Europe and me: imagining community
My name is Nikolay Nikolov. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Politics at University College London, blog for www.banitza.net and, as a journalist, am preoccupied right now with the protest movement in Bulgaria.
For the last six years when I have lived and studied in the United Kingdom, the focus of my studies has slowly progressed from political science towards social theory and philosophy. One of my core theoretical values is to negate linear histories, causality and predetermined paths of progress. Yet I see a clear pattern in my own biography: both my parents have taught at universities; they are politically outspoken, strictly anti-communist (and thus right-wing, in the eastern European, post-socialist sense of right wing). It is no wonder then that my own gaze would be turned towards the political.
When I came to the United Kingdom, I became fascinated by modern philosophy and the notion of Enlightenment. I wanted to understand how nations such as Poland, having been frozen in time during their totalitarian regimes, have managed to ‘return’ to history, to Europe, and reorient their national identity and their historical consciousness back to the core values of the unfinished project of modernity.
Essentially, the notion of European identity became my primary academic interest, and more specifically, how that applies and moulds itself in post-socialist societies. For Central European nations, questions of national identity must be directly linked to Europe vis-à-vis ‘The West’ as history and culture. It is a matter of civilization.
But this is not so for a country like Bulgaria, for example – and this distinction can be clearly recognized in the kind of protest movement that is forming there today.
The question in Bulgaria, despite 24 years of democratization, remains whether to look East or West for the normative foundations of the meaning of its democracy. Post-socialism and democratization, freedom and European integration seem hollowed out symbols of identification; national identity is almost non-existent and social atomization and public passivity are more than prevalent.
That is why I got involved in the protest movement – the direct link between my academic interests and an actual, real-time, opportunity for affecting change. The protests, beyond all else, are a force for societal consolidation and the signifier for a growing active community, which shares a normative outlook and a language. That force of social engagement was not present in Bulgaria in 1989 – something that differentiated it from its Central European neighbours. They rectify and reorient the progress of democracy.
The current political crisis in Bulgaria has also brought me closer to a strictly European identity. What I mean by that is – an identity centered on the values of democracy, solidarity, and integration. I believe in these, and associate with them on a personal, as well as on a political level.
As such, and to conclude, I would like to touch upon one terrain where I would like to see more action on a European level – the supranational expansion of political culture and civic solidarity.
After four years of economic and political crisis, the European Union is shrinking and becoming isolated. It is becoming a two-tier supranational institution: on the one hand, you have an increasing monopolization of the EU by political elites; on the other you have the growing indifference, and apathy of citizens with regards to decisions made by their parliaments in Brussels. False nationalism, fueled by economic crises, still seems to obscure the constellation of the vantage points of member states.
The answer is a learning process where the public spheres of nations open up to each other, foster dialogue, and build a common discourse. What is essential is to expand the individual citizens’ notion of the public beyond the imagined borders of a given nation, a long-term programme of educating people, bridging the gap between decisions made at a EU level and their everyday lives. This is a process of creating an ‘imagined community’ among all Europeans, and of fostering a transnational political culture.
I believe in Europe: a Roma perspective
By Csaba Olah
I am Csaba Olah, a first year master student in Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest. I grew up in North-East Hungary in a musical Roma family. I spent my childhood in my hometown. Although we were never rich, I had a happy childhood which I am always happy to remember. After finishing primary school I went to high school in my hometown. Since I was much more interested in humanities than in natural sciences, I did my undergraduate studies in Cultural Anthropology at Miskolc University.
During my undergraduate studies I became very interested in class issues, identity politics and in the social, economic and political status of the Roma in contemporary society. In my thesis, which I wrote on the identity of the Roma musician, I was focusing on how ethnic boundaries are constructed by this particular community. After my graduation I worked at the Gömör Museum for more than one year. During the summer of 2011, I became part of Hungary's biggest alternative school project where I was teaching primary school children coming from underprivileged, mostly Roma families.
In the 2011/2012 and the 2012/2013 Academic Years I was a student of CEU's Roma Access Programs. In the Roma English Language Program I studied English language, then in the Roma Graduate Preparation Program the English classes and the tutoring classes in Sociology, Social Anthropology and Nationalism Studies prepared me for my MA studies. I am very grateful for this opportunity not only because I studied from excellent teachers and I got accepted to CEU's Sociology and Social Anthropology master program but also because I could enrich my knowledge on the situation of Roma in other countries, often by learning from my classmates.
