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Opinion » Arts in Conflict


Rene Cuperus; Back to the European Community. A reply to John Gray

The European Union needs a strong dose of John Gray philosophy.  The European Project as it has developed over the years needs a strong antidote against hybris. An antidote against imperial overstretch. An antidote against Technocratic Materialism and the Brussels One Size Fits All-tyranny. And a Gray-ish antidote against naïf and dangerous anti-historical utopian thinking.

John Gray’s thoughts (and work) stand for a realistic common sense-filter. For Modesty. Self- constraint. And Self-criticism. That’s what the European Project utterly needs, will it ever be able to reconnect to the hearts and minds of the majority of the European people.
Therefore, I think, it was a marvellous idea to invite John Gray to this event. To this Treaty of Utrecht/ House of Eutopia debate. And therefore it is my great honour and pleasure to act as discussant to John Gray this evening. I do agree with a lot he so eloquently put forward in his lecture.


photo: House of Eutopia, by Anna van Kooij

I just had a guided tour in the House of Eutopia of Filip Berte.
Impressive. Confrontational. Disturbing.
What to say about it?
I fully agree with the stress the artist put on the scars of Europe’s history. The European Civil War between 1914 and 1945, the near-suicide of European civilisation by Verdun and the totalitarian nightmares of the Holocaust and the Gulag. The Mass graves that lay underneath the European Story. The Collective Memory Mass Graves, as Filip Berte calls them.
So, no misunderstanding. History forced us to become Europeans, to be Europeans. The historical legacy of Europe in the 20th century should lead to intensive forms of cooperation, cross-border coordination between European nation-states, to overcome national superiority thinking, ethnic definitions of national identity or cultural hostility.
History transformed us, Dutchmen, French, English, Swedes, Poles into Europeans. The Bloody European Civil war, the Communist and Nazi occupation, have made Europe into a ‘’language community’’. The common language being about war and oppression, persecution and lack of freedom. Being European means that one feels obliged to do everything possible never to let European peoples get into violent conflict, or under occupation, again.

That’s fair enough. Europeans we should be and have to be.
But .. to a certain extent. To certain limits. Defined by the radius of action of democracy, solidarity, shared values and cultural understanding.
Is Eutopia, the European Dream of Unity, the right and only answer to that? That remains the big question.
Therefore, I was less enthusiastic about the concept: House of Eutopia. Is this meant to be ironical by Filip Berte? Is it cynical? Or is it a reclaim of idealism in the middle of a Great Sobering Up of European enthusiasm?
That’s not so clear. To be honest, I had a certain prejudice against the artist and his Eutopian House, when I understood that he is a Belgian artist.
Belgium, as a matter of fact, has become an oasis of Europhilia in a desert of growing Euroscepticism. It is the last 100% pro-European country within the EU (together with Germany, another exception to the rule). Even populists in Flanders are pro-EU! Belgium is a troublesome country on its own, divided without a common national identity. For Belgium, the European Union is a substitute umbrella nation. A bit the same as the post-war Germans see Europe as their Ersatz Nation, substitute nation: not a German Europe, but a European Germany.
For countries, like the Netherlands, which are less traumatised by their national identity, the EU more and more becomes a threat to the national idea of self-determination, a threat to national democracy.
Especially in these days of the eurocrisis.
Let’s say a few words about the actual predicament of the eurocrisis.
Right now, Europe is facing a problematic timing problem. Just at the moment that public support for the EU and the euro is at unprecedented dramatically low levels, European political leaders consider a ‘’Federal Leap’’ unavoidable for rescuing the Monetary Union at all costs, that is to say: they develop new steps towards European integration and centralisation. They build a full Political Union.
This causes a risky situation, because for the first time, the ’output legitimacy’ (Fritz Scharpf) of the European Union is seriously questioned. Before, the EU guaranteed, more or less, prosperity, economic growth and jobs. People never liked EU-politics. Far from our bed. Meta-politics for policymakers and politicians only. Far too complex and boring to get involved in. But people in general had a positive pro-European mindset and tolerated the outcomes of Brussels Technocracy.
But now, due to the eurocrisis, the EU no longer guarantees prosperity and jobs, but instead produces mass youth unemployment, rescue packages for banks and hostility between European partners, between the North and the South. Because of bail-out transfers and the shadow side effects of labour migration.
And just at that moment ‘’the input legitimacy’’ of the EU is further damaged by new ‘federal’ plans, undermining national parliamentary democracy, at a very risky moment in time. This is what I call fatal timing.
This new ‘European overstretch’ (after Big Bang Enlargement and the adventure of an ill-designed EMU) will put the already existing shortcut between the European ’Elite-Project’ and electoral majorities in the member states under enormous pressure. Risking a pan-European Populist Revolt against the EU.
For that reason, the big worry should be, the planned attack on the European Project by the radical right-wing-populists. Bad news is coming from the party political front. The right-wing populist and extreme-right parties recently formed an alliance for the 2014 European Elections. The Dutch PVV of Geert Wilders, Front National of Marine Le Pen, the Strache party in Austria, and the ‘’Vlaams Belang’’-party of Filip Dewinter made an agreement for mutual assistance and common campaigning for the European Elections.
It is clear that the right-wing populist movement in Europe will try to exploit the mood of Europe-blues – disillusionment with the European Project – of the European electorate to the max.
If we look at international opinion polls, an electoral bloodbath indeed may take place. According to a recent Pew Research report, ’The New Sick Man of Europe is the European Union’, a disastrous breakdown of support for European Union occurred since the outbreak of the eurocrisis. The average support for the European Union diminished from 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. Less than a third of all Europeans think their economy benefited from European integration. Disastrous figures. They suggest huge electoral successes for the anti-European parties at the forthcoming European elections.

