THE 10 DAYS OF EUROPE | 4: The EU is a car

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Europe isn’t exactly a wellspring of artistic inspiration, writes German author Thomas Brussig. It’s really more like a car, which, though a fetish object for some, is for most just a vehicle that takes you where you want to go.

When a playwright meets with a politician, the latter is bound to tell him what his next play ought to be about. Nowadays politicians invariably say, “I want a play about the financial crisis.” A few years ago, however, a politician told me he wanted one about European integration. And then he beamed at me as though he had just handed me the idea for a pan-European blockbuster.

Needless to say, I never wrote that play. Not only because I know even less about European integration than that politician knows about drama. There are no plays – at least none worthy of note – about European integration anyway. That’s not surprising because art always chafes at the prevailing circumstances. Where everything’s hunky-dory, there isn’t much for art to do. (Whereas under the present circumstances, the call for a financial crisis play is quite understandable.)

European integration has accomplished tremendous things: the soap-box orators are justified in their generous use of superlatives. In present-day Europe, there are hardly any international conflicts in which the threat of war is even conceivable. There are no more camps, no blocs, no European divisions. Even the border controls have fallen away in many places – something that still seemed a pipedream only a few decades ago.

The house of Europe

We have a single currency, which, even if some states were to give it up, would still retain its radiance and induce all the remaining states to join. School diplomas and university degrees are coming to be accredited Europe-wide, and the job markets are opening up, which means every European can try their luck anywhere in Europe. And since there aren’t any violent conflicts between nation-states in Europe anyway, national armies could be replaced with a European army without further ado. The laid-off defence ministers might then consider going into the theatre management business.

But I’m not at all at peace with Europe. I first heard the term “the house of Europe” used by Mikhail Gorbachev, in the second half of the 1980s. Gorbachev sacrificed the Soviet empire to that idea. He released the Eastern Bloc from the Soviet realm, and agreed to German reunification as well as NATO’s eastward enlargement. The Soviet Union fell apart, and three former Soviet republics joined the EU. But when the rest of the former Soviet Union came knocking at the door to the house of Europe, it was slammed shut in their face.

The Ukraine, which divested itself of an authoritarian government in the Orange Revolution of 2004, received even rougher treatment. Kiev’s revolutionaries were infused with European ideals and buoyed up by European prospects. Standing up peacefully for democracy, freedom and the rule of law – now if that isn’t European, what is? But Ukraine was also denied EU membership. I experienced that humiliation as though I were Ukrainian myself.

Brussels – a mute and impersonal spacecraft

It is often said that “Europe is a matter of the heart”. It was indeed for the Orange Revolutionaries and definitely for Mikhail Gorbachev as well – and still they didn’t make it into institutionalised Europe. Meanwhile, the Danes, the Irish and everyone else who said NO! to the European Constitution had to stay in the EU – or were simply asked over and over again till the desired result was obtained.

So I can’t take Europe seriously as a “matter of the heart”. More as a bureaucratic entity that is quite useful in everyday life – just think about the privileges that come with the status of being a “European consumer”.

The language barrier is the chief obstacle to a “European identity”. Everyone knows that communicating in one’s native language puts things on a very different footing. Unfortunately, however, Europeans won’t be able to communicate with the majority of other Europeans in a shared mother tongue at any time in the foreseeable future. Every European politician speaking in his native language is only understood by a minority of Europeans. But since the language, the rhetoric of politicians is their most distinctive feature, European politicians will always remain somehow foreign to the majority of Europeans, and Brussels will always remain a mute and impersonal spacecraft. And there is no solution to that one.

Some people love their cars. Others insist a car is “just a useful object”. Same goes for Europe: Europe can be a matter of the heart. But fortunately, it also works the way it is.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz

In partnership with The Guardian

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