Jumping into the shining dark: the hope of European enlargement

Tibor Dessewffy
15 October 2002

The Odyssey of twelve post-Communist European states is nearing its end. Enlargement approaches. Thirteen years after the Berlin Wall fell, they are apparently on their way to joining the European Union (EU). In this courtship, conducted in an atmosphere of champagne corks and majestic speeches, luxurious ceremonies and glimmering smiles, it is time to look beneath the brilliant surface and consider what actually awaits us in the New Europe, after 2004.

Today, the admission of new members apparently enjoys near-unanimous support. Yet opponents of the expansion (or reunification as we like to say in eastern Europe) do exist. In fact, the process has produced two new Internationals: the extreme right-wing and nationalist organisations inside and outside the present EU – a sort of (Un)Holy Alliance of Isolationists; and the many groups resisting enlargement on (often quite legitimate) social and economic grounds.

The great majority of people in all these countries, including the hesitant Irish, side with the project. At the same time, the social significance of new admissions is very differently perceived on either side of the Union. For prospective members, the ‘aspiration to belong’ has long stood for the promise of winning the lottery: an unquestionable reference-point in public debate. In contrast, enlargement has no particular significance for the member countries, since it does no more than reinforce already existing duties. Probe this asymmetry, however, and you will uncover some intriguing parallels. Here I offer you two of them: a hidden resentment and a pervasive hypocrisy.

Half-full or half-empty?

‘Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I done to you that makes you treat me so disrespectfully?’ The well-known question in the opening scene of The Godfather is an exact expression of the frustrations in the kind of hidden resentment that I am talking about. Public opinion in the EU countries responds to the immodest demands of their ungrateful but needy relatives with incomprehension. How come they are so lacking in enthusiasm and good will? Why aren’t they satisfied with the rights and entitlements that we’ve already promised them?

On the other side, eastern and central European countries indignantly echo the sentiment. Why don’t we receive fair treatment from the more fortunate parts of Europe? Why aren’t we granted the historically-merited respect that is due to the last, and so often conquered, bastion? Can the human suffering of several generations be measured against petty mercantilism?

Two feelings or one? Consider the case of agricultural subsidies. A subsidy that starts at 25 per cent and reaches the normal level only after ten years is perceived by one party as a generous offer (being exactly 25 per cent more than nothing), and the other as an insulting act of discrimination which undermines competitiveness.

My second common element is pervasive hypocrisy. On both sides, sneaky intentions masquerade behind openly advocated ideas. In the east, the ideal of open borders pales before the prospect of unauthorised crossings across its new, further eastern, frontier. Electrified borders – hi-tech bulwarks of welfare xenophobia­ – in fact serve the unambiguous purpose of keeping outside a large group with an ever-changing composition: the barbarians.

In the west, the hypocrisy is even more striking. Comparative sociological studies have long revealed the paradox of the concentric distribution of European identity: the further from Brussels, the stronger the commitment to ‘Europe’ and the ‘European system of values’. Respondents from the countries that will accede in 2004 (Czechs and Poles) support reunification and ‘European identity’; in Romania (target date: 2007), people express passionate support, while in Bulgaria (2008), they even more passionately support the process.

That is to say, the desire to become united appears to increase with the distance in space and time (in fact, in social maturity) from the central states. It is important, however, to verify the true content of this mystical reunification. In eastern Europe it means, first and foremost, sharing in the material basis without adopting its implied rules and values. The issue of allowing foreigners to acquire landed property, rejected by almost 70 per cent of Hungarians, is one example. Yet these concerns, and all the various other worries, will be brushed under the carpet as soon as the process is over. Instead of presenting the EU with a new set of problems, reunification will only intensify the already existing ones.

Translation costs?

Today, most of the internal tensions relate to the problem of what it means to be European. What does European identity actually stand for, and what are its consequences? For the sake of objectivity, it must be admitted that the young Europe born from the Maastricht treaty of 1991 has not yet lived long enough to achieve a strong personal identification. Surely, however, some of the most important changes and results of reunification are easy to foresee. Twenty-seven nations will be obliged to cooperate; transparency in policy-making and procedure is bound to decrease.

Let me justify this prediction by referring you to the absence of a shared language. A shared language is central to the establishment of a common identity. But take the banal but real problem of the translation costs of documents circulating within the EU. These documents often adopt a particular format due to the traditional commitment to having the languages of all the member countries on the cover page – a practice that will have to go, unless we return to the use of papyrus rolls. The demand for a ‘single shared language’ certainly does not imply support for the decline of national languages. It simply recognises that only the adoption of a lingua franca will allow an uninhibited flow of communication among all Europeans.