In my would-be master thesis I would like to investigate how state policies on national identity have been framing the political discourse on Roma and how these policies are influencing the path of so-called Roma integration.
I consider myself a Hungarian Roma, Hungary is my homeland. I feel strongly tied to both Hungarian and Roma cultures. At the same time I belong to a diverse community living almost all over the world, but mostly in the different countries of Europe and America.
I believe in Europe. Both nation states and the European Union have a key role in the emancipation of the Roma. Europe, the home of different nations, cultures and religions, has had a long and meandering history. In the course of the centuries, the boundaries, the values and the identity of its countries have been questioned from time to time. The different cultural values and ideologies often led to wars, which often completely reshaped the political boundaries.
The European Union is a good example of how peace can be achieved and maintained if there are common goals we can agree on and if all the citizens are treated equally, considering them all belonging to the political community of the European Union. I can imagine the future of the European Union both as the union of nation states or as a federal state. The considerable difference between the two and the resistence to the idea of a federal state by many, in my opinion, is to a great extent the result of the often very different understandings of what it means to be European.
Europe is anthropologically interesting, but lacks awareness
I am currently reading an MA in Black Sea Studies at the International Hellenic University in Greece, because I have always been fascinated by the Balkans and Eastern Europe. But more than my research, Greece’s very culture, history and language have offered me a complete life package in a culturally dynamic country.
Having studied Maltese and Mediterranean history at the University of Malta, new themes have become important for me, relating to identity, the Mediterranean, 20th century politics and International affairs. This has given me a new sense of obligation as a European citizen, to write on subjects that many of my fellow Europeans must feel are either unquestioned or else unanswered.
First of these is the highly debatable concept of European identity. It seems to me that identity is not something that can be established in constitutions, treaties, and laws. Being part of Europe, or a ‘citizen’ of it, must be part of one’s individual or collective consciousness. Countries currently in the EU were already European from way before. Greece did not become more European from 1981, Malta and Cyprus did not become more European in 2004.
The notion of being ‘European’ is clinched in one’s territorial belonging, social cohesion, language and culture. However, there is no fixed identity. The significant difference lies between an identity that changes because it is destroyed through cultural replacement, or else, one that changes through a cultural continuity. Identity is indeed a complex subject.
The European Union in its beginnings set out to secure peace and prosperity in a continent that was always torn apart by wars and conflicts. Europe is also the physical continent, the smallest continent on Earth, yet the most linguistically and culturally diverse. This is what makes Europe interesting anthropologically, with its discrepancies from region to region, dialects and customs. For example, I come from the tiniest and the southernmost territory of Europe: Malta. The Maltese language is mainly of old Semitic origin, written in Latin alphabet and has heavy grammatical influences from Italian and minor inputs from English.
There are issues which I sincerely believe must be tackled or tackled in a different way in the EU. I must confess that I am not a person who puts massive trust in institutions, believing instead that either political or social change must come from the people and not vice-versa.
So it follows that people through their individual abilities, should contribute to resolving issues collectively. There is one main problem in Europe in my opinion: lack of consciousness within Europeans. This is not a question that can be institutionalized and legislated for. Better education policies are key.
To genuinely understand the problems of economic recession, mass immigration, environmental destruction, an absurd political class, injustices and overall degradation, consciousness and awareness and a sense of belonging to a wider community must be restored to Europeans.
I would like to address these issues in my upcoming blogs in a contemporary European context for the preparation of the European Parliament elections this May.
I wish to see more Europe, a more participative Europe
Raised and educated in Belgium (12years), France (5years), and the United Kingdom (4years). I also spent time in Switzerland (6months), Austria (3months) and Italy (3months). I hold a French baccalaureate, a BA in International Relations and an MPhil in Politics from British universities. I have grown to know each culture well and have found integrating into a new European culture almost effortless.
Amid notable differences even across regions within European countries, similarities amongst Europeans abound. Our histories share key similarities, our present concerns are mutual, and our futures are likely to tie us together. The old dream of a united Europe was repeatedly pursued as much from reasons of shared interest as shared culture.
Europe's diversity and multiculturalism are an inspiration to many citizens of the world. But in today’s Europe, countries seem to be caving inwards due to internal and external societal and financial challenges. Instead of finding solutions in European institutions, politicians are increasingly using Europe and its workings as a scapegoat. In addition, Europeans are increasingly growing disenfranchised by a system in which they do not feel represented. While we remain attractive to outsiders – Europe is a club of advanced countries where the quality of life is high (human rights, security, welfare, research, technology, etc.) – Europeans seem to have fallen out of love with what our fathers built. Personally, I am located somewhere between Belgian European unconditional love and the French will to shape Europe more than to be shaped by it. I find myself at odds with current British repulsion for Europe.
