Why Europe?

By György Konrád

One of our special guests is György Konrád, a world-famous Jewish-Hungarian writer who embodies 20th century history. He survived World War II, witnessed the Hungarian protests of 1956 and after the fall of the Iron Curtain he was one of the central figures in Hungary that paved the way for the country’s transition to democracy. Even today, his age does not stop him for being actively concerned with European society. How does he, having seen so much faces of Europe, look at the Europe of today?

Why Europe?

We are all gradually getting used to our new identity, namely what it means to be a citizen not only of our own country but also of the European Union. What is new about this compared with earlier? Perhaps the number of different identities that are recognised.

The European Union has to build not only on common interests but also on common chosen values and lasting friendships.

Being linked together brings increasing diversity in its wake. European integration is helping to boost the number people involved in the cultural sector.

Why do we need European integration? It is so that we Europeans, divided into nations and alliances, do not continue the centuries-old tradition of bloody conflict.

So that none of the states of Europe can slide down the slope into war with the others, since being bound together in this way imposes discipline on everyone.

So that we, as citizens of the Union, can enjoy equality before the law, can work and come and go as we please, thanks to peace.

Inevitably I experienced many unpleasant things in my home state, mostly to do with National Socialist and Communist extremism. But although first the German and then the Soviet rulers expected the home administration to act as they wanted, nevertheless it enjoyed considerable independence and readily made use of it to the detriment of their subjects.

When it comes to deciding in whose name to oppress us, the choice is not a very large: in the name of the nation, the international working class, or some religion or another. The flow of ideas spreading through Europe may infuriate a country or two, but not all twenty-seven.

I think the constitutional limits that Europe places on national sovereignty are a good thing. I also think it is a good thing for the national community of towns and villages to govern themselves. Power must be kept in check from both outside and inside.

In the Union we are less susceptible to local prejudice, we move more freely on the international labour market, and there are no political or bureaucratic barriers to prevent information or capital from crossing our borders.

There are plenty of national politicians, but European ones are far rarer. The influential governments and heads of state usually defend national interests when they come together round the table. What they say is aimed at their own electorates in the hope of gaining approval at home. They have to show endurance in the escalating struggle to defend national goals that domestic populists seek to exploit.

But there are some thoughtful Europeans who are working to align both further-reaching and more limited interests so that a compromise will emerge that is close to a fair solution.

Behind a proud façade of national sovereignty the state under Hitler and Stalin did what it liked with the population. I would welcome it if being a part of Europe meant that the power of national political leaders was curbed both from above and from below.

I would like to know that for many years to come the history of my homeland would not bear the stamp of approval of just a single person. I think it would be a good thing to limit the national local political class, because I do not trust them too much.

There is right-wing and left-wing populism. Both tend towards statism and both would like to see Europe divided into coalitions, alliances and axes. The national political classes have both an interest in European integration and no interest in it. Both the right-wing and the left-wing in the former Communist countries have an underdeveloped sense of the ethics and practice of self-restraint.

They equate their own power with the nation’s vital interests and they don’t take kindly to foreigners interfering in their affairs.

Suitable politicians in the Union come from the ranks of reliable technocrats rather than charismatic leaders. They attract less attention in the media and they are not the focus of expectations or negative reactions.

Its culture, the arts and literature that holds Europe together, all of which existed years before our continent’s economic and political alliance.

However, if we are looking for an answer to the question of what holds Europe together, I would say without hesitating: its symbolic culture, the arts, literature, including Europe’s religious and secular literature, all of which existed hundreds and thousands of years before our continent’s economic and political alliance.

When the ruling classes manage to engage in a discussion of important matters with the thinking public we talk about a red-letter day in politics. It is important that the intelligentsia in the European Union is given an appropriate part to play. We also need counterbalances; positions endowed with authority from which there is no legitimate path to governmental power.

We need outstanding thinkers, scientists and artists whose opinions unanimously agreed around the table are of interest to public opinion. We need points of view whose importance is determined not by how many people support them, but by the argument itself and the spiritual and moral authority of those expressing it.

Advisors are not career politicians nor do they want to be, yet they are interested in public affairs and have an opinion on them. They attain this position not by election or nomination, but through invitation.

Politicians are subject to party discipline and can never be independent. In contrast, those invited to sit around the table are independent. Invited participants should be given an important role on the stage of European decision-making, alongside the elected and nominated players, so that public opinion can follow the dialogue between politicians and independent intellectuals with greater attention.

Writing Life, Writing Europe with György Konrád – Friday 3 June 12:00 hours
How does Europe shape a human life? The answer will be explored in a theatrical journey through European history by Marjolijn van Heemstra, following the life of Jewish-Hungarian writer György Konrád. Tickets and info

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