What’s worse is that mainstream politics does not seem to have developed yet a new positive story about Europe. Or it must be this story, tweeted on Twitter some weeks ago by Martin Schulz, the acting President of the European Parliament. He tweeted this: ’US have one currency, one Central Bank and one Govt. Europe has one currency, one Central Bank and…17 govts! Cannot go on like this’.
Martin Schulz, who for sure will become the candidate for the European Social Democrats to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso for becoming President of the European Commission plays a risky game here.
For me, this Martin Schulz tweet stands for: the European Technocracy trying to enforce European unity on a unwilling European population. Calling down a frontal attack on the European Project by populist parties.
It is very bad news when only the right-wing extremist parties exploit the doubts, fears and worries of people about the European Union, while the mainstream parties put the European Project in fast forward mode to rescue the euro to all costs.
This is asking for big trouble.

What makes things worse, is that doubts and criticism are unequally distributed:

EU-support is unequally distributed: highly educated (‘’the modernisation winners’’) support the European integration; the non-academic professional lower educated (‘’modernisation losers’’), seem not wholeheartedly to support the European Project.
The pan-European Revolt of Populism reflects this increasing polarisation between ‘cosmopolitan’ higher educated academic professionals and ‘national-communitarian’ lower educated people. Between those who feel interconnected to the new world of globalisation, Europe, the knowledge-based economy and those who feel threatened by this new world.
As a matter of fact, we encounter new forms of euroscepticism within the young network generation, those who believe in and practice the ‘’Do it yourself-society’’. They are pro-Europe, cosmopolitan, but hate the hierarchical, non-democratic power structures of the new European empire.
An over-all cause for discontent is the fact, that there seems to be no brake and no limit to the European Project: permanent Enlargement, permanent deepening. Out of any grip and control by national democracy. Resulting in the existential democratic situation of ‘’No taxation and penetration without representation’’.

The core questions to be asked are:

Will the new European building – the Tower of Babel which our political leaders at home and in Brussels are erecting at the moment – be tenable in the long run, historically, politically and sociologically? That is going to be a close race. Will ’elite project’ Europe be able to win the hearts and minds of the non-elites, or will it, instead, intensify and magnify the pan-European crisis of populism? Threatens the EU to transform itself from an anti-nationalistic project into an anti-democratic project, substituting democracy for technocratic expert-rule? Will a German-style fiscal union strengthen mutual European solidarity, or will it as a sorcerer’s apprentice unleash the very nationalism which Europe was designed for to overcome in the first place? These are core questions to be asked in 2013 and after.

