Ideas: Robert Menasse: ‘A fan of the crisis’

Trouw (Amsterdam)

A Europe of regions in which political leaders set aside national interests: that is how the Vienna-based writer Robert Menasse sees post-national Europe. Trouw interviewed him following the publication in the Netherlands of his book “The European Courier”.

“I once called on someone who worked for the European Commission. Through his window in the Brussels Berlaymont building he had a view over Wetstraat, of the Justus Lipsius building of the European Council. The contempt and hatred with which he looked across the road! The European Commission puts in such effort to build up Europe, but they are continually encountering resistance from the representatives of national interests on the European Council!”

Between March 2010 and the end of 2012 the Austrian writer Robert Menasse travelled back and forth between his native Vienna and the administrative centre of Europe, Brussels. His plan was to do research for a novel centred around Brussels bureaucracy. “I had barely got there when the Greek crisis occurred. Normal life disappeared. Everyone was only talking about the crisis.”

Five surprises about Brussels

Menasse made a virtue out of necessity and devoted himself to the crisis. “I became more and more entwined in the discussions and realised that my view of Europe had fundamentally changed.” Instead of the planned novel, Menasse wrote a glowing essay about Europe, De Europese koerier (The European Courier).

In Menasse's own environment – enlightened Vienna, no less – euroscepticism was on the rise. It is the fault of “those people in Brussels” that “we, hardworking Austrians” have to keep shelling out. Sitting comfortably on a terrace in one of Vienna's most trendy neighbourhoods, Leopoldstadt, Menasse tells how much his stay in Brussels liberated him from any shred of scepticism about the never-sated, money-hungry Brussels.

In The European Courier he describes five surprises he came across in Brussels: “First surprise: the Commission is an open and transparent institution. Second surprise: Brussels bureaucracy is very streamlined. Third surprise: Brussels bureaucracy is very frugal and modest. Fourth surprise: Brussels bureaucracy is incredibly cheap. Fifth surprise: the civil servants are enthusiastic.”

Euro countries hinder a successful Europe

“What I learned: Brussels is not a city. It is a patchwork of 19 municipalities, which have to find a way to get along with each other all the time. In a way, a laboratory for greater Europe. In addition, the city is multilingual, bourgeois and relaxed, not as boastful and stuck-up as its big sister Paris. It is a city without an image, without a clear vision of itself to present to the world.”

This brings us to the gist of his argument in The European Courier. The biggest hindrance on the road to a successful Europe are the euro countries. “Their leaders fool their populations into believing that they are protecting national interests in the European Council in Brussels, but instead they are only protecting the interests of a few economic elites and incurring costs for their citizens.”

‘Citizens’ interests being harmed’

An example? “The introduction of the euro, the first transnational currency in history. This currency requires a joint financial policy. But the English did not want to join because they believed that Brussels should not get involved with the financial market of London. The Germans did not want to get involved because they were afraid that a non-German leader of the European Central Bank would print money, and printing money leads to inflation and inflation leads to Hitler.”

“That is the paradox,” Menasse's voice cracks with emotion. “They say that they are defending national interests but in the meantime they are harming the interests of the citizens. Precisely because of Merkel's policy of defending national interests the Germans will end up paying a great deal more, but instead of being furious with Merkel, they re-elect her, as she claims to defend national interests. That is completely irrational.”

‘Rear guard fights’

As far as Menasse is concerned, these are all rear-guard fights. Nation states are increasingly losing their significance. “That is why I call myself a fan of the crisis. A simple example: bank supervision. Three years ago it was inconceivable. Every government leader was against it. The crisis will make it happen. No, I am not really saying the crisis is a blessing, but the crisis does increase the pressure so that finally, smart decisions will be made.”

But what is the alternative? A big European Empire, like the Habsburg Empire? Or a multifaceted federation, like the former Yugoslavia? “Rather the latter. A Europe of the regions. I envision a post-national Europe, which creates the prerequisites for regions to function as the most important administrative units. Just think: nations are in essence aggressive, regions are not. Regions do not wage wars to expand their territory.”

Regions’ natural boundaries

An example? “No Basque is interested in a Basque Country that contains regions where no Basques live. Regions have natural boundaries, which often go beyond national borders. As a native of Vienna I feel a closer affiliation with cities such as Sopron in Hungary and Bratislava in Slovakia than with Tirol. I cannot even understand people from Tirol! Democracy requires a common basis to be able to take common decisions.”

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom

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