European Forms of Belonging: A View from Slovenia

As Slovenia is emerging from its first decade of independence, Debeljak debates the pros and cons of joining the European Union and outlines what kind of role the country could and should play within such a framework.

Slovenia recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its independence and the establishment of a nation-state. This was a unique event in the history of the Slovene people, who, after a long tradition of limited autonomy, acquired full national sovereignty only in 1991, following a ten-day war with the Yugoslav army. To mark the occasion, the country’s leading statesmen and politicians assembled for an official ceremony on Republic Square in Ljubljana, the capital. We ordinary people commemorated our independence each in his or her own way. I watched the firework display over Ljubljana Castle from a distance. You could say I was gazing into the public sphere from across the threshold of privacy: I was leaning against the garden fence in front of my house. But I was not alone; many of my neighbours, too, gazed over the tops of the old acacia trees in the schoolyard across the street. We had all trickled out of our suburban houses that evening to watch the colorful traceries of light, which, among other things, were supposed to remind us that a great and important event was taking place.

The name of my street always makes me think about one of the most crucial determinants of the human condition: – “Union Street.” It reminds me of something more than the now disintegrated Yugoslav federation, though that is my street’s primary metaphorical connotation. Of this there can be no doubt, considering the history of the territory on which my neighborhood stands. As the summer days grow warmer, the truth of this history seems all the more apparent to me as I listen to the “ethnic mix” of Croatian, Bosnian, and Roma dialects – already reaching far beyond standard Slovene – which the gang of kids who gather under the corner street lamp use for communication as they go about their boisterous affairs that are often problematic for our traditional working-class neighborhood. Rare are the nights I do not watch these kids, when I go out to the front yard to smoke one last cigarette before going to bed; under the murky circle of light from the street lamp they try out various strategies of power, authority, and adaptation, vying for leadership.

But I prefer to imagine that the name of my street hints at another, much broader unity and community, playing with connotations from a different stock of meaning and opening spaces for the continuity of the life we share. The hidden metaphor leads me to reflect on something that is existentially fundamental for an individual identity and, indeed, for a collective one, too: not only tolerance, but also understanding and possible respect for the Other. The writer Marjan Roeanc has movingly depicted such regard for the Other in his popular novel Ljubezen (Love, 1979), which is set in my very neighbourhood. The characters in the novel, later made into an acclaimed film, are politically divided, belonging to either “red” communist or “black” pro-Catholic groups. The Second World War has sharpened the conflict between the two factions to bloody extremes. What redeems the things in the novel is, in the end, love – fragile, innocent, and resting on the authority of a direct and immediate acceptance. Love, for Roeanc, is an ecumenical force. The primary characteristic of love as the basic glue of solidarity is surely that it functions trans – politically. The young narrator loves the communist activists with the same disarming passion he bestows on the youths that collaborated with the Fascist and Nazi occupiers, since what excites, inspires, and delights him most is the whole of the neighbourhood community, in all its fecundity, complete with all its internal quarrels, conflicts, and disputes. If the novel teaches me anything, it is that we need to look for the glue that binds a community together, whether that community is something immediate and concrete, like my neighbourhood, or something rather distant and abstract, like the Slovene nation-state or, even more so, the joint European federation as it desires to emerge from the current struggles within the European Union. The microcosmos of a neighbourhood may be admitedly easier to imagine, since love and solidarity among its inhabitants have been given emotionally charged and tangible forms in Roeanc’s literary masterpiece, forms that in more than one way continue to shape life of this local community today. But what interests me here is something more abstract: a larger political community, where solidarity depends not only on living experience and spontaneity of love, but on strenuous reflection and criticial consideration.