Here, east–central European societies are at an extreme disadvantage; the knowledge of Western languages is statistically low, especially among those who attended school before 1990. Moreover, one indisputable fact currently impossible to admit will soon become obvious; despite considerable French resistance, English is the common language of the Union.

The same standard can be applied to the case of a shared identity; adopting a new European identity by no means requires anybody to give up their national history, traditions and dreams. Quite the contrary, for European identity depends for its constitution on three essential stages. Firstly, it precisely depends on an increased representation of long-established national and regional identities, formed by historical experiences and traditional values over several centuries. The second crucial component consists in the symbolic exchange among national and regional cultures within the EU – an interaction that leads to an enriched understanding of the self. Finally, beyond this mixture of experiences arising from frequent encounters, the third component marks the resulting emergence of a shared identity, the shared experience of being European.

If speaking one or more other languages does not threaten the use of the vernacular, why should the pan-European element of a new European identity be detrimental to national identities? It certainly is not; instead it functions as a supplementary force, enriching their impact. Against the nationalist objection that regards this type of argument as the expression of mere naïveté, I want to argue that the beauty of our native language is truly revealed only when we speak other languages as well. How could one appreciate its hidden characteristics and underlying structures if not through comparison?

The same is true for identities; the renewed and intensified national sentiments within the Trinity of a new European identity, in constant interaction with other cultural traditions and supplemented by a pan-European sense of belonging, have far greater potential than relying on the paradigm provided by cultural isolationists.

The Champions’ League

We still have a long way to go, of course, to achieve a rich cultural context for this new European identity. What we need is a great many projects radiating symbolic power, to stimulate the construction of shared interpretative frameworks and cultural content for the people of Europe.

With such an end in mind, it is necessary to recognise that the pan-European presentation and circulation of the products of high culture are in themselves insufficient. Ballet performances organised by the British Council or the poetry readings of young authors at Goethe Institutes all over Europe attract only an educated and open-minded audience that already possesses – to use Anthony Giddens’ term – ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’, or some comparable kind of consciousness.

Mass culture must have its due share in the construction of European identity. This will be an uphill struggle, since contemporary mass culture is controlled to a great extent by market mechanisms favouring the dominance – though not the hegemony – of those instances of the ‘American dream’, made in the US.

Nevertheless, it should be possible to start successful enterprises that exceed the boundaries of an elite culture even within the conditions of the market. A good example is the soccer Champions’ League, a regular entry in many calendars all over Europe – especially those kept in the pockets of male attires. The idea deserves attention, not only because the increasingly multi-national teams empower alliances over political borders instead of reinforcing nationalist sentiments. A Danish or a Czech player in a German team is cheered on from both sides of the frontier. But by strengthening local ties, the League is also instrumental in restructuring symbolic maps. This way we may learn that Copenhagen has closer emotional ties to Milan than Turin does, or that Barcelona happens to be much further from Madrid than from Amsterdam.

Yet in themselves, such pan-European media events and cross-border alliances, however fascinating, provide an inadequate basis for a new European identity, if only because the representational space determined by market values excludes the low-income states. The soccer analogy is especially relevant and painful here to a country such as Hungary, with the contrast between its great ‘golden team’ of the 1950s and its now decomposed football, condemned to a virtual non-existence.

The achievement of a meaningful solidarity to sustain a real European identity requires a lot of nerve, inventiveness and hard work. We must transform our frames of mind and give up the prejudices that arise from nationalist penis envy and prudishness.

Contemplating the nonsensical activities of several pan-European institutions, we might wonder why the EU has no public television channel broadcasting in English and national languages? Is there any effort to help the Internet content service of the EU transcend the ambition of presenting and legitimating bureaucracies? Has the task of digitalising the European cultural heritage, and making it widely accessible, been seriously undertaken by anybody? What have we actually done so far to infuse European identity with positive contents?

These questions will have to be answered in the future. Meanwhile, what we already know, despite all the trouble, is that the idea of the EU and its expansion is reasonable and deserves to be endorsed.

Defining the components of a shared European identity may be difficult. However, as soon as we find ourselves on the streets of Houston or Bombay, under the Chinese Great Wall or at an Australian beach, it takes one moment to recognise: yes, we are all irremediably European. All we have to do is to cling to this clear realisation in all the hurly-burly of everyday life.

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