Thinking Tomorrow’s Society

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.

Alexandra Wolters | March 2018
Podium und Zuschauer
Rainer Justen

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.

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.