Especially now, when the story of Yugoslavia has ended in catastrophe and when, through the pain of loss, an opportunity presents itself for a new beginning, new ties, and new forms of connective tissue. It seems clear, at least to me, that it is impossible to live sensibly without some sort of anchorage in the collective existence, although it is clearly possible to die senselessly in the name of the collective. Ten years after independence and removal from a federal framework, and at the same time from under a yoke of communist regime, the Slovene nation-state is now confronted with what our political, economic, and media elites constantly tell us is the central question of our collective existence: entry into a new connection, a new federation, a new unity – entry, that is, into the European Union and NATO.

It is, however, critically necessary that we proceed with certain reservations. First of all, there is the matter of the subordinate status that candidate nations are compelled to accept during the EU expansion process (we are faced with an almost “take it or leave it” ultimatum). I am suspicious, too, about the EU’s often – criticized “democratic deficit.” I am thinking of the fact that the European Commission, the EU’s main decision-making body, is led by politicians who are appointed, not elected. Then, there is the weak European public sphere, which is hindered by a lack of media and a forum for genuine transnational debate, not only among politicians but also among the various nongovernmental organizations and, especially, among the citizens themselves. Also, stronger ethical and political solidarity across state lines would be an important integrating factor for developing our sensitivity to and forms of belonging together. In this regard, the EU’s shameful passivity in the wars of Yugoslav secession can hardly be considered accidental. Rather, it was an unmistakable sign of the EU member-nations’ distrust of the of Europe, the Balkans, the dark continent within a continent. In a trivial prose of everyday perceptions in Western Europe, this meant essentially that Bosnians, Croats, and other victims of Serb national socialism were not viewed as true, genuine, full-blooded Europeans and were therefore not worth the investment in any organized effort to stop the attempted genocide until late.

Considering all this, it is not easy to accept the cancellation of an essential part of our national sovereignty or to ponder the consequences of handing it over to a transnational entity such as the EU, especially since, for post-communist states, national sovereignty has only recently been won. This is particularly true for Slovenia, which unlike Hungary or Poland, for example, has never in all its history been a separate and independent nation. While there has long been discussion in Western Europe about the decline of the national state within the context of globalization, we Slovenes actually hopped on the last car of the last train of nationalism as a legitimate movement toward a nation-state. It is thus no accident that we still see ourselves predominantly as members of an ethnically based state, while most West European countries have already begun to largely see themselves as multicultural and multireligious communities in which the essential principle of public life is respect for the law and the constitution, no longer ethnic membership. The practice of a common way of life is, then, no longer entirely dependent on ethnic identity but rather on the ideal of “constitutional patriotism” of the citizens, as JŸrgen Habermas would have it, following Dolf Sternberger’s studied rejection of the national which appeared in early eighties.

Ethnic identity, however, is far from obsolete and is certainly more accessible than the tangled political deliberation that informs constitutional patriotism: unlike other foundations for human unity, it has a dubious advantage in that it naturalizes history. That is to say, it regards culture as a natural phenomenon and freedom as a necessary given. The nation-state, which promotes the principle of ethnic unity in such a way that it dominates and transcends all other loyalties, is the only story of successful community in the modern age, as Zygmunt Bauman convincingly argues in his recent book, Liquid Modernity (1999). Nationalism is the only ideology which has carried out its often violent ambitions to acquire general community status with a considerable measure of conviction and effectiveness. The romantic ideal of a single people and a single language, which contains the nation’s unique untranslatable and inalienable spirit, has been particularly successful in Eastern Europe. Here the philosophy that nationhood should be understood as something organic, as Johann Gottfried Herder interpreted it, has found a much more fertile ground than the emphasis on universal civic identity that was introduced by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.

