Our Europe

The Task — Building Europe from the Bottom Up


The EU as a Scapegoat

The question is on the table as to what legitimation and which forms of cohabitation will keep the European Union cohesive. Institutions and mechanisms of the EU work from the top down and threaten to turn Europeans into passive beneficiaries or into persons simply affected by European politics. Elected officials and members of government like to strut about when they succeed in knocking out a deal for their respective clientele “in Brussels”. This is how to turn citizens into consumers of the goods of politics, along the lines of “I want my money back” (Margaret Thatcher, 1984).

European common welfare on the other hand is an unknown quantity. In the eyes of many Europeans, the EU is mutating from a former project of the future to a scapegoat for globalization fears and dashed hopes. In Great Britain, political speculators couldn’t resist the temptation to pit one half of a deeply dis-United Kingdom against the other and to plough into a referendum on EU membership — top-down. Many in Europe praise this as the embodiment of democracy, even there, in the country where parliamentary sovereignty was born. But, if anything, this boils down to plebiscitary coercion when you force questions of such complexity and existential importance into a Yes-No vote without any qualified majority, the repercussions of which, like with the case of Great Britain, stretching far beyond the area of responsibility of those eligible to vote.

Building Europe from the bottom up

The discredited Union needs more “Europe from the bottom up”. We need to flip the work for Europe off its head and onto its feet. We need a Europe whose citizens don’t operate as consumers, but as jointly responsible producers of the European project. So that Europeans see and accept this project as their own, it needs to be returned to them.

No one can then be confused by the Europeans only seeing the bigger picture of Europe from their own specific national, regional and local perspectives. A Finn’s perspective differs from a Portuguese’s, a Scot’s differs from a Latvian’s. They would have a lot to say to each other about this Europe which they know so well. And the same applies in their own country and region.

It is where Europeans live that we find the original theatre for the soul of Europe. When Jacques Delors, the distinguished President of the Commission from 1985 to 1995, says that Europe needs a soul (Il faut donner une âme à l‘Europe), then this call for a cultural centrepoint to the political undertaking that is Europe always receives an answer from multiple voices, a somewhat cacophonous answer at times. This is the only way Europe’s soul can be understood, as a century-old plural entity, full of cultural self-will, that came into being before all nations.

Cities, city-states and regions produced the political culture of Europe, its public spaces, its judiciary, financial systems and trade, its languages and dialects, its sciences and cuisine. Other cultural bases for the life of the continent are the national academies, the public and private research facilities and the big and small festivals of music, theatre, dance, film or fine arts. They periodically transform cities and regions into cultural meeting points of Europe and the world. And they themselves “nourish” each other from the liveliness of the art and culture which thrives on their stages. However, the political and cultural instruments to make this diversity fruitful for the creation of the EU from the bottom-up are still in need of development.

At the first Berlin Conference of the initiative “A Soul for Europe” in 2004 the Romanian philosopher and former Foreign Minister, Andrei Pleşu, saw the problem in correctly interpreting the differences between us, to stand by these differences and to understand them! …. That’s the “union” we need to strive towards. The rest is purely administration.

The founding father of the European Community, Jean Monnet (1888–1979), reportedly said that if he had to start the European integration process over, then he would start with culture. The cultural similarities are a solid basis for the legitimation of a united Europe, while simultaneously longer lasting than the then important joint projects could be, such as the coal and steel industry or the Single European Market. At the same time, cultural differences and diversity also endanger cohesion, which is why they need to receive special political attention.

While politicians like to cite this Jean Monnet quote, few have actually been consequential in assigning a fixed role in the setup of the EU or its political agenda either to culture or specifically to the cities and regions which generate culture. As such, the phrase “Unity in diversity” is nothing but poetry without the commitment. Similarly, the admission of President of the Commission Barroso at the Berlin Conference in 2004 was also without any identifiable practical consequences: “The EU has reached a stage of its history where its cultural dimension can no longer be ignored….”. The task therefore is to pave the way from the defensive double negative of “no longer ignore” to a productive integration into development.

Europe needs them all

Europe’s culture is at home in the cities and regions. And among the people, the Europeans who live there. So anyone who has anything to do with culture in a city or region, be that as a citizen or as a holder of public office, is performing a European duty. Whether they know this or not, they are the protagonists of Europe from the bottom up. They need to be made more aware than previously that they have this responsibility.

This is currently becoming clear when dealing with migrants who played and continue to play such a prominent role in the campaigns for the referendum in Britain and when calling for further referendums. They are arriving in Europe’s towns and regions and it is in these places more than anywhere else that it is decided whether or not outsiders are to become fellow citizens, whether immigrants are to become inhabitants of Europe, and whether a European problem can become an advantage for the local people and for Europe as a whole.

But don’t be fooled: Europeans will believe in the EU, not based on how much their national and regional understanding of it is broken down to a lowest common pan-European denominator, but by how much it stays important to them — the Bulgarian Europe, the French, the Swedish, the Cypriot, the Dutch, the Sicilian, the Hanseatic, etc. If Europe is supposed to become more than just the sum of its parts, then this sum needs to be part of the game in the first place. Here, the “periphery” plays a special role, and in particular the eastern member states, with whose entry in 2004 the EU gained not only in terms of expansion, but also in terms of complementary cultural substance.

The EU needs all of them, all of these different versions, to be European, otherwise it will remain fragmented. No Prague taxi driver will agree with former Czech President Václav Klaus when he said that an integrated Europe is nothing for normal people, but is instead something for a minority who fly to London and go shopping the next day in Florence. No, Bohemian Europe has always belonged to the cultural core of all Europeans and vice-versa with Prague University, founded in 1347, modelling itself on Paris. Wenceslas Square in August 1968 and the German Embassy in September 1989 have become sites of a pan-European history. These lieux de mémoire do not belong to Prague and the Czechs alone. And Kafka’s Castle never did anyway.

Translated from the original German by John Neilan

Bernhard Schneider | Photo: Gregor Anthes

Bernhard Schneider is co-founder and former thematic co-ordinator of “A Soul for Europe”. The architect, planner, author and translator worked as consultant to the Senate of Berlin and co-operator with Berlin Partners, the Capital City’s Marketing Company. From 1981 to 1989 he was executive planning officer with the Senators of Urban Development and of Cultural Affairs, Berlin and from 1991 to 1995 member of the steering committee of Stadtforum Berlin.

Read more about the A Soul For Europe Pre-Conference debate here.