Europa-listen: På jagt efter en europæisk kultur

“The Name That Most People Know”en

Günter Verheugen | Photo: Michael Thurm

Günter Verheugen | Photo: Michael Thurm

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Former EU Commissioner Verheugen is not surprised by the results of the Europe List – Günter Verheugen takes a minute with Klaus Pokatzky (Deutschlandradio Kultur).

Former EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen is not surprised by the fact that Angela Merkel was voted Europe's greatest politician. He says the Goethe-Institut's survey did nothing but confirm the obvious: after all, Merkel is currently the most influential figure in Europe.

Klaus Pokatzky: Who is Europe's most significant politician past or present? This was one of the questions in the Goethe-Institut's Europe List. Angela Merkel leads the ranking with 18 percent, just before Winston Churchill with 14 percent. And then, trailing them by a wide margin with only three to five percent each, we have Willy Brandt, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Robert Schuman, Margret Thatcher, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler and Helmut Kohl. In a political career spanning several decades, Günter Verheugen has encountered several of them himself. He was a member of the Bundestag, State Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Commissioner of the European Union from 1999 till 2010. Welcome, Mr Verheugen!

Günter Verheugen: Thanks for having me!

Pokatzky: If I asked you which politician or politicians contributed to Europe the most, what would be your answer?

Verheugen: If we're talking about today's Europe, the Europe of integration, I would nominate Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and also Helmut Kohl. If we take the question to cover a wider timespan, including the entirety of European history, I would start way back with Caesar and Charlemagne, depending on our take on things. I have a bit of an issue with the question, as it does not clearly discriminate between the greatest influence and the greatest achievement. Or else, a historical abomination such as Hitler could not have made the list. I would have preferred to specify a list of greatest contributors to the Europe, so as to avoid placing atrocities next to benefactors.

Pokatzky: In this case, I will gladly let you set up your own list, pertaining to the question: what characterizes those who have done most for Europe?

Verheugen: This list is headed by Angela Merkel, which I find quite appropriate. This shows that the participants of the survey are well informed enough to acknowledge that Angela Merkel is currently the most powerful European figure, a position once held by Helmut Kohl, Winston Churchill, and others before them. If you ask me who is currently benefitting the Union the most, I'll have to pass.

Pokatzky: Where you surprised by Merkel's results?

Verheugen: Not at all. It's simply a question of the current media situation – hers is the name that most people know across Europe. Interestingly enough, the survey was not confined to Europe's core nations, but included countries of the Arab world, as well, where we have the same results. This shows that Merkel's influence in the framework of European politics is being widely recognized. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is quite another question.

Pokatzky: Were you surprised by the fact that more than half of the 20,000 participants named Germany the nation best representing Europe?

Verheugen: Well, quite – this is slightly unsettling for any German, as we don't usually see ourselves this way. But evidently, the current circumstances have changed people's perception, so that most of those looking towards Europe agree that the nation to be reckoned with before all others is Germany at the moment. It's simply a fact we have to acknowledge. I would conclude that this does not signify any kind of mandate or hegemonic claim for us, but a heightened sense of responsibility.

Pokatzky: What does Günter Verheugen think about when he thinks about European culture?

Verheugen: A very tricky question, indeed! You don't see European culture as a whole until you view it from afar. Of course it is easiest to descry it by setting it against Asian, Latin American or African culture. Then you see it everywhere – in the visual arts, literature, even landscapes and cityscapes. When we view Europe from the inside, we see distinct national cultures, first and foremost. After all, Europe is not a land of immigrants like America – we have easily distinguishable national particularities in our languages and customs. But what I find most interesting is that borders begin to fade in modern times, for instance in the visual arts. Look at a painting by a young Turk in a Berlin art gallery and it could just as well be by a Frenchman or a German – we can no longer pinpoint the differences. Another thing we see is that, all differences notwithstanding, we can observe great similarities. You'll find the great art styles – Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and so on – pretty much anywhere in Europe. So I think we are justified in recognizing a genre of European culture and not resigning ourselves to speak only of individual national cultures.

Pokatzky: Günter Verheugen on Deutschlandradio Kultur where we are talking to the quondam EU Commissioner as part of our Europe List series. Mr Verheugen, who are you missing in this European Union you held a Commissioner's post in until three years ago?

Verheugen: I am of the conviction that the politics of European unification cannot become effective until every state that wants to collaborate is given the chance.

Pokatzky: Including Turkey?

Verheugen: Absolutely! It is Turkey in particular that I am missing. I don't even want to go back in history and draw your attention to the fact that the oldest Christian sites we know of are situated in Turkey, but simply foreground the real political situation and come on record saying that Turkey is a key nation for Europe's future – Turkey will be essential for the political and economic future of Europe.

Pokatzky: What about its cultural future?

Verheugen: I surely think so. Our future will definitely be one necessitating learning how to unite different cultural and especially religious backgrounds to a shared understanding of human community. It may slip many Europeans' and especially Germans' minds that we were once much further along this path and were more accustomed to living alongside different cultures. I have seen many, many cities in Eastern and Central Europe that were once lively hubs of multicultural society. This has been spoiled, mostly destroyed by the atrocities of Hitler, but once upon a time, this was the case. And in the case of Islam, we have not only the Muslim history of the Balkans, but we must also remind ourselves that Spain's Muslim history is more extensive than its comparatively short Christian spell.

Pokatzky: And cultural variation was greater before the Muslims were driven from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

Verheugen: Exactly.

Pokatzky: Jews had greater freedom under Muslim overlords.

Verheugen: Correct. What you just referenced was a great cultural loss for Europe.

Pokatzky: Following your final term in Brussels, you took up a teaching post at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). So far, what was the most stirring question asked by one of your students – something that really got you thinking?

Verheugen: The most exciting question happens to come up rather frequently: that of the borders of Europe. I always have a hard time answering this question – it's tough geographically, but even gnarlier culturally. I tend to say that Europe's greatest contribution to human welfare is the concept of human rights – a topic unfortunately not addressed in the survey.

Pokatzky: But at least democracy is named Europe's greatest achievement.

Verheugen: Yes, but I say human rights because they are what democracy, at least modern democracy, evolved from. Classical democracy was no democracy in the modern sense, as many strata of society were excluded. Modern democracy was born from the Enlightenment and from human rights.

Pokatzky: If I were able to grant you a wish pertaining to Europe that you have not been able to fulfil, not even as EU Commissioner, what would it be?

Verheugen: My greatest desire is that European politicians acknowledge that it is always wrong to place national interests before shared European objectives. Pan-European interests should always be observed, discussed and addressed first – individual nations should comply.

Pokatzky: And in which European language would you like me to say "thank you?"

Verheugen: Oh, go ahead and say it in German! The abundance of languages in Europe really is no burden, but a blessing!

Pokatzky: Thank you, Günter Verheugen, former EU Commissioner, in our series Europe List – a project of the Goethe-Institut in cooperation with daily newspaper "Die Welt" and Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur on 5 August 2013: