Letter to Europeans by Philipp Blom

Letter to Europeans

Earlier today, the Austrian Constitutional court decided that the second round of the presidential elections must be repeated, an election, in which a hard-right candidate with a weakness for weapons and fascist art lost by the narrowest margin. We had not yet digested Brexit and when a second democratic crisis erupts within the EU. During its presidency, Slovakia will make European history, one way or another.

I live next to a car workshop, a small garage with six people working in it, quiet, solid mechanics in grey overalls. One of the apprentices is a young woman. Perhaps that is social change in action. But this kind of change can be slow. I say that because there was another female apprentice at the garage. A shy girl whose skin had a darker hue than that of the others. Her hair was raven black. I asked the master about the new arrival. Yes, he said, it was an experiment. She had already been sacked by one employer, not because she was a bad worker, but because they thought that she wasn’t „one of us“, because while her mother was Viennese, her father came from Vietnam (I think it was Vietnam) and she was seen as simply too different. She lived locally and spoke the same broad, comfortable Viennese German as her colleagues. I congratulated the master on giving her a chance.

It is a long time since I’ve seen that female apprentice. One day, she was simply no longer there. I did not ask what happened to her. It seems pointless to ruin a perfectly polite relationship with the garage. I can’t help the girl, anyway, I certainly can’t offer her a job. Perhaps she quit herself, perhaps she decided to go back to school, but I cannot shake off the nagging suspicion that my friendly neighbours concluded that she was simply not one of us.

All that, incidentally took place months before the Austrian presidential elections. Since then the atmosphere has hardened, and not just in Austria. From Hungary to France and from Sweden to Italy populist movements are gathering support by redefining who is „one of us“, and who is not. Will we accept their verdict? This is becoming a defining question for Europe’s future.

Who is one of us? Well, you must forgive me, dear friends, I’m an historian. I am giving to pottering off into the library and looking for clues to the present in our past. It turns out that this question has driven most of European history. Europe is a small landmass off Asia, a modest but fertile promontory. As wave after wave of the earliest migrants arrived from Africa via Asia Minor there was no escape. Bordered by water on three sides, the continent forced different cultures to live side by side.

That sounds plausible, but it hides a trap set by the historians of the nineteenth century. European cultures never did live just side by side, they were not stabile historic communities defined by a common faith, language and territory. This kind of national history is the invention of a nationalist school of historians, a projection of future ambitions of early nation states into the mute landscape of the past.

In reality, European populations have always intermingled, moved, resettled, fled, or sought their luck elsewhere. They traded and intermarried. They fled wars, pogroms and religious persecution. They were invited, purposely resettled, or they simply came. They brought with them their languages, customs and perspectives and transformed their adoptive countries while becoming woven into their fabric over generations.

This constant movement of cultures and populations can be traced back as early as history itself – from the Roman empire to the great medieval migrations and the exodus of entire communities due to the Thirty Years War, the Counter Reformation, the cultural and ethnic cleansing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which has left especially eastern Europe irrevocably changed. I do not need to emphasize this in Bratislava/Pressburg with its dual heritage and multiethnic, multilingual, religiously conflicted history of opposition and enmity and mutual distrust, but also of long periods of tolerance and respect.

European history is the history of living with difference, of negotiating it, understanding it, fighting it, or seeking ways of peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants, gentiles and Jews, Christians and those of other faiths or convictions. Who is one of us? Is a constant refrain in this tale.

Encountering and negotiating difference became unavoidable especially in cities, where new immigrants constantly changed the face of society and trading between communities necessitated the kind of respect for the other that saw a trustworthy trading partner even in an infidel. These European mongrel metropoles – Amsterdam and London, Paris and Prague – gave birth to a way of thinking that made living with difference possible.

Then something truly astonishing took place. In the conflict-ridden seventeenth centuries, as cities expanded and became more cosmopolitan, philosophers demanded that the „we“ of each individual community must be enlarged indefinitely, that every person should be seen as possessing the same rights and freedoms, without exceptions.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment attacked the problem of warring and often tyrannical communities by strengthening the notion of individual rights and freedoms, defending the one against the many, against the claims of class, church or family. Endowed with inalienable rights, every individual was to be equal before the law, entitled to the same solidarity and consideration. It is hardly necessary to add that ideas such as these sounded crazy at a time when aristocratic elites ruled Europe and everybody simply knew that Christians were worth more than Jews and women infinitely less than men.

It took centuries of intellectual and actual battles to anchor the idea of human rights in our societies. As individuals protected from the demands of any group, people of different faiths and ethnic origins could live together. This new, universal „we“, not based – in theory at least – on tribe or religion or class or cast, brought about the end of slavery, the emancipation of the serfs, of women, etc. Not a bad record.

