Conference on European Angst “We have many identities”

Vladimira Dvorakova, Didier Eribon und Shermin Langhoff with students.
Vladimira Dvorakova, Didier Eribon und Shermin Langhoff with students. | Photo: Caroline Lessire

For two days, at the European Angst Conference, authors, academics, journalists and students grappled with populism, extremism and the rise in Euroscepticism. The meeting organized by the Goethe-Institut Brussels restores hope.

Back in April 2016 when preparations began for the Conference on European Angst, the initiators would not have thought some of this year’s political events possible, particularly the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. But even then, last spring, they perceived a threat at the heart of Europe: a feeling of angst. More precisely, they perceived concerns that this product of peace – Europe – might disintegrate, the fear that the foundations of our coexistence could be called into question and our common values be perverted.

Europe is not a melting pot

The President of the Goethe-Institut, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann. The President of the Goethe-Institut, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann. | Photo: Caroline Lessire For two intensive days, the participants in the conference explored this concern, asked questions and sought answers. Europe, explained Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut, in his opening speech is not a “melting pot” that homogenizes the characteristics and contours of its individual countries. Europe is far more a “mosaic,” framed by a common European responsibility and supported by a foundation made up of the rule of law and democracy.

Authors, intellectuals, scientists and journalists of various nationalities met before roughly 1,000 listeners at the Bozar arts and cultural centre in Brussels for four discussion sessions. They analyzed the causes of extremism, deliberated over reasons for racism, the role of the media and over possibilities for countering extremism. Their reflections, sometimes contradictory, were supplemented and queried by comments from 42 students from all over the world who study at European universities.

International students took part at the discussion. International students took part at the discussion. | Photo: Caroline Lessire

Don’t just treat the symptoms

One basic tendency quickly emerged at the conference: that the achieved status quo must be called into question in order to arm ourselves against populism and right wing tendencies.

Johannes Ebert held a speech at the conference. Johannes Ebert held a speech at the conference. | Photo: Caroline Lessiere The French philosopher Didier Eribon, for example, bemoaned the ignorance of the “ruling class” who seem to have no interest in the lives of the people. People mistrust the established politicians and many in France voted for the Front National in order “to finally have their voices heard,” according to Eribon.

The Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoij Žižek stressed that we must tackle the causes of dissatisfaction, not just try to treat the symptoms. To him, the first step would be to admit that there are no clear answers to the present developments of growing Euroscepticism, populism and extremism.

Freedom is not a given

Béatrice Delvaux, Vladimira Dvorakova and Didier Eribon. Béatrice Delvaux, Vladimira Dvorakova and Didier Eribon. | Photo: Caroline Lessire Freedom to express opinions about politicians or speak out about grievances without fear of repression and freedom to travel are not givens. This was emphasized by, for example, the political scientist Vladimira Dvoráková and the journalist Martin Ehl from the Czech Republic as well as the Polish journalist Warzecha.

The fact that the Syrian filmmaker and actor Firas Alshater was only able to talk with the Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer in the Bozar via a live video stream demonstrates that this freedom is not a given. Three years ago, Alshater came to Berlin as an immigrant and his present status does not allow him to leave Germany for even a short while. When moderator Isolde Charim asked him how it feels to be an immigrant in Europe, he replied, “I did not choose to be an immigrant.” To start anew in a completely new place and to learn a foreign language is difficult, added Alshater, who talks about his experiences in Germany in humorous YouTube clips under the pseudonym Zukar. These videos have made him famous.

Contempt for the foreign

Herta Müller Herta Müller | Photo: Caroline Lessire At least in Berlin, Alshater can openly express how he feels and thinks. On the first evening of the conference the author Herta Müller explained the value of the right to freedom of expression. The Nobel laureate recalled the cruelties of the Romanian dictatorship, the secret services and the decades of xenophobia in Eastern Europe. “It is the xenophobia of those days that we are dealing with today,” she said. “Back then, contempt for foreigners arose under the dictatorship.” This is an explanation that can be sought in the near past; a past that many assumed had been overcome along with the opening of the borders.

What is populism?

But what is populism exactly? And what effects does it have on a society? Populists, said political scientist Vladimira Dvoráková, are those who decide who belongs and who doesn’t, who is “in” and who is “out.” But when society follows such divisions, it promotes exclusion and discrimination and thus would ultimately fall apart. As Dvoráková, the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak and Žižek agreed, “We have many identities.” These identities are determined by such factors as our family history, the languages we speak, our education, religion, sex, our choice of partner and much more.

After many hours of intense discussion, the emotional plea expressed by one student stays in mind. She called upon the audience to be courageous, overcome fear and fight for a peaceful, united Europe.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Susanne Höhn and Paul Dujardin, director of BOZAR. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Susanne Höhn and Paul Dujardin, director of BOZAR. | Photo: Caroline Lessire
By Sabine Buchwald