The Cultural (dis)Integration of Europe
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By Mischa Snaije
It has become painfully obvious that the European Union (EU) has an identity disorder. Is the EU a geographical entity, stretching from Portugal to Romania, from Norway to Greece? No one can declare with any real authority where the boundaries of Europe lie. Claims of a shared regional history cannot adequately explain how a country like Poland, which was part of the Soviet Bloc only a few decades ago, now has more in common with the United Kingdom than it does with its historical neighbor, Russia. The EU has no real basis to define itself and legitimize its not-so-negligible powers, and anyone can see that it is clutching at straws.
The late Tony Judt, perhaps the most prescient historian of modern Europe, wrote that ‘Europe today is not so much a place as an idea, a peaceful, prosperous, international community of shared interests and collaborating parts; a “Europe of the mind”, of human rights, of the free movement of goods, ideas, and persons, of ever-greater cooperation and unity’. But Judt wrote this in 1995, and it is hard to share his optimism today in the wake of the 2008 debt crisis and the ongoing migrant crisis, both of which have put into sharp focus the dire lack of solidarity in the EU.
Today, the EU, and its underlying concept of a united Europe, have perhaps never seemed so fragile. Far right movements are gaining ground throughout Europe and share a nationalist rhetoric with a distinctly Eurosceptic flavor. The looming possibility of a Brexit on June 23rd would establish a dangerous precedent, and, regardless of its outcome, has mangled Judt’s “Europe of the mind” beyond recognition. Belonging to Europe has now become a cost-benefit analysis rather than an ‘international community of shared interests’. The fact that the Greeks, who have far better reasons than the Brits for resenting the EU, voted to stay in it, is reason for cautious optimism.
Perhaps the only thing that currently defines the EU is a common standard for human rights. The original blueprint for the EU was set up in the wake of the Second World War, at the behest of France, to ensure the economic inter-dependency of its members and thus prevent future wars. It was meant as a bulwark against the rise of nationalistic expansionism, and as a mechanism for its members to keep each other in check. Today’s EU has built on this idea, and now requires adherence to various democratic principles, such as freedom of the press, and protection of minorities. Abiding to these standards has pressured members with kleptocratic tendencies, such as Romania, to launch an extensive anti-corruption campaign.
But today, the EU’s moral backbone is being tested to its breaking point. The inability to stem the flow of refugees has seduced EU politicians, spearheaded by Angela Merkel, into dubious dealings with Erdogan, the now fully-fledged autocratic president of Turkey. Merkel’s willingness to reopen discussions on Turkey’s membership to Europe, despite its increasingly serious human rights transgressions, threatens to irrevocably breach the moral integrity of the EU. The whiff of desperation in the deal is also telling of just how dramatic the consequences would be if Erdogan were to turn back on the ‘migration tap’. With an abundance of cynicism, and idealism in short supply, people are justifiably left to wonder how much longer this experiment can go on. According to the Economist, only 38%of the French currently support the union that they pioneered, compared with 69% in 2004.
And yet, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Europe has not lost its luster. Migrants from war-torn countries risk their lives to reach it, and the prospects of a better life that its countries offer. Holiday goers travel from the far reaches of the globe to taste French pastries, admire Italian art, or visit Romanian castles. But not all of Europe’s cultural output is a relic of the past, confined to dusty museums or bound by strict traditionalism. From the Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ books, a global phenomenon with its own Hollywood adaptation, to the explosion in popularity of electronic music festivals in Germany or Croatia, Europe has managed to keep its role as the world’s cultural powerhouse.
The cultural blossoming happening throughout the EU could help fill the void left by its crumbling moral foundation. We can already see today the development of a ‘pan-European’ cultural group, mostly young creative types that do not feel tied down geographically, but rather hop around the visa-free Schengen zone to wherever their art is most in demand. Such characters could include a Spanish DJ who moves to the thriving Berlin music scene, a Danish graphic artist who goes to seek better job prospects in London, or a Hungarian chef who opens a gourmet restaurant in Stockholm. The EU already goes a long way to promote cultural dialogue through subsidies, grants, and its famous Erasmus university exchange program, which has been used by over 2 million students since its creation in 1987. But it could go much further in spreading the cultural nexus beyond its established hot spots, for instance by offering housing subsidies for young creative professionals in small to medium sized cities.
Cultural integration could also start in schools, through a common EU education system. The discrepancies in the various education systems in Europe present a very real linguistic obstacle to free movement in Europe. Diplomas might also not be recognized everywhere. Perhaps more importantly, humanities subjects such as history and literature are taught with varying degrees of nationalistic bias that often leaves Europeans ignorant or misinformed of their neighbors. The divides between rich north / poor south, and liberal west / communist east can only be overcome by a comprehensive understanding Europe which must start in schools. If Western Europeans were taught an impartial history of Europe as a whole (rather than rehash the victories of Napoleon or Cortés) they might see each other in a new light.
A common EU-designed education system would be a hard sell right now, but is needed more than ever. Future generations need to feel that they have a stake in the survival of Europe as a whole, not just the well being of their own country, which is an obsolete idea anyway: the past decade has shown all too clearly that our fates are tied. It is easy to forget that this inter-dependency on all levels has also brought about a miraculous economic recovery, and guaranteed peace in Europe since the Second World War (with the exception of the Yugoslav wars). Perhaps it is because collective memory usually fades within two or three generations that we take these benefits for granted. Today, the stability and prosperity underpinned by the EU are under serious jeopardy. The solidarity needed to overcome these difficult times can only be mustered through a better understanding of our neighbors, and a sense that we are part of a shared cultural nexus. Only then can the EU start to regain the legitimacy that it so direly lacks.