Europe in an Epoch of Populism
A Multicultural Flatshare
by Carmen Eller
One audience, two guest speakers, countless questions. How might the European fabric be strenghtened? Which roles do populism and nationalism play? And what is Europe, altogether? "Europe is a beauty, riding the landscape on a bull", muses Dr. Andreas Görgen, director of the Department for Culture and Communication for the Federal Foreign Office. "Translating this into political terms, then this is our unique, and possibly most superlative chance to create something from our existence, and attain something for our children and grandchildren, both on this continent and in this world."Political blogger John Worth sits adjacent diplomat Görgen at the podium. The concluding seminar of the programme "Foreign Politics Live – Diplomats in Dialogue", held at the Leipziger Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (Contemporary Historical Forum) is underway. Yannick Jürgens from the radio station mephisto 97.6 moderates the theme "Strengthening Europe – Handling Populism and Euroscepticism".
Before blogger and diplomat begin speaking, Sebastian Körber, deputy secretary general for ifa, cautions in his welcome address: Since Brexit, as has become clear, the EU is staring at a crossroads; a new self-awareness must unfold. The ifa stands thereby "for a cultural concept that does not conceive of cultures as national refugia". Emphasis belongs far more on "the principles of openness, interdependence, and social networking".
The EU in Facts or Emotions?
How might Europe, with an eye on current populism, be more effectively boosted, as the moderator would like to know? "The EU always assumes that facts are enough", posits Jon Worth. But Brexit has provided another lesson, according to the British blogger. Two points collide in the referendum: an "exceedingly rational, economically-based defence of the European Union", coupled with exceedingly emotional argumentation. "The problem is thus: Emotional polemic, disseminated particularly through online-communication (i.e. social media), comes across as more authentic". Görgen concurs. He narrates from personal retrospection, illustrating the course that Europe has taken. "I come from a generation wherein my parents would explain to me that when we travel to Belgium or France, and present our passports, we must behave solemnly: We are travelling into a country to which we have brought war".
The easyJet-Generation and Nationalism
Today's university students, according to Görgen, belong to an "easyJet-generation", for which there is no difference between working, say, in Barcelona, Bochum or Bristol. "As long as we enable persons to move freely throughout contemporary Europe, I won't allow myself to worry too much about Europe's progeny", opines the diplomat. Actual worry occurs to Görgen in the form of "persons in leadership positions – those of my age and older – who would seek renationalization". From the audience, critical voices ensue. A man in the audience doubts that populism would fade with the passing of older generations; a younger fellow questions if yet more emotionality brought to the debate could truly be the answer to Euroscepticism.
To argue differences is prudent
Not only on this evening did dialogue with an audience play an integral role; it formed a central component of the entire series "Foreign Politics Live – Diplomats in Dialogue". The project, a cooperation between the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen and the Foreign Office, began in 2011. The result in numbers: 77 events in 36 cities. According to Dr. Odila Triebel, Head of section at ifa for dialogue and research "Culture and Foreign Policy", as well as programme conceptor, the symposia provided "further proof that democracy must be advanced anew, and on a daily basis". The fundamental idea based itself on interaction between citizenry, diplomats, and other discussants from the fields of education, research and media. As the evening in Leipzig proves, the concept works. Participation is ample, and augmented by vigorous debate, whereby the audience may question, comment, and readdress.
A Perception of the EU from Beyond
An elderly lady from the former Leningrad draws comparisons between the EU and the Soviet Union. "This analogy is not correct", parries Worth. But Görgen demurs: "We cannot, of course, relate the Soviet Union with the European Union. But from you I understand that there is discussion in other countries – outside of the European Union – in about how much the behaviour of NATO and the EU is bound up in imperial aspiration. There are countries in which we stir angst". The imperative lies in the constitution of a European defence policy, whereby ceding sovereignty – thereby muting national aspiration – is key.
Arguing Differences and Democracy
The threshold to change lies in debate, underscores the diplomat. He compares the EU to a multicultural flatshare. "We live in a moment, in which a society – again at last, and thank God – politicizes and thereby democratizes. To argue differences is prudent: In the end, there can be "nothing more boring than a relationship in which spouses no longer have anything to say to one another". And where, after 20 years, one or the other has to admit that "I never cared for your brand of oatmeal, anyway".