Will our European conversations be different in 2017?
I started putting this blog, Conversations with Europe, together in mid-2016, in the aftermath of the UK Brexit Referendum. My social media feeds were full of people’s thoughts about the EU and Europe in a far wider sense. I read and heard so many views about the continent, saw so many questions raised or challenges made. Can you be pro-Europe and hate the EU? Appreciate the culture, the languages, the food, and still despise the political union? Is it racist to be pro-EU? Is Europe, as a continent, deluded with the idea of its own importance, its own common heritage, its potential for unity? Has the EU brought peace since the 1940s? What should the future look like? Do we identify more with our national identities or our European identity? Both or neither?
So many questions, so many points of view. So many people I wanted to engage in conversations on matters of politics, culture, diversity and more. Not social media debates or snatched comments. People I wanted to sit down over coffee with and really get to the heart of what Europe means to them, culturally, politically, creatively. Emotionally. And so the idea for ‘Conversations with Europe’ was conceived.
I reached out to Europeans I knew and didn’t know. Thomas Gansch, my first interviewee, was top of my list. Personally active on social media, despite his significant global profile, his music had also accompanied me through the night of the Referendum. I’d seen the fabulous ensemble he is part of, Mnozil Brass, in Gateshead only days before when he’d thrown in a cheeky few bars of the EU anthem, Ode to Joy, with a raised eyebrow for that British audience. Gansch, an Austrian virtuoso musician who travels the world, cared what happened in the UK. He posted about it on social media too. For those of us who were hoping the vote would be to Remain, knowing there were people out there who saw us as part of Europe and wanted us to stay, it meant a surprising amount. I was delighted when Thomas agreed to answer my questions.
Others followed, each of them delighting me in their own way. Interesting people with diverse experiences of Europe, able to express their thoughts in articulate words. An email interview is not the same as sitting down over coffee, indeed my questions even revealed a debate about which coffee we’d drink and where we’d drink it, but it is a privilege to ask questions and have them answered. There are more interviews in the pipeline, the next one from Slovenia, a country I had the privilege to live in for several years, just after it became the first former Yugoslavian state to join the EU in 2004.
Of course, the Brexit referendum was the worst possible outcome for the 48% of the UK electorate who voted to Remain. The latter part of 2016 has seen us cast as ‘Remoaners’, people who are unpatriotic, determined to be as difficult as possible and thus destabilise the country. Bad losers who should just shut up. And the government and popular press has tried very hard to deprive us of a voice. Having been shouted down because of ‘democracy’ we are now ignored and our voice taken away.
For me, it has become ever more important to draw on those connections with Europe. I am European – shared history, heritage, culture, experience, world view and much more make me feel so. I am more European than I am British, or English. When the idea of EU Associate Citizenship was proposed, I nearly cried with relief. I know it might not happen, but at least someone remembered we were here, those pro-EU Brits who want to be part of the European project, those of us who want to celebrate unity in diversity.
The latter part of the year has seen Guy Verhofstadt, president of ALDE, the liberal alliance in the EU parliament, and one of the main Brexit negotiators, become the new hero of the 48% who voted to Remain and others who argue for a rational response to the Brexit vote. Now, Verhofstafdt is someone I would love to ask my questions of, who I would love to share a coffee with if I ever had the chance. I’d buy him a coffee simply to say ‘thank you’ for listening, for acknowledging the 48% exist and noting that we should be taken care of in Brexit negotiations. Politics is a game and I am pretty sure Guy is partly using Remainers to strengthen his negotiating position. I’ll happily accept that. He’s also helping us celebrate Europe – his #IAmEuropean project giving a needed expression to those pro-Europe feelings that it’s now often so controversial to express.
And 2016 has shown it is not just about the UK. The horror of Trump’s election to President, claiming he offers ‘Brexit x10’ is the threat that hangs over 2017. We have French elections, where we can only hope that the far right will be defeated. German elections which have seen even Angela Merkel reposition herself further right to face this threat. Austria offered us a beacon of hope when Alexander Van der Bellen defeated the far right candidate, Norbert Hofer in the re-run of their general election, but it was not as decisive as we might have hoped. It will be 2017 when we begin to see the impact of these elections and, through them, how much hope there is for Europe as a political union, a project of peace and hope, rather than simply a collection of countries forced together by geography.
