The Power of Feelings



What role do feelings play in politics? And which emotions do we associate with Europe? Daphne Büllesbach, a European activist, discussed this topic during her lecture tour through the Republic of Moldova in October 2019. On the occasion of Germany’s turn to serve as EU Council President, she looks back and explains why we should reflect on joint objectives rather than the isolating feeling of fear.

'Bruderkuss' between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker by Dimitriy Vrubel on the monument East Side Gallery in Berlin.
Monument East Side Gallery, Dimitrij Vrubel, 'Bruderkuss' between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, Berlin; © picture alliance / imageBROKER, photo: Marc Rasmus

At the beginning of my lecture, especially if I don't know my audience, I like to ask a simple question. In Chişinău (Kishinev) it was: what is the first feeling that we humans can experience? It was followed immediately by this answer: hunger or the fear of staying hungry. It will always be the same answer everywhere in the world. Fear is a primary emotion that moulds our first glance at the world. Apart from security and love, there is the fear of not being able to experience all this.

During my lecture tour, the exhibition, 'The Power of Feelings' opened in the Chişinău Art Museum on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall as a small child, watching spellbound what happened on a TV in West Germany. Thirty years later, I find it interesting to look at political events through the grid of emotions. Is it obvious to start with a feeling of fear rather than a feeling of hope?

For more than ten years I have been expanding my network in various civil society initiatives and organisations. I am a co-founder of the organisation 'European Alternatives', building it up in Germany at the beginning of this decade. In particular, it stands for the need to think of and implement democracy, equality and culture beyond nation states. The challenges that we are faced with today – climate change, migration, monitoring, digitalisation and, last but not least, COVID-19 – do not stop at national borders.

The loss of control: a powerful feeling

The complexity of solutions for these challenges is increasing significantly. On the one hand, this can release a global feeling of affiliation, because we as people face a global issue, even if we do so from quite different perspectives. On the other hand, it triggers fear and the powerful feeling of a loss of control, which can be observed to a much greater extent. The red London bus, which I showed during my lecture, is emblematic of this. During the Brexit campaign, it drove throughout Great Britain with the following slogan on its side, 'We send the EU £350million a week - let's fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave.' To me, this creates a picture like no other of a political approach based on lies and scapegoats: 'Let’s take back control.'

Regaining control functions as a political slogan because it is based on the fact that we as citizens are influenced in our decision-making powers. The truth is that the supranational institutions are not yet able to cope with the challenges of the 21st century and the National Democrats are no longer able to do so. Currently, no real shift in formative power can be observed at the EU level.

In favour of a policy of proximity

As citizens, we must develop our power to make decisions at a supranational level. That doesn't mean that we should only make decisions at a higher level; on the contrary: it is imperative that we create a methodical and meaningful link between the local environment, in which a 'policy of proximity' and interaction function smoothly, and the transnational level, at which coordination is becoming ever more urgent. This is the only way to meet the fear that populist parties have appropriated for their purposes.

The concept of a 'policy of proximity' was coined by Ada Colau, the Mayor of Barcelona. Its purpose was to tailor the city's institutions to the needs of its residents, and not vice versa. The 'Solidarity Cities' network has been built up on this. Cities have linked to one another throughout Europe to implement a policy of proximity at a local level and promote it transnationally. Contrary to the rather hostile attitude of the nation states, some of these cities have been willing to accommodate refugees. The cities in this network are looking for a solution by promoting solidarity rather than isolating themselves.

Europe can and should be a testing ground for these participation formats. Currently, civil society in Europe is still often organised at a national level. There are, however, initiatives. One recent example is the alliance 'Citizens take over Europe', which appealed to the German Chancellor on the occasion of Germany's turn to serve as EU Council President not to let the planned 'Conference on the Future of Europe' turn into some fake public participation, but instead give citizens a greater say.

Germany has an important role to play in this respect and it would be desirable if especially now, when due to COVID-19 all sources of finance are being pumped into economic development, we do not lose sight of promoting democracy, culture and civic engagement. Promoting citizens to organise themselves and take over responsibility for the common good is at least as important for democracy as safeguarding jobs. A love of experimenting is required if we wish to find a new approach. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also taught us that an exchange in digital space is not perfect; it is, however, possible and makes it easier to transcend boundaries and hierarchies than many analogue conferences would permit.

Hope unites us

What gives us hope along this path? On the last evening of my tour I spoke to representatives from civil society organisations in the Transnistria region. I had previously been warned that this might be difficult and that no one would dare to ask questions. But it turned out differently. I was overwhelmed with questions after having spoken for an hour on European civil society initiatives, on the crises in the EU, the emotions connected with Brexit, xenophobic nationalism, the never-ending catastrophe in the Mediterranean, the uncertainty that many people feel and the hope that emanates from new movements.

Those present had not expected me to make critical comments about Europe. We found a joint level of exchange, even though they spoke Russian and my lecture was interpreted from English. Many people in this small town felt hindered in their work and did not see their commitment as being taken seriously. At the same time, they were aware of their important role as an organised civil society, as a point of contact and a community-building moment.

Hope arises when people come together and a social mechanism takes effect, as described by philosopher Martha Nussbaum during a discussion of her book, 'The Monarchy of Fear', on the German radio programme Deutschlandfunk Kultur in April 2019, 'Fear is a very isolating feeling. But as far as hope is concerned, it is obvious that you are looking for common goals together with others.' These common goals are primarily based on the fact that we have a historical responsibility to be more successful in Europe than the wall-builders, excluders and authoritarians.


About Daphne Büllesbach

Daphne Büllesbach is the Managing Director of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform in Berlin. Until the end of 2019, she was the Executive Director of European Alternatives and the curator of Transeuropa, a political, art and culture festival. She is co-editor of the book, Shifting Baselines of Europe: New Perspectives beyond Neoliberalism and Nationalism, which was published by transcript editing house in 2017. She studied Social and Political Science in London, Paris and Cambridge.

About the Lecture Programme

In October 2019, Daphne Büllesbach travelled through the Republic of Moldova for the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government.  Since its implementation by ifa in 1995, the aim of the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government has been to convey a current and multi-layered image of Germany abroad.
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