The idea that the unity and self-respect of a particular people could be legitimately based on ethnic homogeneity has, indeed, received important impetus from German Romanticism. But we need to remember, too, that the success of the nation-state was due to the fact that it managed to suppress or crush all other groups trying to assert themselves. It fought stubbornly against provincial authorities and local heritage, imposing a single standard language and a single historical memory. It pushed all other traditions to the side, from regional to linguistic, such as, for example, the Provenal and Breton languages in France or the Styrian and Istrian dialects in Slovenia

If we agree, then, that even today it is relatively difficult to think outside the frame of the nation-state, or more precisely, outside of ethnic tradition – which we may reject but which we nevertheless cannot get beyond in the modern world – it would be wise, I think, to consider the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Without splitting academic hair, it is possible to argue that patriotism is nationalism that has been tamed and civilized; it can even be something noble. Patriotism has been described – in especially elegant fashion by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) – as the repudiation of the most undesirable, shameful, and brutal aspects of nationalism understood as chauvinism. A nationalist, who believes in his nation as the embodiment of the highest ideal, the nation as a metaphysical truth, wants to ensure the collective existence of those like himself, ensuring it by means of violence and hatred toward others so that he can easily succumb to the illusion that the blunders and failings of his own nation are nothing more than the result of foreign conspiracy. The patriot is, instead, characterized by his tolerance for cultural diversity and especially for ethnic and religious minorities, and he thinks it self-evident that these minorities should celebrate their own tradition just as he is not ashamed of his own membership in an ethnic collective or squeamish about the emotional charge that comes with such membership.

Despite these considerations – which are not anti-European, but rather Euro-sceptical; an important difference – it nevertheless seems to me that it would be better for Slovenes to participate in European integration. It would be better, I think, for Slovenia to take an active role – even if it must be only a small one -in decisions concerning the critical institutional processes involved in forming a European “unity in diversity,” rather than watch from the outside. We are, after all, often powerless before the political and economic, if not also covertly territorial, appetites of our neighbors, especially Austria and Italy, EU members with increasingly more populist and conservative governments that are quite prone to anti-European rhetoric.

At the same time, we must not forget certain basic contradictions of phantasmic Slovene self – sufficiency which in the current public debates of my country translates into an irrational, yet deeply held desire to sleep with a girl without any consequences. After Slovenia successfully escaped the Yugoslav disintegration and concomitant bloodbath, both the political elite and the general public quickly asserted that the country did not want to have any further dealings whatsoever with the Balkans. After September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington – although Slovene public opinion reacted with horror, to be sure – there were also cautious and, at least to me, irritatingly smug admonitions that the Americans had, after all, reaped what they had sown with their global expansionism. That is to say, Euro-Atlantic solidarity was not the defining factor here. Similarly, entry into the EU seems to be understood, by a substantial segment of the Slovene public, not as a way of developing necessary broader ties – not only economic (we would have to have these even if we remained “outside”), but also political, cultural, and social – but rather as something to fear, a way for foreign “carpetbaggers” to make money of our labor. It is, moreover, ironic that this unhappy coalition of EU – naysayers includes both the radical left (for whom the EU and NATO are hardly anything else but agents of political and military hegemony) and the radical right (which claims that the unique Slovene identity, whatever that might be, would surely disappear in a broader integration, the condition Slovenes barely escaped in former Yugoslavia). In other words, Slovene people who do not want to return to the Balkans, are at best indifferent towards America if it does not actually get on our nerves, and view the EU as a self-interested exploiter of our natural and human resources. It would appear, then, that we do not want to belong anywhere!

In my opinion, such isolationism is unacceptable. I need only to consider the historically momentous aspirations of the EU to create similar living conditions throughout its territory as well as to ultimately dictate the terms of a common destiny for all its citizens. Instead of a citizenship based on sharing traits with people who possess the same language, mythology and history as yourself European “dual citizenship” implies, in an ideal scenario, a form of belonging not only to one’s own nation but also, more and more, to the supranational framework established by the agreements made at Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Schengen, and Nice. Make no mistake here: I have no illusions. I am perfectly aware of the fact that the oscillating dilemma between the “domestic” and “foreign” will not evaporate once Slovenia enters the EU, but will be internalized instead. The border, then, will remain in place, but its meaning will have been shifted. Nevertheless, the interests of Slovenian citizens might be more comprehensively safeguarded if they are protected not only by the Slovenian constitution alone but also by European regulations and laws.

