What it is worth to us
There can be no liberal society without pluralism, freedom of opinion and participation – yet such civil accomplishments need to be firmly anchored in the everyday life of any liberal democracy. The essayist and journalist Katja Kullmann joined the philosopher and political activist Srećko Horvat in a debate of how values can be preserved against attack and can continue to serve as the basis for social cohesion in the future. Their digital correspondence was postage-free – and is still open to your opinions, either in the comments field on this page, or on Facebook, Twitter und Instagram using the hashtag #portofrei. Geraldine de Bastion moderated the debate.
On the occasion of the general elections in Germany and the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, we talked about the values that characterize Europe and that should characterize it in future. We spoke about the rise of populist and national socialist tendencies, and about the modern importance of liberal democracy. During our discussion, we identified the following values that are central to us: freedom of opinion, freedom of movement, humility, generosity and solidarity.
A convincing counterbalance to the scaremongering policy and populism in Europe is necessary. The warning signs are there – but there are also ideas about how to shape the future in a positive and social way. We gathered together many concrete suggestions as to how a “European New Deal” might look. I hope that our correspondence may contribute to a wider discussion and that it will be continued – and I hope that we will all continue to commit ourselves to a Europe characterized by freedom of opinion, freedom of movement, humility, generosity and solidarity.
Srećko and I take a fairly different view of several things, such as the Catalonian question, where our opinions really are diametrically opposed. On the other hand – which brings me to the first “value”, one that is and will remain the most important in my view – I particularly appreciate such an open and self-aware discussion. At risk of repeating myself: I regard freedom of opinion to be one of the highest accomplishments of civilized society. The Europe theorist Ulrike Guérot, who has been speaking out in favour of a “European Republic” for some time now, recently surprised me with an article for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Guérot’s thesis is that Spain’s crisis is revealing a new EU. That comes fairly close to Srećko’s view – this has given me food for thought, and I am now willing to chew on this idea somewhat further (even if my political instincts as far as Catalonia is concerned have so far generated rather more scepticism in me).
For me, freedom of movement or travel goes hand in hand with freedom of opinion, the second important value. I have just noticed that the word “freedom” appears twice in these brief sentences of mine. So, freedom then! Not in a neoliberal sense, but in the sense of solidarity. Which is why I am also in favour of defining the wonderful old L word – the idea of liberalism – in a new and different way than was recently the case, when it unfortunately meant first and foremost market liberal. I like the idea of a European New Deal.
Ah, there is so much more that could be said about values. Ultimately, it boils down to the triad from the French Revolution – though I would like to slightly modernize the triad to include both genders, i.e. freedom, equality, fraternity/sorority. And, as was hinted at right at the beginning of the discussion, and bearing in mind the Star Trek principle mentioned by Srećko: I would ultimately like Europe to be the forerunner, the prototype, of a much larger issue – namely of a free and equal world society.
Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in Europe nowadays, with new borders and walls, with the periphery of Europe bleeding because of austerity, is precisely the opposite. If this discrepancy between the official EU anthem and the brutal reality was ever evident, then it was during the last G20 in Hamburg, when the world leaders were enjoying Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the Elbphilharmonie, while only a few kilometers away in the neighborhood of St. Pauli the police was beating protesters and ordinary people who happened to be there. Instead of solidarity, what we have in the EU today is the opposite.
Yet, when I speak about solidarity, I do not think about the prevailing meaning of “solidarity” in the sense of “helping” someone who is in need. For instance, giving a euro to a beggar on the street. Or giving shelter to a refugee. Yes, we need to do that every day. However, I think we need a much more radical notion of solidarity, the one beautifully outlined by Oscar Wilde more than 100 years ago when he said that the majority of people try to solve the problem of poverty by keeping the poor alive. For instance, if the Greeks are suffering because of indebtement and unemployment, the solution is not to keep them alive by more indebtement and austerity, the solution is, as Wilde would say, “to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible”.
In other words, what we need in Europe today, if Europe wants to have any future at all, are not some cosmetic changes here and there, what we need, in order to achieve true solidarity where people, as the Ode to Joy says, become brothers (… and sisters!), we need to reconstruct Europe on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.
I am in favour of the “European New Deal”. We need these visions – not least as a response to the scaremongering policy propagated by the right-wing populists. Our small random sample allows me to hope that there are many more people out there who think likewise – meaning that some of our visions can be realized rather than remaining utopian.
Looking at the history of Europe, it is clear how fluid the borders of today’s states are. Nation states as frameworks for identity are a modern phenomenon that we can well do without. How right you are, Katja: generosity is an important value on which Europe could be built. A little more humility would also not go amiss.
