The question as to whether Europe is changing can be quickly answered. Yes, Europe is as a matter of fact persistently changing. For the very simple reason that Europe, after all, is nothing but an imagination – a part of what Edward Said once called “imaginative geography”. The conflicts surrounding the construction of the European Union and the rising question as to which nation-states really belong to Europe are symptomatic here. Europe is not only a powerful idea but also a picture in constant transformation and blurred around the edges. Interestingly, debates on the expansion of the EU are seconded by serious exit debates: Grexit and Brexit, for example. Although none of the states have taken this step, at least not yet, some conservative pundits seem to suggest that belonging to the EU challenges the integrity of a singular nation-state.
Nowadays, it is very common to see not only the right wing, but also liberals and the left, ventilate their indignation against the EU. Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party in Hungary, who celebrated a landslide victory in that country’s last elections were not only able to play on resentment towards the left, they also efficiently made use of an anti-EU discourse which characterises the latter as a western evil which threatens sovereignty, the nation andHungarian culture’s core values. This is by far not a phenomenon limited to the East. In France we are confronted with Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale and in Germany with the AfD (Alternative for Germany), both strong political forces which stand for severe anti-left and simultaneous anti-EU positions.
Of course, it is also the enormous loss of trust in left wing politics that enabled the rise of these parties, which for a long time were rather marginalised on the political scene. Concurrently, left wing parties accuse the EU of being coercive and the enemy of “the people”. In Spain, the new party Podemos won several municipal elections targeting the corruption of the state and public servants, but also the EU as a violent and coercive institution. Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias are the voice of an important group of highly educated young people who are still searching for an alternative.
Hence, the genuine and simultaneously uncanny question is: in which direction is Europe going? Uncanny questions are questions that trouble us; queries we do not want to confront as we fear the possible answers. These queries are unsettling and betray the fragile reconciliation we have made with a disturbing past. In light of the violence that is unfolding before our eyes, it seems to me that to radically challenge Europe as the source of the Enlightenment, progress and democracy is a fairly good idea. As we all know, violence is an essential part in the making of Europe. Colonialism and Nazi terror may serve here as evidence that the ideals of the Enlightenment have always been corrupted.
The so-called refugee crisis again defies Europe’s claim to be a fountain of humanism. Not only Hungary and Poland are to blame for their anti-refugee response, even Germany is not really a worthwhile aspirant for the Nobel Peace Prize. After the first wave of solidarity subsided, not only did the number of attacks targeting refugees skyrocket, but also the internal political debate on migration became ugly and distasteful. Merkel and her party, the CDU, began undoing laws that served to protect people who for good reasons are fleeing: Germany re-committed to the Dublin-III treaty, secured its borders in a martial manner, suspended the Schengen Agreement, make family reunions illegal if asylum is not granted (which can take years) and are planning to deport thousands of refugees who are said to be “economic refugees”. Last but not least, Germany made a shady deal with Turkey – a state which is unleashing incredible violence against their own minority populations and are ready to stop the refugees who head towards Europe if Europe does not intervene in what the governing AKP party – Justice and Development– says are internal affairs, such as the bombing of the Kurdish population.
Simultaneously, the European mainstream media likes to describe the refugees as a flood that destabilises the European community. To me it seems the contrary. The arrival of so many people from outside Europe can be a real opportunity for the region. After all, we have to re-evaluate Europe as a peace project and are forced to rethink the very fundamentals of this powerful idea. The outcome of such an enterprise could be a new debate on European values. As we know, values are persistently invented and re-invented; they are bound to the history of an imagined community and function like a lute. If the European house shall not collapse, as some intellectuals are already predicting, we have to re-calibrate the crisis as an opportunity and re-configure the construction of Europe. The refugees coming from war zones outside Europe confront us with our violent past and violent present.
Undeniably, in countries like Germany, Austria and Spain, civil society has been awakened. The right and left are fighting for significance and a meaningful position in the struggle for political acknowledgement. The outcome remains open. But the unfolding dynamics are not only a motif for a new angst, but also a new hope. And I would not mind if Europe becomes meaningless in the long run, as long as a new solidarity surfaces that is indeed able to invent new forms of collectivities that do not end at the borders of nation-states.
María do Mar Castro Varela, is a political scientist at Alice Salomon University in Berlin and a fellow at the Institute for Human Science in Vienna.