I have recently watched Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s BBC documentary: ‘Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream’. It is striking to focus on just one city, at the heart of so much history and politicking through the centuries. To watch the rise and fall of the Hapsburgs, to see conflicts arise between proto-nation states, peace treaties established, broken, re-established. The first global conflict triggered by a European meltdown in 1756. To watch the inexorable march towards the European-focused cataclysmic global conflicts of the twentieth century, then the recovery. In the documentary, all of this is interspersed with scenes of modern-day Vienna, a diverse city where the dream of Europe seems to live on, in the same streets and buildings that were a focal point for many of those bitter conflicts and rivalries. The people in historical Vienna were not so different from us. They were European too. Will we dissolve back into those struggles, those fights over who is superior, who should rule, how we should worship, who should own which piece of land? Will we begin to persecute those who are different, once again? History has many lessons for us, particularly in Europe, with its long shared history shaping every nation state of the continent. We have no excuse if we do not heed them. Will we heed them in 2017, just as we’ve ignored them in 2016?
The interviews I have collated this year have been, in many ways, a celebration of Europe. I wanted to achieve that. Thomas Gansch told me: ‘…culturally I see all of Europe as my home, not only the EU. Beside the German speaking countries’ culture, I have a strong desire for good food and wine that connects me to Italy, an admiration of dark humor that reaches towards England, and I love Russian composers…’ whilst Kat Boettge, from Germany but living in the UK, said that the EU ‘allows us to be part of a greater democratic and progressive institution with the freedom to move, work and travel around freely…’ American writer in Brussels, Justine Saracen said ‘For me, as an historical fiction writer, everything around me [in Europe] serves as an inspiration. All the ancient streets, edifices and monuments are reminders of our advancements as well as and our mistakes.’ And Anne Amison, in Italy, told me of her ‘growing realisation that my ways of thinking, values and beliefs are based upon the European Enlightenment.’ More interviews will come and more celebration will follow.
But what of 2017? What of the future? My final question to all interviewees was ‘Are you hopeful for the future of Europe?’ It is worth reiterating the responses:
Anne Amison: I think that, when Brexit finally drags itself to its bitter conclusion, Europe can begin to move toward a more hopeful future. In many ways Britain has been a long-term lame duck and drag on progress with its constant refusals to join, whether the Euro or Schengen. Now that Britain is finally ready to pick up its ball and go home because no-one will play the game by its rules, the remaining countries can breathe a sigh of relief!
Justine Saracen: In the short term, and trusting in the basic good will of people, I am occasionally hopeful. However, in the context of global climate change, I have no great hope for any landmass on the planet.
Kat Boettge: I do not know. I think it everything is almost possible now. We are living at very uncertain times at the moment. Sadly I am very concerned about various political possibilities including Trump in the States, recent terrorism throughout some Central European countries which will strengthen islamophobia, fear and hate. All of these trends could easily help disengagement internationally and further fuel Daesh and their recruitment. This potentially spiralling effect could lead to the end of international relations. We are likely to face further economic declines and another serious banking crisis again. Additionally climate change will be our greatest challenge including food and clean, fresh water insecurities, energy shortages and mass migration. Considering all the above, unfortunately I fear that these could easily lead to wars. But as I said everything is almost possible at the moment; and I sincerely hope that some of the above will be avoided.
Thomas Gansch: I´d like to be more hopeful than I am at the moment.
It struck me how similar these responses are. We want to hope. We want 2017 to deliver real reasons for that hope. We want to celebrate Europe. But we cannot know what the coming year will bring and therefore we are reluctant to hope for anything. I wonder if we will find more reasons to hope in 2017.
For now, we will celebrate European diversity, music, literature, history and art. We will be creative and we will study. We will engage in lively debate. We will share coffee, from Espresso to Melange to Trska Kava on the pavements, squares and thoroughfares of great cities and quiet villages. And celebrate unity in diversity with as much joy as we can manage. 2017 is still to come and it comes with a very big question mark.
Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you to those who have already taken part, or promised to. It is still growing and I look forward to your words being part of something bigger still.
Watch out for more interviews in 2017 as I encourage more Europeans to share their thoughts and I prod and poke our European identity as thoroughly as I can. If you would like to be an interviewee, please let me know – firstname.lastname@example.org
And do leave comments – What do you think will happen to Europe in 2017? What do you hope for?