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Is Europe colonising itself? A review of "Europe’s Forbidden Colony"

Srecko Horvat's documentary is more than a peripatetic jaunt through Europe, but a film that encourages us to think critically about the many problems Europe faces and which way the continent may be heading.

Srecko Horvat at the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni. Banyak films. Some rights reserved.

Is Europe colonising itself? That’s the question posed by nomadic Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat in this two-part documentary on Al Jazeera. On a journey that takes in the streets of Athens, the valleys of South Wales, the vast forests of Romania and the (literal) corridors of power in Brussels, Horvat encounters flashpoints of conflict and resistance that all seem to be signalling towards something much bigger.

He starts in Idomeni, a sleepy village on the Greek-Macedonian border that became an unwitting symbol of the refugee crisis and Europe’s response to it. We hear from some refugees who were forcibly moved on from Idomeni where, in a very literal expression of Mario Savio’s "throw your bodies onto the gear and levers", they encamped on the train tracks, preventing the movement of goods from the Aegean sea to the heart of Europe. Did they expose a contradiction in Europe where free movement is fetishized for goods but not people? These are the questions we are invited to think about.

Why has Horvat made this documentary? Unlike conventional travelogues, Horvat wants to educate us as to both the conflicts and forms of resistance taking place across the continent and he, and the people he meets, make a strong attempt to engage with the underlying problems in Europe from a historical and dialectical perspective.

G.M. Tamás is one such fellow traveller. Like many Hungarians living under communism, he admits to being an initial supporter of free markets as a liberating and augmentative force in eastern Europe. But as he explains, the neoliberalism imposed on eastern Europe by the west was like "colonialism without the responsibility, maximising profits, leaving behind the poor and without any strategy or moral compass."

This is examined further by David Hall, Professor of Business at the University of Greenwich, who says the drive since the 1990s to privatise utilities, and the conditions imposed on Greece since the financial crash, are similar to nineteenth century colonisation where northern European countries used sovereign debt to control the economies of Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire.

"The Committee of Ottoman Debt was set up," says Professor Hall, "and had control of the revenues of the Ottoman Empire. And one of the first things they did to create revenues was to create concessions for British, French and German companies in rail, water and energy. Absolutely, in historical terms it is an echo of old-style colonialism."

Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen, who is interviewed about the disingenuous language of neoliberalism. Banyak films. Some rights reserved.

At Brussels, Horvat listens to one of Nigel Farage’s characteristically iconoclastic speeches where he chides Europe for undermining democracy and turning Greece into little more than a debt colony. "You know, I have to agree with him," mulls Horvat, "What he’s saying in this case is true."

In Hungary too, Horvat speaks with Gabor Vona, the leader of Jobbik, a Hungarian political party that melds old-school socialist economics with rampant xenophobia and Christian patriotism. It’s a mixture that is paying dividends across Europe, as the promises of neoliberalism fail to come true, and the EU seems unable to offer an alternative.

It’s one way Europe might go, argues Horvat. The other is found among the remarkable successes of municipal movements such as Barcelona en Comú, who are testing the theory that changing policy on a city level can "trickle up" to the national and transnational level. He also meets Wiebke Hansen, a German environmental activist, who launched a successful campaign to return Hamburg’s energy grid to public ownership after it was privatised and sold off to a foreign company.

The resistance is also taking more surprising forms, such as a centre-right mayor in the east German town of Friedland. Like other towns in the former GDR, Friedland’s young and qualified citizens are leaving in their droves.

In a wonderful symphony of humanity and pragmatism, the mayor tells us how he is desperate to keep refugees in Friedland and ingratiate them into the local community as a way of fighting against the slow demographic death of his town. In one amusing scene, the city council rue how one refugee Syrian doctor has been lured from the detention centre in Friedland to a job at a hospital in Berlin. "We should have employed him while we had the chance," laments the mayor.

Horvat is not an eternal optimistic, and inferences to the EU’s inevitable disintegration loom large. There are also questions as to whether the increasing bureaucratisation of power, through the Eurogroup, European Commission and ECB can really be challenged let alone reversed.

But as a historical montage of where we are and how we got there, and a collage of the different forms of resistance that offer shoots of hope across a dark continent, this is an accomplished documentary. As Max Horkheimer famously said, "I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance."

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Episode 1 was broadcast on Al Jazeera on 19 February 2017, and can be watched online here.

Episode 2 was broadcast on Al Jazeera on 26 February 2017, and can be watched online here.

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