Is there a Europe?

Amid the questions for a European identity and whose Europe it is after all emerge reflections, doubts and some hopes for the future of the project of our continent � can there be a united Europe? How? And last, not least, what have the last ten years meant for Europe, have they contributed to its unification or its division?

Is there a European identity? That and some other questions were discussed by some forty intellectuals, principally one from each country in our part of the world, during four intensive days in Helsinki in September.
Whose Europe? Was the headline for the first, but maybe not the last, Helsinki-forum in history. Writers, social scientists and journalists from forty countries in our part of the world did not reach a common answer, but then that was hardly the purpose of the forum.
Most of the participants considered the European identity weak, but wanted to strengthen it. The Estonian writer Jaan Kaplinski went against the current and questioned strongly the thought that Europe would have anything to offer the rest of the world.
– The history of Europe is a history of murders of “savages” and non-Europeans. We might as well forget all about the word Europe. It worked once as a trap for Napoleon: he tried to conquer all of Europe, and lost it all, Kaplinski said during the final session.
– I do not want a constructed European identity. Once they tried to create a Soviet cultural identity and that did not work out.
The Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic replied that she does want more European cultural cooperation, but wants to keep the cultural diversity that has been typical of Europe.
– Ideas do not have a home country, so therefore there is no European identity, such an identity would mean imperialism, Kaplinski insisted.
– But ideas have a history, the Finnish writer Kirsti Simonsuuri replied, and added that more Latin and Greek could help the Europeans to get to know their history.

Multiple identity

The Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak spoke in favour of a multiple identity.
– That would help us pass multiculturalism, where you only live side by side, but not together. You can be Catalan, Spaniard and European, only with a difference in the closeness. The European identity can never be forced on anybody from above, that would make it hollow. A process where everybody participates is needed. If the European identity is to be viable it has to be much more inclusive.
Ezra Talmor, philosopher from Tel Aviv looked at Europe from the outside and said that, coming from a kibbutz, he finds the European identity very hierarchical.
– The European idea cannot be a monopoly for political leaders, it needs to be accepted by common citizens.
The final debate in the old student house had been opened by the philosopher Georg-Henrik von Wright, who, among other questions, had posed the following:
– What will happen in Europe if Great Britain one day weighs anchor and sails westward towards a new union?
That question went unanswered, but there was somebody in the audience who also had a feeling that that could be a possible scenario one day.
The Spanish writer Pedro Sorela, born in Colombia, was looking for open doors:
– Europe can be Europe only by opening its doors to the world. If we always keep a door open we can close it if we are threatened. The wars on the Balkan Peninsula have shown where primitive nationalism may lead us. The idea of any country belonging to a people of certain characteristics who has lived there for some time is untenable. The world belongs to us all.

The euphoria has faded

The European euphoria has had its peaks, as 1968 and 1989, but the year 2000 is no euphoric number. The united (and idyllic?) Europe we dreamt of after the fall of the Wall has not come any closer, the gap between east and west has not been reduced. The discussions in panels and workgroups during the forum clearly showed that Europe still does not belong to all Europeans. Slavenca Drakulic, writer from Zagreb/Vienna/Stockholm (a possible address of a European intellectual today) talked about the unbearable lightness of nationalism:
– A year ago I would have talked about Europe with greater enthusiasm. During the past ten years big changes have been made, communism disappeared, the enemy visions of the cold war are gone, there was a war on the Balkan Peninsula. The changes have been so big they have created anxiety in many, they do not understand what is happening.
– We have been taught to think in terms of nation states, and that implies borders and the people on the other side are strangers. A psychological process has been taking place during a long time which has, in ex-Yugoslavia, created new enemy visions. The intellectual elite has been devoted to producing ideologies about the enemy.
– People in “Europe” believe that nationalism in their countries can not result in reactions such as in Bosnia, and it will not, but xenophobia is alive and well The inhabitants of Emmen, outside Luzern, Switzerland, recently turned down a proposition of citizenship for immigrants. J�rg Haider knows how to manipulate people’s fears and anxieties for political ends.
– The question is for how long xenophobia will be marginal. In one country after another the support for the forces working for hostility towards foreigners is increasing frighteningly quickly. It has happened in Denmark where the “progressive” party claims immigrants are threatening the core of what is “Danish”.
– But the national identity is a construction and it should be possible to create new identities not excluding others.

Walls or bridges?

The Albanian writer Bashkim Shehu, currently living in Barcelona, quoted the Hungarian sociologist Elem�r Hankis, who has said that the Berlin Wall was a prison wall for the people in eastern Europe, but a mirror for the west.
– When it disappeared we in the east found ourselves freed from this prison, but at the same time we felt we had lost our security, although it was the security of a prison where everything is decided on in advance – it was a security we had become used to. The west again lost the mirror showing their identity by contrasting it against our communist regimes. At the same time there are new walls being constructed in different parts of Europe, both in the east and in the west: the walls of ethnical hatred.
The bridge-building is doing much worse.
– Since there still is no bridge between east and west the ghost of the old wall appears in different ways, and especially in the form of the view of the east as one homogenous entity. The west does not want to give up the old reflection of the mirror and in the east we mix the past with the present. Therefor the old division between the east and the west is still in existence.
There are some common feelings, but where there was a triumph over the fall of the wall ten years ago there is today rather a feeling of shame over what has been allowed to happen on the Balkan.
– As Andr� Glucksmann has said, shame is a central motivating factor in the history of Europe during the past fifty years: the shame over Auschwitz and everything reminding us of this phenomenon.
Therefore we need a European political strategy striving to an integration of the whole part of the world, so there will not be any further reasons for feelings of shame.