Consider, for example, a new word for foreigners that has become widespread in contemporary Italy: “excommunitari,” that is, those who come from countries outside the EU. In accordance with the laws regulating the right to work, citizens of EU member-states have long been accustomed to enjoying the status of nationals anywhere within the EU (this is most obvious in the world of sports, especially football). At the same time, however, this situation has led to an ever stricter policy concerning the EU’s external borders. This newly fortified Europe, which seems so peace-loving within, looks quite different on the outside. Citizens of countries that are not members of the Schengen Treaty receive second-class treatment by the EU: they have difficulty getting entry visas and residency or work permits; they are kept in assembly camps on Europe’s new borders; or they are quickly expelled. If politicians want to convince their constituencies that the European Union’s eastward expansion is in the interest of public good, they have to maintain the notion of firm borders on the outside, which is precisely what the Schengen Treaty does. If internal borders are to be done away with successfully, the EU must reinforce its external borders. But in contrast to this policy, for the constituencies of the East European countries preparing for EU expansion, it seems wise to advocate softer, more open borders between those who are inside and those who are not. Dirk Schumer is thus entirely correct, for example, when he states, in his article “Modern Slavery” (FAZ – English edition, March 28, 2001), that for long-standing historical as well as more recent economic and political reasons, Poland may find it difficult to accept new and more rigid borders with Lithuania and Ukraine. The same claim is true in regard to the Czechs and the Slovaks. Hungary, moreover, has since the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, this “peace without honor”, based its foreign policy on support for the whole of the Magyar people, which, of course, includes the numerically substantial Magyar minorities in neighboring Romania and Slovakia, as well as in what is left of Yugoslavia; meanwhile, Hungary is increasingly vocal about its hopes for better protection of its minorities within an internally integrated Europe. Slovenia’s ruling coalition and its driving force, the left-centre Liberal Democratic Party, can, when it suits it, skillfully quote from the progressive republican tradition which is ethnically blind, having thus ensured a high and praiseworthy degree of protection for the country’s Italian and Magyar minorities. However, the Slovenian government has not been nationally minded or sensitive enough to the sorry condition of the Slovene minorities in neighboring countries, particularly in light of the rapidly shrinking rights these minorities have in Italy and Austria. Nor has Slovenia yet worked out its border problems with Croatia, which may be due to the fact that Croatia harbors a collective envy toward the Slovenes, because, unlike Croatia, my country went through only a short war and so entered into independence with its industrial and social infrastructures more or less intact.

In general terms, it is possible to argue that whereas the enforcement of European standards should be viewed as positive step toward modernization, the EU’s adoption of the strict Schengen line of external borders at the time when candidate countries are still waiting to join, has negative implications. These implications should be seen in the way the EU attempts to transfer its own insecurity onto the shoulders of much weaker countries, the East European candidates. There is no doubt, then, that the expansion process raises questions about the borders of Europe, though it would, by all means, be nicer and nobler to daydream about a Europe without borders. Such a utopian imagination is necessary, but that does not mean one should lose sight of the fact that, while Europe’s borders are clearly defined on the west, north, and south, they are not at all clearly defined on the east, that is to say, on Europe’s soft underbelly. In this regard, I do not think we have sufficiently considered the strategy of Slovenia possibly playing its “Balkan card,” not only economically, but also in the realm of culture, scientific research, and education. For example, by establishing a “University of Southeastern Europe,” Slovenia could define itself as a European bridge for transfering knowledge, critical observation, information, and skills to the less fortunate parts of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, rather than shunning the region as if Slovenia is a kind of , a fate that might befall us anyway.