At this moment, the EU is at an existential crossroads.
The coming year, I fear, there will be a harsh black and white polarisation about Europe.
You are either 100% pro-EU, or you are 100% anti-EU. Friend or foe.
In that case, there will be no place for a moderate story about Europa, making connection to the large majority of the European population, which is nor fanatically nationalistic is, nor fanatically ‘europistic’.


This is very problematic, because I think the whole contemporary negative development of the European Project goes far deeper.

I think John Gray is right in another dimension. He is well known for criticizing faith in progress, and especially the scientific-humanistic management of progress.

As I understand his writings well, according to John Gray there is no natural human progress. There is obviously progress in science, in technology, in knowledge.
But there is no progress in ethics, in politics, in morals, let alone behaviour.

I am afraid that exactly this is what we are witnessing today: the end of political progress. The end of democratic progress. In political science, we already talk about a new process, the process of de-democratisation.

Everywhere, we see a retreat from post-war liberal democracy, and the rise of authoritarian modes or styles of politics. Think about Putin in Russia. Orban in Hungary. All macho-political leaders in The Balkans. Berlusconi.

We witness the rise of the Authoritarian style of politics, disguised by democratic elections, bringing into power corrupt oligarchies, a mix of politics, business and organised crime.
The late Ralf Dahrendorf, the German-British political thinker, warned that the 21 century could become the Authoritarian Century, and he may be right.

Everywhere we see an erosion of traditional party democracy and representative democracy. We encounter ‘’Democracy in Retreat, the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government’. More and more, the EU is surrounded by fake-democracies: authoritarian regimes.

My great fear is that the EU is not the exception to that process of authoritarian de-democratisation, but that the EU itself, being a hybrid Superstate and Supermarket at the same time, managed beyond the borders of political democracy, is a symbol of that: technocratic authoritarianism at the expense of national democracy.
I come to the end of my presentation.

Last week, I had a visit from a Japanese professor from Kyoto University. He came to interview me about the situation in the Netherlands and Europe, for his international comparative research program.
We had a nice conversation. At one moment, by way of joke, we discussed the option of an ever closer Asian Union. That Japan, Korea, the Philippines and China would become one big common nation state. That the Japanese middleclass has to pay tax for poor Philipinnos. You had to see his shock reaction to that idea. Suddenly, he realised how ambitious, how utopian the European Project in the end is.

By history, we are forced to be Europeans. But to a certain extent. To a common sensical extent.
Becoming European can never mean the laconic self-abolition of the nation state, of nation identity. Unless you want to get rid of democracy and the solidaristic welfare states, which can only operate on smaller scale then in the European Empire of 500 million people.

The EU, which in the words of John Gray, is a ‘failed utopian project’’ is at the moment in serious troubles, and in urgent need of reform and reset.

My final reflection.

The great misconception is to think that Europe equals Brussels. Europe does not equal Brussels. Instead, Europe = Barcelona, Stockholm, Riga, Bratislava, Utrecht. Not the complex labyrinth, the ‘’corridors of power’’ of Brussels only. That’s a very artificial way of looking at Europe. A-culturally, a-politically.

The second misconception is to think that ‘’an ever closer Union’’, a more uniform EU, equals Eutopia. That in itself is a dangerous Utopia of Exclusion. All those who do not support the idea of a Unified EU, or do not fit in, or criticize it, are excluded or demonised for being anti-Europeans, nationalists, extremists. Friend or foe. For or against. That way of thinking presents a ticket for disaster.
What we need, in the end, is a more Modest Union. Back to the European Community! For that the antidote of John Gray’s philosophy is indispensable.

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John Gray: Europe and dystopia

Filip Berte’s work on the condition of Europe today poses some challenging questions—not only about Europe but also regarding the nature of utopia. In its etymological root, utopia signifies “nowhere”—a place that does not exist. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas was a country off the map; many utopias have been situated in the irrecoverable past (Plato) or an indefinite future. Dystopias, on the other hand, seem to be necessarily situated in particular places. This is so even if the place is imaginary (Orwell’s 1984). Berte goes further and explores dystopia as the contemporary European condition. His dystopia is situated not in the past or future but the present.