The European house

Both Shehu and the poet and anthropologist Ales Debeljak from Ljubljana spoke of Michail Gorbatjov’s old concept of “the common European house”, which has never really had a break-through in the west.
– Ten years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many hopes were raised and many more dashed in regard to the emergence of a more just, more peaceful, and undivided Europe. Regardless of the lip-service to the contrary one thing, however, is certain: the demise of the communist ancien regime did not solve the problems of a divided continent which, in addition, had to begin grappling with increased pace of economic globalisation and a concomitant ethnic, religious, and cultural fundamentalism, Ales Debeljak said. He continued:.
– The Berlin Wall has been replaced by the Berlin Mall and the concept of “Fortress Europe” has gained an upperhand vis-�-vis “the common house of Europe”. Instead of an engaged citizenship in a modern political polity, European mentalities seem to slide down the slope of consumerism that numbs our critical capacities and ultimately undermines the political conditions for trans-national and trans-communal solidarity.
– Instead of developing mechanisms that would draw, admittedly difficult, inspiration from the “politics of difference” And much-celebrated multiculturalism, official European political discourse increasingly falls back on the concepts supporting traditional divisions between “us” (Western Europe) and “them” (Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans): new era, old arguments.
When the EU is now discussing its future the post communist countries are not involved in the discussion.
– Rules are set up within the club for how new members are to act. But if the European Union is to be enlarged it is important that not only a lot of rules are exported, but also that the linguistic and cultural richness an enlargement would bring should be adopted.

Shame and degradation

Degradation is a feeling characterising the central Europeans, Cultural journalist Martin M Simecka from Bratislava claimed. Even if the feelings of shame and degradation are often not conscious they form some kind of national distinctive feature for the Slovaks, as for other nations in the area.
– During the whole 1980’s, I used to go and watch the neighbouring Austria from the hill mounting over Bratislava. In the evening, the sky behind it grew pale, as the lights from nearby Vienna illuminated it. I could not cross the border, which was in one touch’s distance but I watched the Austrian television and with the feeling of mortification I followed the parliamentary debates there, so different from the Orwellian language in which the politicians spoke in Slovakia. The feeling that the life in the eastem bloc is inferior and that we did not deserve such a punishment was so self-evident that no one even discussed it.
– In that times, people sometimes came from West who are rare and precious even there, people who acknowledged the historical absurdity of the divided Europe. They felt that the fate of the Central Europe was part of their responsibility, too, which became the hostage and the fatal heritage of the victory over Hitler. They felt ashamed because of the selfish policy of West in 1970’s and 1980’s, the policy of detente, which tried to change the historical absurdity into the historical inevitability.
The d�tente according to Martin Simecka was a disaster because it enabled the communist regimes to prolong their lives.
– Thus, the Central Europe came even further apart from the West for next twenty years, though after 1968 it was clear that the communism in Eastem Europe lost any ideological spirit and became a mere dictatorship which survived by inertia. Those extra twenty years were the worst disaster for this part of Europe. During that time, another generation grew which got used to live under the supervision of the state, the generation that did not know freedom even from the stories of the parents, as they were afraid to mention it even to their own children. The longing for freedom could easily ruin their careers.
But many supported the system, either for fear of it or for being able to take advantage of it.
– In this situation, the West discovered us in 1989. Then the grotesque paradox came which revealed a deep mutual misunderstanding. The West was enchanted by the revolution in East and as it did not expect it, it came to the conclusion that the population of communist regimes had to have some kind of mysterious power, as it was able to complete such a great step – the victory over a totalitarian regime.
The third road was developed as a conception to inoculate this eastern primordial force into the western societies which had reached a deadlock.
– By that time, I explained in vain at various conferences that there is no mysterious spiritual power of the East, that the regimes were defeated more or less by themselves, as since 1968, they were just emptied dictatorships waiting for their end.
But in the west the matter was not much thought about and no responsibility was felt for pondering whether anything could have been done better, the west had won and the winners do not have to think about anything possibly done in a better way.
Now, ten years later, no-one is speaking of a third road and the idea that people in the east would have anything to offer a common European house no longer exists. The east has nothing to offer and many states there have fallen into a deep depression or given way to their destructive energy. People in the east once again feel themselves victims of the western egotism.
And Martin Simecka‘s feelings of degradation has not at all diminished, it has only developed new nuances.

Published 25 October 2000
Original in English
Translated by Tove Waller-Virta
First published by Contributed by: Peter Lodenius

© Peter Lodenius / Eurozine

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