitable death. You’ve built a mountain out of these ‘problems’ to weigh Europe down, blocking out all the good you have received from her. But I must disappoint you: that mountain is only in your heads.

 

This translation was enabled with the support of the S. Fischer Stiftung and the Lithuanian Cultural Institute.

See also: Debates on Europe series, created by S. Fischer Foundation, the German Academy of Language and Literature, and Allianz Cultural Foundation, in cooperation with Eurozine.  The topic of the series is “Neighbourhood in Europe: Prospects of a common future”. The St. Petersburg Debate on Europe took place from 15 to 18 May 2016, with public sessions on the evening of 17 May.

Published 10 March 2017

Original in Lithuanian
Translation by Romas Kinka
First published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (German version); Eurozine (English version)

© Marius Ivaškevičius; Eurozine; Lithuanian Cultural Institute

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