India is one of the countries whose visa policy is based on reciprocity – people from countries which make it hard for Indian citizens to enter will likewise face a lengthy process when applying for a visa for India. It is important to remember in the Fortress Europe that we are not automatically entitled to a predominant position in the world, but actually have to do something if we are to retain our global relevance – for example we need to work on our outdated visa regulations, as our reader Wolfang Bell wrote on 7 October in his very interesting comment on Facebook (see below).
Freedom to travel is one of the most important accomplishments of the European Union. On which other values should our “European New Deal” be based? Which value is important to you personally?
As someone who usually has several flights a week, I would even propose that all young people can fly free of charge anywhere they want. And why stop at this? In the predominant era of TINA – Margaret Thatcher’s famous “There is no alternative!” – we certainly need new Utopian ideas. Free transport everywhere is one of them, why not: free calls for everyone all over Europe, or why not, to be even more “utopian”, free education, free health-care, social security, jobs, green energy, etc.? As you can see this questions bring us to the “Elephant in the Room”. And its name is – capitalism!
Today it's easier to imagine Star Trek (a utopian – communist? – society in which humans explore the universe instead of drowning in exploitation and wars), than to imagine a Europe that can be fundamentally changed. So as soon as you pose the proposal that all young people should have a free train ticket all over Europe, I can hear the neoliberals saying: “There is no such thing as free lunch!”
Their point is the following one: someone has to pay it. Our point should be, if we really want a different Europe, there should be a different economic system in the first place! And it is much closer to Star Trek, where all human potentials are fully realised, than to the current Europe. Is it utopian? No. And for that we need something what the economists Yanis Varoufakis and James Galbraith recently explained in their piece “Why Europe Needs A New Deal, Not Break Up”, published in the Nation a few days ago.
Such a “European New Deal” doesn’t only mean a radical transformation of the European Union in the sphere of economy and finance, but also means deconstructing a “taboo” of current politics, this taboo is called – sovereignty.
Just take the recent case of Catalonia. Usually you can hear that, faced with the choice between the violent neo-francoist Spanish government and the “independentists”, “both options are awful”. I think we should make the choice not to choose between this false dilemma. We should be creating a third option, a "Europe to come", as Jacques Derrida would probably call it, that would be able to reinvent the very concept of sovereignty that strengthens cities and regions and at the same time dissolves national particularism. A Europe where the whole concept of nation-states would be obsolete.
I must talk once again about Catalonia. Both is so awful – not only the police power invoked against the referendum by the Spanish government but also the hugely riotous and anti-constitutional stance adopted by those in favour of independence. Apart from the fact that the "Sí" movement is not being pushed only by apparently likeable and colourful young people but also by the ultraconservative PdeCat party (Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català) which stands for corruption and a policy of austerity, these developments shine the spotlight on a wider issue: secessionism also keeps flaring up in Scotland and the Basque Country, as well as in South Tyrol, Flanders, Transylvania und eastern Germany. Europe has a problem not only with xenophobia towards the outside, in other words, but also towards the inside. One could perhaps talk of a cultural fear that often acquires irrational characteristics. Or to put it even more extremely: it is like the bawling of a bunch of angry small children who are far more similar in their narrow-mindedness than they care to admit. That annoys me, and I find it small-minded – and indeed mean.
What this makes me think about is the relationship between individuality and identity. These two words beginning with “i” are currently dominated by a highly tense dialectic: on the one hand the secessionists are focusing on their own “individual” Catalan or South Tyrolean interests. On the other hand, their clamouring for identity is creating an all the more narrowly defined and very hermetic “we”– something that is brutally collectivist, in other words, and entirely non-individualistic! Something that makes people far smaller than they actually are.
Europe is the extremely generous space in which I, a woman who was born in Hesse, can engage freely and openly with people from Alsace, Wales, Bavaria, Podlachia, Corsica and Kosovo – without losing anything of my own identity. On the contrary, it is only in these free encounters with my Kosovan hairdresser, my favourite Welsh DJ and my colleague from Saxony that I recognize what makes us each unique. We can go and visit one another and wonder at each other, in other words, or we can live together – free of fear – in the same place. That is something I am happy about, not something I fear.
Dear Srećko, why indeed should we think that people have changed so much for the better over the past 70 years that Auschwitz could not happen again. That is wishful thinking. It is and remains our job to make sure that it remains a one-off.
Now that the AfD have won seats in the Bundestag, it is clear – if it wasn’t already – that we cannot rest on the laurels of what our parents’ generation created. There can only be a tolerant and peaceful Europe if people actively commit themselves to it.
Emmanuel Marcon’s speech is an important first push towards breathing new life into the raison d’être of our community of states. We need more forward thinking, we need to get more people on board, and we need to persuade more people that an open, tolerant society is a better path than a return to the past and isolation. How are we to do this?
