I am sure this has to do with the bubble I live in, but the European elections taking place this week have a sense of urgency about them. There are posters, there are protests, there are protests about posters: At least in my immediate circle of friends, the elections are an ideological happening and a far cry from the usual snooze-fest that tends to accompany all things Europe.
Some are saying that the elections have been hyped up with the introduction of candidates or possibly with the many warnings that this time, ignorance and rejection would entails a surge of right-wing populism. That may be true. But I believe the interest is higher since Europe has become both intertwined in our lives and omnipresent in the discourse. Depending on who you want to believe, it has done so as either villain or hero. And for the first time that I can remember it has actually become polarizing.
A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I met at historian for an interview. I didn’t get to ask him any questions since I only tagged along to take photos, but one of his points resonated with me: If one wanted to defend today’s Europe, it would be necessary to become politically active right away. “The enemies of Europe”, he stressed “already are.”
I went home from that interview, wondering not if he was right, but what today’s Europe really meant for me. It is a questions I have found much harder to tackle than one would think. Yes, the European Union has managed to bring this continent together in a way that has hugely impacted the last few years of my life. But that doesn’t mean I want to turn a blind eye to the uglier side of Europe; the one I see on the news, when talking to my friends from Southern Europe or when traveling to Eastern Europe: It is a Union that erodes its own grand mission through inequality, xenophobia and paranoia, through questionable decision-making based on an obscure mechanism of eventual trickle-down economics. It is a Europe that is fundamentally unbalanced, shored up, ruled by mere economic considerations and that wants to keep all its supposedly universal values first and foremost to itself.
That duality is hard to reconcile and it has made me struggle to see through the opaque bureaucracy and make out the upsides of integration. But then I read a brilliant piece by Dutch journalist Rob Wijnberg, who pointed out that Europe is what isn’t there. All the upsides, he explained, are the things you can no longer see: Borders, iron curtains, contaminated water, arch enemies. By nature, these things are invisible. Since Wijnberg’s article is in Dutch, let me shamelessly steal his final paragraph:
Perhaps you know the fable by David Foster Wallace in which two fish swimming through the ocean come across another fish, who says: ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ The two fish look at each other in wonder and say: ‘What the hell is water?’
Europe is that water.
Among the invisible things, there is something else I find equally important and that Wijnberg doesn’t mention: The European project contains a dose of utopianism completely absent from domestic politics. Since I have spent a lot of time abroad and met many people from all across the continent, I have found myself in many situations that must have seemed utopian even for my parents’ generation – let alone for my late grandfather, who not only experienced the war but even occupied the very city I would later live in: The Hague, Netherlands. I feel fortunate to have seen and experienced as much of this continent and its people as I have, to know that I am not the only one – and all that would have been but impossible without this completely crazed idea of somehow uniting what is a huge variety of different countries.
I am not suggesting that what I and many others have experienced outweighs the ills currently plaguing the European project. But I wanted to share a solution to my initial dilemma that I found when I was proofreading yet another interview by one of my colleagues. In it, writer Camille de Toledo says:
I see a lot of confusion when distinguishing between a belief in the European project on the one hand, and believing in the politics of the EU on the other. We must be cautious not to lump the two together. To have a vision for Europe doesn’t necessarily equal defending the EU and its policies.
Having a common project to believe in can do wonders. It has made obstacles disappear that must have seemed enormous back in the day. Is it naive to think that the utopianism, which fundamentally underlies the European project, can eradicate the many problems that undoubtedly still exist? Who knows, but it is a reason to go and vote, if there ever was one. And that is why, on this sunny Berlin morning, I will close my laptop, walk through the still deserted streets, and do exactly that.