The European Union has accomplished a great deal. But how good is it at the moment? And what should the future hold? International guests discussed these questions at the program focus Europa21 at the Leipzig Book Fair. The dialog was heated and respectful, combative and constructive.
The woman in red applauds loudly. She is sitting in the front row at Café Europa in Hall 4 at this year’s Leipzig Book Fair. She has occupied this spot at every event in the series “Europa 21 – Thinking Tomorrow’s Society,” the program focus presented by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Leipzig Book Fair. “In the last two years as well, I haven’t missed a single session of Europa 21. The program that the curators and their guests present here is simply fantastic,” says the Oberhausen retiree after the final podium discussion. Europe is close to her heart, she explains: “Europe is definitely not a failure.” Even if attitudes toward the European Union are currently critical and often even negative, she says – some things simply need to be improved.
But what, exactly? And as a European, doesn’t one need to have a self-critical perspective in order to recognize this? Absolutely, says Mohamed Amjahid, curator of this year’s Europa 21. Which is why he prefaced the individual program items with the provocative question: “Are we really the best?” International guests from civil society, culture, science, and the media reflected on this at the 2018 Leipzig Book Fair, in a dialog that was heated yet respectful, combative as well as constructive. “This was exactly the way I hoped it would be,” said Amjahid after the last round of applause from the audience, who participated in the dialog not only by clapping and nodding, but also with critical questions and considered contributions.
“What is good for the future of Europe?”
This question arose again and again over the course of seven Europa 21 events in all. Amjahid also posed it during the European Duel between the two Polish participants, Adam Szymczyk and Aleksandra Rybińska. The Athens-based chief curator of the documenta 14 and the political scientist and journalist from Warsaw voiced quite different opinions on the subject. Whereas Szymczyk, as a committed European, emphasized the importance of open borders and solidarity, Rybińska painted a gloomy picture of Europe’s future: “No one is satisfied with today’s Europe. But I don’t see any visions or ideas there, either. We have a serious crisis here in Europe.” She sees a lack of equality between the individual nations: “The big countries dominate everything that happens; the small ones are overruled.” The confrontational Polish scholar questioned the reformist ideas of “more federalism” and “a Europe of nations,” but she did not present any better alternative ideas about what a Europe of the future should look like. Accordingly, she would vote for Poland to remain in the EU, should a referendum on the subject take place.
Some of the journalist’s arguments caused members of the audience to shake their heads. On the other hand, in their debate “We, Partners and Friends? How an Enlarged Europe Sees its own Borders,” Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad and taz (Die Tageszeitung) editor Doris Akrap were met with a great deal of approval. “If you are doing badly, you also behave badly. So here in Europe, above all, we need to improve living conditions for people who are not doing so well.” This was Seierstad’s recommendation for Europe’s future. In order to do this, however, we need politicians who are truly enthusiastic about their work and who have courage and ideas for Europe, Akrap added. As a statement against radicalization in Europe, the well-travelled German-Croatian journalist suggested making Istanbul – a city with a high Muslim population – the European capital, at least for a time. She was quite serious about this, she remarked in reaction to smirks from some of the audience members.
What our guests said
“There is no such thing as prosperity without its opposite. Some other person is paying for my life, security, and prosperity. The term ‘economic refugee’ is an attempt to discredit certain waves of migration. We need to try to want to understand these people. Then, hopefully, there will be less aggression, because people won’t dare to so quickly discredit or denounce people’s reasons for fleeing.” Mely Kiyak, a political columnist and award-winning author, took part in the discussion “We, the Wealthy? Who has a Claim to Europe’s Wealth?”
“Whether or not a person has wealth depends to a large degree not on how hard he or she works, but on luck. We mustn’t look down paternalistically from above at the ‘underclass.’ Their work also has value, and should also be worth more than 8 euros per hour.” Wolfgang Gründinger, lobbyist for the future and author of seven books – most recently Alte-SäckePolitik (Old Fart Politics) ‒ is head of the Stiftung Generationengerechtigkeit (Foundation for Generational Justice).
“Europe spends more money on border protection than it does on rescuing people from refugee boats. How civilized is that? We complain about principles and rights like human rights for ourselves, but we don’t grant them to others.” Rokhaya Diallo (left) is a French journalist and filmmaker. She has received numerous awards for her activism against racism and sexism. In Leipzig, she discussed the question of “We, the Civilized? What, after all, is European Civilization?”
