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Still Looking at the Stars

April 18, 2012 - Annabelle Chapman - Books and Reviews

Cover photo_Europe an unfinished project.JPG

Cover photo_Europe an unfinished project.JPG

Europe: An Unfinished Project
Edited by: Michał Bardel and Grzegorz Jankowicz
Published by: Fundacja Tygodnika Powszechnego
Kraków 2011

You are sitting outside in the Central European sunshine. Over black coffee, your erudite companion – a writer, a historian, perhaps – is sharing his thoughts. Around you, crisis: rising unemployment statistics, endless political negotiations, a lack of purpose. But you relax for a moment and listen to what he has to say.

This is the tone of Europe: An Unfinished Project, which brings together contributions from nine European intellectuals. In the form of loose interviews, they explore the concrete challenges facing European states today, as well as more "existential" questions about the nature of Europe.

The selection of authors is definitively Central European. The introduction by Zygmunt Bauman, the eminent Polish sociologist, considers Europe’s search for a “mission” and how its diversity is an asset, rather than an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Timothy Garton Ash, who famously reported the 1989 revolutions, adds his historian’s insights to this theme of diversity, while also noting that “we have no theatre in European politics” (this metaphor recurs in his obituary of his friend Václav Havel). In the next chapter, Austrian writer Martin Pollack travels into the dark corners of Galicia, full of myths and abandoned objects. Rucco Buttiglione, an Italian politician, is concerned about Europe’s secularisation, which he links to its decline (this is the only explicitly Christian chapter).

György Spiró, a Hungarian writer, calls for a reassessment of capitalism from a social (and not merely economic) angle, and points out the continued value of Europe’s mystical tradition. Young Swiss writer Lukas Bärfus looks farther afield, at Europe’s failed efforts to project itself overseas, in Rwanda. Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić links the ancient myth of Europa – who was abducted by the Greek god Zeus – to the situation of women today, adding a feminist perspective to the volume. Hans Rosling, a Swedish medical doctor, looks at European society through the demographer’s pessimistic lens. Finally, Hans-Gert Pöttering, who was President of the European Parliament in 2007-2009, recasts the crisis as an opportunity for Europe.

Turning to the title, “unfinished” initially conjures up negative associations. Politically, the EU remains far from the nation-state paradigm that has haunted it since the 1950s. Recent parallels to the expiring USSR have filled some with horror and others with glee. But this sensationalism is unhelpful. History (not least that of the European project) is punctuated by crises. Spiró even suggests that “crisis” is an integral part of European thought – picture the angst-ridden Viennese Kaffeehaus. In the conclusion, Polish literary critic Tadeusz Sławek argues that, paradoxically, today’s crisis stems from “the conviction that ‘Europe’ is a finished and ready project”. Turning the problem on its head, he makes “unfinished” a positive adjective, overflowing with potential.

References to Eastern Europe are threaded throughout the volume (this owes a lot to the Polish editors). The EU’s geography has an “unfinished” element too, with the ambiguities surrounding its future limits. The new eastern border has generated not only practical challenges, but also patterns of inclusion and exclusion (for example, Russia as Europe’s “Other”). Each chapter somehow links the region to the book’s wider themes. What is missing is a contribution from beyond the EU’s eastern border, such as Ukrainian scholar Mykola Ryabchuk or outspoken writer Yuriy Andrukhovych.

This slim volume is a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about “Europe”, rekindled by the economic (and some would say ontological) crisis. The liberal Catholic stance of its publisher, Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, merely gives the volume a philosophical edge. Refreshingly, the authors are aware of the EU’s flaws, and even of their own somewhat Eurocentric perspective. But each of them is eager to contribute to the debate, and to open it up to readers. As Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Annabelle Chapman is a postgraduate student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University.


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