Berte’s work raises some fundamental questions. If Europe presents a dystopian landscape, is this because the European project has been compromised and abandoned? Or is the dystopian reality a result of the attempt to realise that very project? Is Europe what it is today not so much because of its past but as a result of an attempt to flee that past and inhabit an impossible future? Is the current European dystopia no more than the detritus left by another failed utopia?

Gray - Cuperus

The rooms of the House of Eutopia form a kind of psycho-geographical map of the European landscape, covering Protected Landscape, memorial rooms, a graveyard/garden, a room representing the official European self-image and an attic which points to the European future. Many will think that the deceptive official European self-image expresses a simple denial of painful facts that contradict the European ideal. But what if the evolution of that ideal has led to some of these facts? There is nothing new in xenophobia or the politics of exclusion. They featured prominently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Celebrated for its high civilization, fin-de-siecle was governed by a virulently anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, who was five times mayor of the city. Yet the xenophobic passions shape politics in most European countries run against a narrative of progress towards cosmopolitanism that was virtually unquestioned until only a few years ago. What accounts for this ugly development?
The post-war European project was launched to prevent anything like the atrocities of the interwar period (which include the persecution of Jews, Roma, gay people and others after the Nazis came to power) and the supreme crime of the Holocaust. For much of the post-war period the EU achieved its aims. Its greatest achievement was in enabling people of plural identities to live in peace without being demonised and attacked.
The limits of the European project began to emerge after the collapse of communism and the reunification of the continent. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was halted not by the EU but by American power. Incapable of dealing with a recurrence of its past, the EU set itself on a course of expansion. The goal appears to have been a supra-national state democracy without internal borders in which the persecution of minorities could not happen again. But in responding to its limitations in this way the EU became hubristic. Aside from a few relics of monarchy and empire (Spain, Canada, the UK), no contemporary democracy is genuinely multi-national. Even when it is supposedly civic in its values, I am no great fan of the nation-state. The fact remains that it is the effective upper limit of democracy. The US become a modern nation-state only after a devastating civil war. In trying to build a supranational democracy, the EU was launching a strictly utopian project—one that could be known in advance to be unrealisable. Structural flaws in the design of the aggravated the problems of the unworkable institutions that emerged. But the basic flaw of the euro is that it is a currency without a government or a state, let alone anything resembling a democratic polity. There is much idle talk about remedying the democratic deficit of European institutions. But the true task of politics is not pursuing the figment of cosmopolitan democracy. It is preserving and extending civilized values, which includes respect for cultural and other minorities. As we have seen from the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece and similar parties in other countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis, modus vivendi is a highly fragile practice in Europe today. It is not made less fragile by pressing on blindly with the project of constructing a European post-national state.

Europe is hardly alone in suffering from the downdraft of the financial crisis, but many of the evils of exclusion that Berte portrays have been exacerbated by the rigid structures set up to frame an impossible future. Even in Depression America, two thirds of young people were not shut out from productive employment for years on end as they are now in several European countries. Any idea that Europe embodies a version of social market capitalism that is superior to more individualist models has been ruthlessly shredded. The long-term consequences of this exclusion are disquieting to contemplate. One realistically imaginable scenario is the re-emergence of Europe’s classical demons—the demonization of Jews and other minorities–on a pattern that is already recognisable in Hungary and to a lesser extent Italy.

Asking what then can be done means failing to grasp the intractable difficulties that Europe faces. Large utopian projects are rarely deliberately and carefully dismantled. Normally they simply collapse when the strains on them become too much to sustain. There is no sign of that happening anytime soon in Europe. The ruling institutions have been stabilised at the cost of the underlying economies and societies. What we are left with is an unhealthy stasis. To imagine that a failed utopian project could be rationally deconstructed is itself an exercise in utopian thinking. But we can think more clearly, so that when the opportunity for change arises we can respond more intelligently. To think more clearly we need to see more clearly, and happily we can view our utopian/dystopian reality through the penetrating lens of Filip Berte’s work.

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