“We also need to have a debate about the dark side of our civilization, and we need to be more empathetic. We should think about the origins of our wealth and ask the questions: How can it happen that a country as small as the Netherlands can be so rich and a country like Bangladesh, which actually ought to be rich, is so poor? Everyone should be allowed to pose critical questions in this debate.” Ghayath Almadhoun is a Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish poet and filmmaker.
“The Right doesn’t need a national identity; instead, they actually mean nationalistic and societal identities. It has to do with whether someone belongs to the gene pool or not. This is dangerous. I want an inclusive concept of a homeland, with which I don’t have to hurt or exclude anyone. But how can I pass this uninhibited sense of a homeland on to my child?” Stefan Schlegel works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen. He is a member of the board of the liberal movement Operation Libero. In Leipzig, he discussed the question “We, the Identiots?
Temptation or Solution – Europe, its Regions, and the Traps of Nationalism.” Also joining the conversation was the political scientist Aleksandra Rybińska (left). She emigrated from Poland in 1982 and grew up in Germany and the UK. Since 2014, she has worked as a journalist for the Internet publication wPolityce.pl and for the weekly newspaper wSieci. “The nation state plays an important role, since it is a social contract that makes solidarity between people possible. At the moment, the EU does not offer any alternative model.”
“The EU has become too liberal and not social democratic enough. In Europe, we need to work on the idea of social justice and distribute money more equitably. There is a simple psychological rule: ‘If you feel bad, you do bad’ [sic]. This why we need economic AND social justice in order to confront and resist nationalism.” Åsne Seierstad is a Norwegian author and journalist. In 2018, she won the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding for One of Us: The Story of Anders Breveik and the Massacre in Norway. She discussed the question “We, Partners and Friends? How an Enlarged Europe Sees its own Borders.”
“The EU needs to reflect on its borders in a new way. We have to understand that inclusion is a strength. Therefore, slowly but surely, the EU has to grow. Turkey and Ukraine absolutely need to be included in order to avoid the development of fortresses where ‘the Barbarians’ live.” Kateryna Mishchenko is a Ukrainian author, curator, and publisher.
“For me, it’s a mystery how it can work in a union when someone says ‘I live in a union, but I deny solidarity to all the other [countries].” Mohamed Amjahid, curator of the program focus Europa21 at the 2018 Leipzig Book Fair: here, in the discussion panel “We, in an Age of Post-Solidarity? Where the Limits of European Solidarity are to be Found.”
“I realized that my viewpoint and my knowledge are so strongly influenced by the West that, absurd and tragic as it seems, I know more about the Nazi era than I do about Communism. Then I realized that I need to start searching.” Nino Haratischwili is a theater director, dramatist, and novelist from Georgia. She has been awarded numerous grants and prizes for her artistic work.
“Nation states use the politics of memory as a weapon in order to pursue the politics of history.” Adam Szymczyk is a Polish art critic and curator. Among other roles, he served as artistic director of the documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017.
Are we really the best?
Europe and the European Union have accomplished a great deal: Most of the panelists and audience members agreed on this. Justice, freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights are positive achievements – but these are things that non-European nations have also achieved. “We are too Eurocentric,” said Ghayath Almahdoun, a Syrian-Palestinian filmmaker who now lives in Sweden, at the podium discussion “We, the Civilized?
What, after all, is European Civilization?” In his opinion, there is no reason for Europe to place itself above other countries, to play the schoolmaster, and not to critically question itself and the dark sides of European civilization.
In this regard, many of the discussion participants pointed out weak points in the European Community: too little solidarity with the poor; a lack of equal rights for refugees and various minority groups; poor access to education and health care for the less well-off; no shared sense of identity, or one that is too exclusive; too little integration and unity.
Nevertheless, at the end of the debates, there were still some hopeful outlooks: “It’s actually great that there are so many regional differences, and they should be preserved,” said Katrin Gottschalk, deputy editor-in-chief of the taz, in her European Duel. “We simply need to be more on the lookout for the things that unite us than those that divide us.” European solidarity definitely exists, said the German-Greek author Danae Sioziou in the debate “We, in an Age of Post-Solidarity? Where the Limits of European Solidarity are to be Found.” However, she said, it is too limited to very small actions in everyday life. How could the European Union ensure that solidarity is strengthened on a large scale? This question, posed by curator Mohamed Amjahid, remained unanswered at the end of the duel – providing material for further debates and for the search for common solutions.