The consequences of the American subprime mortgage crisis sparked a financial crisis in Europe, which gave way to a liquidity crisis in banks, forcing governments to spend massively to save banks and ensure the survival of the financial system. The problem is that most European states are now operating with heavy debt burdens that weigh on their people and will do so for an extended period.
Logically, we now need to work hard to have a future as a Union and this comes across as unfair to many. But we seem to have come to a standstill in European construction. The financial crisis has affected countless financial institutions and bankrupted states – it has eroded the old dream. Europe seems a burden when it should be a shield. The debt crisis currently affecting most European nations is set to remain an issue for much of my generation's active life (at least). Moreover, a number of MEPs represent anti-European parties who want to pull out of the Euro, see their country leave the Union, and reintroduce tariffs and protectionism.
But the solution to today's problems must be found in a more participative Europe. I wish to see more Europe, but more of a different Europe. States must abide by more stringent regulatory standards, which a more powerful European executive must be able to monitor. We need to slow down the legislative agenda, make decision-making more transparent in the institutions, and ask for more leadership from the executive.
In other words, the Europe I hope to see develop is one where member states do not surrender sovereignty but abide by rigorous standards in terms of finances (mainly) but also food, education, transport, immigration and border control. In addition, the progress of new members cannot be detrimental to that of more developed members: more discipline orchestrated by the EU leadership and mechanisms to monitor all members should pave the way to a peaceful and prosperous collective future. We should not let present concerns obscure past achievements.
Finally, I think the field of foreign policy should remain largely state specific. NATO remains an efficient military solution to collective defense. But we need an inspiring set of leaders to give impulse to what is too often perceived as an amorphous and expensive monolith that only complicates the opportunity of being European. I think we owe it to those who have given their lives for the chance for, as of now, twenty-eight countries to cooperate, live peacefully and prosper together. This reality is unheard of in time and space. Let's not forget it.
I want to know whether the political class in Brussels is any different from that in Westminster
By Joe Lo
My name's Joe Lo. I'm a 23-year old who's lived in London all my life apart from an enjoyable 3-year stint at University in the northern city of Sheffield. I live in a 3-bedroom flat with my girlfriend and three of her friends and I'm studying an intense year-long course in Journalism at Kingston University. My main interests are politics and football and I'm a Green Party voter and a Chelsea FC fan.
To the European Union I feel ambivalent. I'm not a Eurosceptic but neither am I a Europhile. A question that's often asked in Britain is "who runs Britain? Brussels or Westminster?". This is a rhetorical question. It's taken for granted that you'd much rather be ruled from Westminster (the area of London where the British parliament is based) than Brussels (where the European parliament is based). For me, the question seems less relevant. The important question is what sort of people are running our lives? In whose interests? At whose expense? Not where exactly they are located geographically.
So what I want to know is whether the political class in Brussels is any different from that in Westminster and over whom do ordinary people have more control. I think they are very similar. They're both mainly made up of rich, white men and bend to the wishes of big corporations not the ordinary people who vote for them. The proposed referendum on our membership of the EU is a meaningless distraction from the real issues that affect British people like unemployment, the cost of living and inequality.
I think many of my friends feel the same as I can not remember ever discussing the EU although I discuss politics regularly. I think this is because my friends are young and live in the multicultural metropolis of London. The people who are obsessed with the EU are generally older and live in less internationalized areas. Perhaps they have never visited Europe. For my generation, living in the EU is a fact of life. We don't consciously think about it but leaving it seems a bit weird, a bit drastic. Like leaving Facebook. You could do but why would you? Everyone else is on it.
This doesn't mean we feel "European" though. I would describe myself first and foremost as a Londoner. Secondly as British or English and only European as an afterthought. Only 14% of British people in a recent survey described themselves as European compared to 48% of Poles, 39% of Germans and 34% of French people. When we go on holiday across the channel we describe ourselves as "going to Europe". I have an Austrian friend who finds this irritating. "You are in Europe", she says, "What are you talking about? You are just going to another part of Europe".
I think there are three reasons why we feel like we are not European. The first is geographical, we have to cross the sea to "get to Europe". Prices for the ferry, Eurostar train and the Channel tunnel are expensive so this is a real barrier. Unlike most of Europe we can't just drive across borders. We have to bring passports and book in advance.