Right-wing political parties are visibly making hay out of Europe’s shifting borders, while left-wing and center parties watch in bewilderment. All across Europe, parties with programs directed against people from outside the EU won significant public support in the last two years’ elections. These include the Danish Folkeparti. Jšrg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, the rightist block in Italy led by Silvio Berlusconi, the Spanish right-of-center Partido Popular, France’s National Front, and the “Flemish bloc” in Belgium. Although these aggressive right-wing parties have but a few policy things in common, they all share, at the very least, the goal to make life extremely difficult for immigrants. Ideally, they would like to send immigrants back to their countries of origin and sharply limit the mixing of ethnic identities in individual countries. We should not forget that, while inflaming xenophobia, these right-wing parties are not functioning in any provincial manner that might automatically provoke public disgust over their ethnic hate-mongering. In many cases, these parties even use instruments supplied by the European Union itself. In my opinion, Slovenes can make a stand against such appetites far more effectively if we are inside the EU rather than meekly appealing, from outside, to the international public’s tolerance and reasonable understanding which are by and large in short supply. Let us recall, for example, Jšrg Haider’s recent refusal to abide by the decision of Austria’s constitutional court concerning the requirement for bilingual, Slovene and German, public signs in the Austrian southern region of Carinthia, where a large ethnic Slovene minority lives for centuries, or his militant assertion that a large segment of Slovenes of Carinthia do not really speak Slovene but “Wendish”- so that, with a seeming decrease in the size of the Slovene community, it would be easier for him to undermine its constitutionally guaranteed status as an ethnic minority, and the legal protections that derive from such status, although in practice, to be sure, they have rarely been enforced in their entirety.

But we should not overlook the following paradox: despite its declared anti-European stance, Haider’s Freedom Party would never reject any opportunity to fatten its wallet – an opportunity that Austria secures for itself through Europe’s structural funds for agriculture and historical preservation which is to say, from funds expressly designed to foster solidarity, as Klaus Ottomeyer has demonstrated in his study Die Haider-Show: Zur Psychopolitik der FP…. (Drava Verlag, Klagenfurt/Celovec, 2000). Nor is there anything accidental about Haider’s delight over new possibilities for cross-border partnerships with like-minded neighbors in the Southern Tirol, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venecia-Giulia-northern Italian regions where cooperation along the borders would strengthen the economy and especially tourism.

Instead of investing its joint efforts in creating a federal Europe with a high quality of life, the European Union is becoming more and more like the “gated communities” of America, where the inhabitants of wealthy neighborhoods keep their territory ethnically and socio-economically homogeneous by means of armed security guards, high real-estate prices, and limited access. But watch out! This is no cheap imitation of American politico-economic urbanism or the result of American pressure, but rather an entirely “domestic,” entirely European response to a real challenge. We should remember that those regions of Europe that display the greatest degree of resistance to foreigners are at the same time among the economically most successful regions, having achieved this status only recently. Neither Austria nor Italy’s Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region have anywhere near the number of illegal immigrants as do, for example, former colonial powers such as Great Britain and France.

Such hatred of foreigners is, above all, morally repugnant. In the long run, however, it is also economically hazardous. Because of Europe’s low birth rate (Slovenes with a birth rate of 1.2 children per family can congratulate ourselves, for in this regard we are quite European!), an unceasing influx of immigrants and constant migration are necessary to maintain conditions for a high standard of living. According to many predictions, the deficit in the work force over the next ten years will require that immigration to the EU continue and not be inhibited. The politically broad-minded program, recently launched in Germany, of providing “green cards”- work and residency permits – for foreign experts presents a good example of the conflicted situation in modern European countries. The essential feature of such conflicts is an opposition between, on the one hand, a feeling of ethnic endangerment (these dark-skinned, different people threaten “our” values and social harmony) and, on the other, economic demands (the German economy will languish without these “imported” experts). Ethnic fundamentalism – not only the idea of “Germanness,” but also “the Magyar essence,” “Slovenianess,” and “the Czech soul”, etc.- must face the fundamentalism of the free market. Meanwhile, EU candidate countries, the post-communist states of East Central Europe, have themselves become destinations of choice for many foreigners. A large segment of immigration, both legal and illegal, now flows into these countries, especially from the territory of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, although many immigrants enter as temporary workers. These countries were not prepared for this wave of immigration, which has made the shock of encountering people who are different and “other” all the more severe, unexpected, and badly managed.