Above all, by showing more humility. For Europe is not and never has been the stronghold of civilization that it purports to be. Our stuck-up attitude towards other cultures fuels xenophobia in our societies. But we should also do it by taking very concrete steps: by providing for example all young people with a train ticket that allows them to travel all over Europe free of charge, by creating an economy that is not dominated by unbridled financial institutions, and by arranging more intercultural encounters.
What else do we need?
While in the previous years the rise of right-wing extremism and historical revisionism was perceived as something constrained to Eastern and Southern Europe, from Poland and Hungary to Croatia, as a sort of European “exception”, today we can see it in the heart of Europe, from France to Germany, not as an exception anymore but as a rule.
The scenario is similar to the 1930s, first you have a financial crisis which leads to more impoverishment of the population, then you have the translation of this despair into anger, then this anger is usually used by right-wing populist parties who blame the refugees or the Jews. And then we are easily, once again, in the situation in which genocide can be “debated”. From here it is only a small step when genocide will turn from debate into its materialization.
I agree with Geraldine that genocide shouldn’t be “debated”. Imagine that you “debate” whether rape is acceptable or not? The same goes for “genocide”. I would like to live in a society in which rape or genocide are not debated, because they are unacceptable.
However, what worries me with Germany is that there is a certain “Denkverbot” when it comes to the possibility of “repeating Auschwitz”. The best recent example is when the performance Auschwitz on the Beach was canceled at the last Documenta just because it dared to put “Auschwitz” and “beach” in the same sentence. What the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi Bifo, whose text served as the basis for the performance, intended to do is not to hurt the feelings of the victims of the Holocaust, but precisely to break the “Denkverbot” in order to alarm the German public that a new Auschwitz can happen (in this case, towards the millions of refugees dying in the Mediterranean Sea like flies or being concentrated in various camps all around Europe).
To conclude, we should definitely not “debate” whether the Holocaust happened or not, whether it was good or not, which is an unacceptable “debate” historical revisionist and populist parties are trying to impose throughout Europe. But what we definitely should be debating is whether Auschwitz, in a different form, even on the beach, could happen again. The point is not to take away the unique meaning Auschwitz has, but precisely the opposite – to prevent that Auschwitz could happen again.
Editor’s note:The German debate about the cancelled documenta performance entitled “Auschwitz On The Beach” was complex and took place on many different levels, with well-reasoned arguments being put forward. For example, Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria and Commissioner for Holocaust Memory of the World Jewish Congress, used the following words to criticize the announcement of the documenta performance: “The title and introductory text are completely blind to history and obscene. Using terminology from the context of the systematic annihilation of the Jews by the Nazis to describe the subject of refugees, that is to say putting it on a par with the Shoah, is indefensible, testimony to unspeakable ignorance and bereft of any sense of shame. The Holocaust – the targeted and industrial-scale extermination of the European Jews by the National Socialists – is a singular and unprecedented crime. Any attempt to put it into context or deny it is simply not permissible. The artists, the curators and those responsible at the documenta are causing damage […] above all to the legitimate matter of a humanitarian European refugee policy.”
The situation is similar when it comes to many other values, language and legal customs: homosexuality was still punishable by law in Germany until 1994, and until 1977 husbands could still prohibit their wives from going out to work: sounds a bit like sharia law, doesn’t it? Life has improved considerably for millions of people in liberal Europe. This is played down all too often as being a mere trifle in comparison with social inequality. Incidentally, that is also something that is growing rapidly in Germany. People at different levels of prosperity are finding themselves in precarious situations – yet structurally speaking this is a linking experience and thus a political opportunity.
The hate preachers of nationalism and Islamism are very similar in many respects, both of them scorning liberal democracy, and I have no wish to belittle the current swings towards unfreedom. It is with dismay that I watch the trend towards nationalism in Catalonia, which idiotically is also being fuelled by those on the far left. I like what Srećko Horvat says: fighting for “more Europe”. This is precisely what the majority wants. This could be seen in the French election campaign, in movements such as the “Pulse of Europe” and the agenda pursued by Diem25. It can also be seen in the help that people in Greece and Italy offer to refugees, day in, day out. A liberal Europe, and one based on solidarity, has already long been in place – in fact it is now taken so much for granted that it is celebrated much too rarely as a strength.
We are currently seeing many – and in some cases very concrete – proposals for a better Europe: calls for a European finance minister, a ban on weapons exports and a European army; for a “European FBI”, a decent immigration law, a “Europe of regions” characterized by social equality, and the political restructuring of the EU to create a true parliamentary democracy. The AfD talks about an “EUSSR”. What I would urge is for us to fight for Europe with self-confidence and optimism, and to do so as vociferously as possible.