The second is linguistic. There are many non-European countries that share our language. This is not unique. Much of the world speak Spanish, French and Portugese but those countries are largely former colonies that have a very different standard of living and culture to their colonisers. Whereas English-speaking former colonies include wealthy, culturally similar ones such as America, Canada and Australia. A recent poll showed that we see these countries as our strongest allies, with France only in fourth. The talk of a "Special Relationship" between America and Britain is much mocked, both seriously after the unpopular Iraq War and humorously in the romantic comedy Love Actually, but it seems we do still cling on to the idea.
The third is historical. While most of Europe was invaded by Hitler or the Soviet Union (or both) during World War Two, the British mainland was not invaded. Although we love to talk about the Second World War, as it was the one time in history we were "the good guys", we escaped from it relatively unscathed and so the idea of European Unity is not seen as of such vital necessity.
Hello! Let us introduce ourselves: Adrià from Barcelona and Lotta from Tampere, living in Madrid. We met for the first time over skype in June 2013, but then we realised we already knew each other from the online organising ofAgora99, a meeting of groups engaged in various social struggles that aspires to serve as an organisational tool from below at a European level.
Since then we have met several times for political reasons in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, and are sure to meet many more times throughout the continent. We both participate in the post-15M struggles, mainly within the nodes of theFundación de los Comunes network. We both also work on political videomaking – (these are our latest projects: Project Kairos and Movement of the Multitude). Between now and the European elections, we will be posting on several topics: battlefield Europe, emerging political conflicts and the challenges posed by the hypothesis of a demos-multitude of the 99%. To kick off, this is our story….
Starters. A story of confluences
Master scene: Titanpad. Two young Europeans writing from different vantage points in Battlefield Europe.
Subscene 1. A skype call Helsinki–Barcelona
A: Do you remember our first skype? When was it?
L: It was in June 2013. I was in Finland and I wanted to participate somehow in the #15MP2P seminar in Barcelona, so I started translating tweets coming out of the event. When you outlined the Project Kairós I wrote to you right away because it was exactly the same thing I'd been doing the previous summer. We had drifted through the post-Arab Spring-Europe, the post-15M-Europe mapping its social movements. We called the collection the Movement of the Multitudeand put it up on Youtube.
A: I remember... I remember your email explaining that to me. Then we realised that we already knew each other from the process of organising the Agora99 meeting. We arranged to skype: it was weird, like talking with an old friend that you don't know yet. An internet era phenomenon...
L: Exactly, a matter of being already connected through processes of thinking together without knowing each other personally. I believe we are not the only ones...
Subscene 2. The Barcelona encounter
L: Sure, talking about a metropolitan strike in the occupied hotel La Dispersa. I was starting a piece of work on the anti-eviction movement La PAH and you offered to help me. The interviews we shot were a clear example of how guilt and shame can make us think our problems are individual, so that we stay at home and nothing changes. Or it changes for the worse: "Don't stay at home, or they will take it away from you."
A: I would say La PAH is the most important political movement in Spain – or even in Europe. It has been able to build up a solid and distributed process of self organisation with more than 200 nodes all around the country. Do you remember that we went to the Obras Sociales, the housing blocks occupied by La PAH? That's one of the things they do, besides fighting to stop evictions, and claiming a retroactive datio in solutum and the provision of social housing.
Subscene 3. All paths really do lead to Rome
A: Then we met in Rome for the second Agora99 meeting. For me, it has been the most important gathering of European struggles ever.
L: Within Agora99 the central challenge concerned a Europe that isn't any moreand isn't yet. EU: real democracy and social rights? That's not how I would portray it. I think a strong neoliberal regime of debt control is a more precise description. So now we're trying to invent new ways of relating ourselves to each other on a continental level. I mean, what are the social and political institutions we want to have in the future?
A: That's definitely not an easy question to answer. The role of the nation states in restraining the transnationalization of subjectivity and conflict is a big problem, but not the only one. Networks such as Agora99 are fundamental for confronting it, because the European space is fundamental too.
L: That brings to mind one motto of the 15M: "There are more things that unite us than ones that separate us". I think that's also the case in Europe.
Subscene 4. Hacking the European elections
A: The next time we met was in the plenary meeting of the Fundación de los Comunes in Madrid. In that plenary there wasn't much time to be frank for discussing the European issue, but I think that the New Abduction of Europemeeting in February will be a great opportunity to advance these debates further. Will you be in Madrid for that meeting?
L: For sure, I wouldn't miss it for anything.
A: In that case, see you there, very soon!
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