What it is worth to us

Graphic: Bernd Struckmeyer

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 will join 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 is postage-free – and 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 is chairing the debate.

Geraldine de Bastion Photo (detail): Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Geraldine de Bastion: This year, in which Germany is holding its general elections, will also mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundation stone for the EU. And if you look closely, the European Union certainly feels well within reach in Germany: in my side street, a small sign with a blue flag and stars hangs beneath the street sign: my local neighbourhood has been improved by the EU. My life has too – after all, the objectives of the six states that originally signed the Treaty of Rome have been achieved for many people, at least for those from my country and my social class: peace and prosperity have been promoted.

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? 
Screcko Horvat Photo: Oliver Abraham Katja Kullmann: I still believe Europe to be the best place in the world. I am aware of the position from which I am saying this: as a Western European and a citizen of the country that profits most from the EU –  a citizen of Germany, the region’s top dog.
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.
Katja Kullmann Foto: Nane Diehl Srećko Horvat: Since we have the German elections just in front of us, I think your view of the situation brings us directly into the core problem of EU today. Just make a thought experiment and imagine a local neighborhood in Spain or Greece, Romania or Croatia, with a blue flag and stars hanging beneath the street sign. Unfortunately, for the periphery of the EU this flag doesn’t represent peace and prosperity anymore. Quite on the contrary, the first association for most of EU’s periphery population is austerity measures and instability, extraction of value and resources from the periphery to the core of EU. 

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.