As I always do shortly before a general election, I use the Wahl-O-Mat: an online tool that compares one’s own opinions with the positions held by the parties standing for election. One is presented with 38 theses and has to state whether one agrees or disagrees with them. I am amazed by how many of the theses are not compatible with the constitution, in my view. For example, the question of whether an annual cap should be set for the number of new asylum seekers that can be accepted. Most of all it is thesis number 17 that I have a problem with: “The genocide carried out against European Jews should continue to be a central part of Germany’s culture of memory.”
It was our grandparents who were either expelled, persecuted and gassed, or were on the side of the perpetrators and helped shape or went along with the Nazi regime. I do not think it should be up for debate whether one remembers this. And I am angry that the AfD and other right-wing parties have succeeded in having such a question included, rather than one about health or education issues.
It was only a few months ago during the elections in France and the Netherlands that it became clear that it is at least a real possibility again that governments in Western Europe could include right-wing populist parties. Values in Europe – that is above all a question of remembering our history and what we have learnt from it. How do we keep our culture of memory alive in Europe?
I happened to be in Rome this March during the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and it is precisely this event which proves that the current EU is not able to create more unity or a shared prospect, but more divisions exemplified by Juncker’s plan for “multiple-speed” EU and “variable geometries”. The motivation for this further division between the centre and periphery of EU is, of course – economy. So if you have a EU which is, from its first installment to its current architecture, depended on economy which creates further divisions (Germans vs. Greek, etc), how can you expect that the young population will identify with the blue flag with stars? Moreover, I was always suspicious of anyone who identifies himself or herself with a flag or any national identity.
That said, we find ourselves in a very dangerous situation today, on the one hand we are witnessing a return to the nation-state (from Brexit to the authoritarian regimes of Hungary and Poland who are ignoring the legislation of EU), on the other hand we have an impotent EU which is not able to fix its economy or handle the refugee crisis and rise of xenophobia. In this situation, we have to fight for more Europe, but it is surely not the Europe of “multiple speeds” and “variable geometries”, it also can’t be a Europe in which only those from particular countries and social class can be lucky to live in peace in prosperity. And again, this is why the German elections are so important not only for Germany but for the rest of EU. But elections are also not enough, we need a Pan-European response to EU’s permanent crisis.
So when the subject of Europe comes up, I always think about inequality. And about western values. When these are criticized, it is often the neoliberal version of capitalism that is the core concern. And indeed the EU with its austerity regime has so far styled itself as a money-making machine for a select few. In the White Paper that Jean-Claude Juncker has now presented, he raises the prospect of the eastern enlargement of the Schengen area. In essence, he puts forward economic answers, as if the slogan “euro for all” would be enough to reassure anyone these days.
However, this discussion is supposed to be about non-material values at first, not about money. As a Westerner conditioned to embrace progress and with an unconditional love for freedom of opinion and movement, not to mention a certain sense of enlightenment, I say that there is nothing that should be sugar-coated. Europe is the birthplace of humanism and the Holocaust; of cosmopolitanism and colonialism; of social welfare legislation and fascism; and of capitalism and communism. Europe per se is no moral thing. Speaking in entirely secular terms, one thing I see as “typically European” is the laboratory character that this small misshapen continent always had. The “western” element of this is the desire for mobility, for constant reinvention and for testing out social and political organization.
As a Westerner I freely admit that I find it strange the way some post-socialist societies are currently behaving. What happened to the idea of international solidarity? Why is there such chauvinism towards foreigners, those of different faiths and homosexuals? What sort of authoritarian impulses are those? I cannot be persuaded to sign up to any such “non-western” Europe.
So far, the EU has served as a platform for the interests of nation states. Yet nation states and their groupings are the building blocks of the old power apparatuses. For quarter of a century now we have been experiencing top-down globalization – a bottom-up political globalization with equal social rights for all would be the only appropriate answer. We are taking part in the group pilot project that is Europe, and we have the chance to invent something now.
In the general election year, many young people take the advantages offered by the EU for granted: they enjoy the benefits of the freedom to travel, the currency union and the standardized higher education system. Nonetheless, most regard the EU as an economic union rather than as a community with shared values. This was the finding of Young Europe 2017, a study presented by the Tui Foundation. 6,000 people aged between 16 and 26 from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Poland and Greece were surveyed online: only 30 percent see the EU as an alliance of states with common cultural values. According to the study, millennials – that is to say young people born around the turn of the millennium – find it difficult to embrace the notion of transferring competences to the community of states. They would prefer to see greater responsibility in the hands of nation states.
Is this because the EU is poorly marketed, as is so often claimed? Or do we actually lack a concept of share values that we all wish to uphold? What makes you a European?