This situation raises new questions about the purpose and meaning of collective identity, particularly for countries whose capitals and urban centers today reveal a substantially higher degree of ethnic homogeneity than they did at the beginning of the last century. Throughout the twentieth century, the cities of Krakow, Prague, Budapest, and Ljubljana – both as urban spaces and as focal points of respective national aspirations – experienced not only modernization and industrialization but also a defining and decisive transformation in their collective identities: they turned national culture, that is, the one based on a chosen ethnic tradition, into their dominant culture. As a rule, this meant a more or less violent de-Germanization, which at the very least indicates how extensive, influential, and powerful the Prussian and Austrian empires had been. After World War I, for instance, fully half of all the secondary schools on Slovene territory had to be Slovenized, since classes had been conducted entirely in German; education in the other schools had been bilingual, conducted in both German and Slovene, before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the Second World War, an even greater ethnic homogeneity was established: the indigenous German populations in Slovenia’s Gottschee region, in Czech Sudetenland, and over a vast section of Polish territory all disappeared in an immense whirlwind of violent retribution, while the Holocaust had dramatically reduced Eastern Europe’s Jewish population to tiny handfuls, mainly in the larger cities.

But collective identity is flexible. As an “imaginary community” (Benedict Anderson), its mechanism of exclusion finds expression precisely in an appeal to the most puristic forms of the ethnic principle, such as is practiced by contemporary parties on the extreme right in their hatred of foreigners and anyone who is different, especially East Europeans. What is most perverse about this mechanism is the way it wants to supress the cultural, linguistic, and religious features of immigrants and migrant workers even as it wants to make room for their economic potential and specialised skills. The north Italian businessmen, Carinthian hoteliers, and Flemish merchants who despise foreigners without full wallets then get rich by exploiting these same illegal immigrants and migrant workers, without whom their businesses would no longer be profitable.

The condemnation of foreign workers by privileged xenophobes, whose lives these despised foreigners ultimately make more comfortable – this is a new form of European hypocrisy. It is a kind of hypocrisy, however, that clearly wins victories at the polls both today and, it is to be afraid, in the future. This is something we need to keep in mind, especially since leftist and centrist parties are responding to the changed circumstances either hesitantly or neurotically. As a rule, they either do not give a fig for national identity or dismiss it as a sheer romantic whim. Meanwhile, the loose set of social-democratic principles underscoring the “politics of third way” of British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his vague rhetoric of the social market still have relatively few committed voters on their side. Thus, the rightist parties have been able to acquire new voters in the space vacated by others. For their part, the moderates and liberals have managed to construct a mutual opponent out of the right-wing extremists, while concealing the fact that they themselves lack any inclusive programs of solidarity other than mere lip-service support for the “new democracies” of Eastern Europe – this Other incarnate, as Slavoj Zizek brilliantly demonstrated in his book More Hatred, Less Love (Belgrade Circle Press, Belgrade 2001).

Instead of a Europe built on gradual and enduring solidarity – as was begun with the successful integration of Ireland, Portugal, and Greece into the EU – nothing really excludes the possibility that the EU’s eastward expansion might lead to an internally divided Europe, where citizens, burdened with the legacy of the new borders, are categorized according to their country of origin and their purchasing power. The only question is whether we Slovenes will experience this divided Europe from the inside. We already do so now, one way or another, from the outside.

Published 6 August 2002
Original in English

Contributed by Ny Tid © Ales Debeljak, Ny Tid Eurozine


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