We can leave the library now and reemerge into the world of today’s Europe, of car workshops and Brexit and rising populism. But we have learned something interesting: in the past, European history was constantly defined by a search for the answer to the question „who is one of us?“. The answers ranged from war, murder and mass expulsions to a new idea about what it means to be human, an individual first and a member of a group second. The greatest answer was the idea of universal human rights which mapped out the path to living with difference in a constructive way.

Living with difference is a defining aspect of the European experience – perhaps the most important of all. We still inhabit a small continent with no possibility of escape from one another. We face the same threats and opportunities in a future which will be dominated by challenges which are much bigger than our borders: digitization and automation, by climate change, global finance, migration and terrorism.

All of these are global issues beyond the power and influence of any single nation state. If we want a voice in this future and the decisions made about it, about us, we must understand that geography is destiny, that in a time of globalized challenges we more than ever need neighbours and allies united by common goals, even if the memories we share are marked by conflict and distrust.

Who is one of us? Whenever this question is answered in a narrow way, the result is bloodshed – nationalism, ethnic cleansing, pogroms. And as unlikely as this extreme scenario may seem at the moment, Brexit was a prime example that events of enormous importance can take everybody by surprise if the circumstances are right. If we allow Europe to fall back into the nineteenth century, to splinter into nation states, nationalist movements and authoritarian governments, war and civil war can and will return to Europe. If the divisive message of Brexit gets the popular vote elsewhere in Europe, this disintegration will be well on the way.

As the Europeans who were once the working class have found themselves in the postindustrial age and in different, more precarious jobs, they have experienced this transition as a chaotic and uncontrollable descent into uncertainty. As the working class disintegrated in the new service and information economy, the great political parties concentrated on voters from the professional middle class. The former socialist voters are right to feel betrayed. They were victims of economic and political changes, but they experienced them as a loss of identity, of pride and of a way of life, as a cultural loss. And the easiest person to blame for this  cultural loss is someone who is culturally manifestly different.

After a dramatic summer of mass migration, refugees from Muslim countries have become living symbols of cultural change, of the world’s problems arriving at our doorstep. Bereft of a collective identity to be proud of,  the formerly positive self image of many Europeans has become hollow, buttressed only by negatives, by the conviction that „she is not one of us“.

Living with difference is frustrating. It does not address identitarian discontent or the longing for a strong community. Conflicts between points of view and social priorities are frequent, disagreements constant. Every solution is another compromise, a temporary fix. But this frustrating experience has always been at the heart of what it means to be European, and societies which mastered the art of pragmatic tolerance and mutual respect have flourished and projected their culture far beyond their borders.

This is not much of an argument to make to those who simply want their country back, as so many Brexiters did. Nor is it helpful to point out that by pulling out of the pooled sovereignty of the EU, European states would be in an even more impotent position in the face of global challenges, leading to more, not fewer social tensions, and more social misery. No argument, in fact, is of much use in the face of anger, the warm feeling of superiority and the conspiracy theories peddled by populists everywhere.

When will my friends the car mechanics think of a half-Vietnamese girl as one of them? And what if there are many like them, decent, hard-working people who simply do not want to live in pluralist societies, who are tolerant enough but want to keep to their own and want their country back? Will Europe’s politicians bend to popular sentiment or can they communicate to their electorates that there are greater challenges ahead and that we can only face them together?

History and geography make us Europeans whether we want it or not. We are connected experience, and we will necessarily share in the same future, be affected by the developments in the countries around us, as well as by global change. One does not have to be an idealist to be a European, one can also come to this conclusion from a pragmatic stance. But these are not pragmatic times. They are times of popular rebellion, of democracies in crisis, the return of the demagogues.

Who is one of us? As Europe is forced to redraw its mental map, we will also have to renegotiate its borders, we will have to talk about whom to include, and how. This applies not only to immigrants, but also to those in our own societies who have lost their faith in the European project. If our democracies should fail, it will not be islamist terrorists who will have brought them down, but ordinary citizens convinced that democracy has failed them. Only a new narrative of hope can give them a feeling that their voices are being heard, that we can look to a common future with a degree of optimism, or at least a shared determination in the face of historic challenges.

Who are the Europeans? Is there something special that connects all of us, that molds us as a community of interest, and of ideals? Or is it all just a neoliberal political game, a civilized pair of gloves enveloping the iron fist of economic power and the dead hand of bureaucratic overreach? Can we create a successful, properly democratic Europe that expresses the continent’s long experience of productively living with difference? That is up to us. Nobody can relieve us of our sovereign privilege of fighting for the Europe we want to live in.

Maybe I should have that conversation with my friend the car mechanic after all. Maybe I can learn to understand him better, and maybe he can understand me. If we can trust each other’s honesty I may even see the day when another apprentice is employed there simply because she is good at repairing cars.

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