Economic crisis: Disunited in stereotypes

Germany, France and Italy according to Czech artist David Černý in his "Entropa" installation.
Germany, France and Italy according to Czech artist David Černý in his "Entropa" installation.
Dagens Nyheter (Stockholm)

"United in diversity": for many years the motto of the EU held sway on a continent that had been marked by war. However, the economic crisis has prompted a resurgence of age-old European antagonisms.

The Italians and the Spanish are lazy and unreliable. The Greeks are confidence tricksters. As for the Norwegian and the Danes, the less said about them the better. When I was young, nationalities were casually defined with appraisals like these, which, over the last few decades, had all but died out, or at least were no longer considered to be socially acceptable — that is, until now. And there is no denying the overwhelming historical irony of the resurgence of judgements of this kind, which are back with a vengeance in Europe.

Of course, we have the economic crisis in southern Europe to thank for the fact that they have re-emerged. And perhaps we really should be grateful for a reminder of the fragility of the good will between Europeans, who continue to look on each other as foreigners, in spite of decades of repeated professions of faith in the European community, which have failed to inspire any semblance of earnest emotional or cerebral conviction.

War happens in other places

The acknowledgement of a rewardingly colourful European diversity is all well and good, but if we divert our attention from the common causes that bind us together and instead harp on about the traits that supposedly distinguish one nation from another, we may succeed in resurrecting a mentality that will be as dangerous in the future as it has been in the past. For proof of this, you only have to consider the two world wars that Europe has endured. In the aftermath of these conflicts, we decided to focus on commonality rather than difference. Europe, which was to take precedence over nation states, was given the practical goal of ending all wars.

Our success in achieving this simple and transparent objective has been such that the young Europeans of today are largely unimpressed when it is mentioned: in their view, peace is no longer an issue. War is something that occurs in faraway places to be watched on TV. Even the conflict that exploded in the Balkans at the end of the twentieth century was unable to undermine their conviction that war is something that happens in other places, but not here.

Enlargement doesn't inspire Europeans

However, the problem with all of this — and it is a real dilemma for Europe — is that we have never managed to define another ideal for Europe apart from this goal of peace. Low-cost flights and telephone calls, borders without checkpoints, the relative ease with which we can study or work abroad, or order pizza in northern Sweden and salmon in Sicily: all of these have their merits, and to a large extent they can be said to have resulted from European cooperation. But these phenomena do nothing to provide Swedes in Norrland or Sicilians with a sense of being European that accompanies their local identity.

The fall of communism and enlargement to the East had the potential to offer Europe a new practical goal. More than 100 million people were to become part of a Europe founded on democratic principles. But can we really say that this historic opportunity overcame popular indifference to Europe, or that the contrast with communism made Europe appear more desirable? Unfortunately, I do not believe we can, and it is for this reason that the European project is clearly struggling.

Perhaps we have to wait for fresh catastrophe

Today we look on Eastern Europe with the same disregard that we have always had for Southern Europe. And the converse is also true. Western Europeans overlook the positive aspects of enlargement to the East, which they tend to view as an initiative that paved the way for corruption and crime. And even if this is not always the case, there is no doubt that the cause of enlargement has not inspired today's Europeans to the extent that the previous generation were inspired by the cause of peace. It is on this basis that the goal of enlargement cannot be said to be a practical unifying force for Europe. But what have we got to replace it?

War and the necessity that it engenders is the mother of invention. The Europe that we know today emerged from a catastrophic situation, and it was for this reason that peace was the only possible objective. Perhaps we will have to wait for fresh catastrophe to focus our attention on a new shared objective. If this is the case, there is nothing unusual about the current situation. Prompted by necessity Europe, which is by nature fragmented and conflictual aspired to the goal of unity touted by political elites motivated by the fear of past errors rather than a vision for the future. But the question is how long can this goal, which is apparently a matter of indifference to most of us, continue to hold sway?

Will Germans always be Nazis?

So let's not forget that a Greek will always be a Greek — in other words a thief. Germans will always be Germans — that is to say, the Nazi perpetrators of war crimes — while Swedes will remain a marginal group of borderline autistic know-it-alls who stoop to give advice to everyone. The cracks that are beginning to appear in the carefully varnished vision of Europe with its own flag and anthem, are a testament to all of the singularities, differences and historical distinctions, which have persisted in spite of the European project. And as no one has taken the time to filter and analyse these notions, they have the potential to re-emerge as unshakable prejudice in the minds of European populations.

In a word, this is where we are. A few starless nights over Greece have been sufficient to put an end to ambitious world-building speeches on Europe, which have now been replaced by a dialogue that is altogether more sarcastic in tone.

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