Essay - Europe 's paradox
In search of the borders of Europe
Israel and Turkey do play a role in the Eurovision Songcontest, 25 countries take part in the Council of Europe and the European Union is hesitatingly growing in eastern direction. At the same time the treaties of Schengen and Dublin are closing down the heart of Europe and the call for a limited European identity is heard louder and louder. Bart Top visited the oceancoast of France , the southborder of Italy and Estonia , a country in between Russia and Europe to explore the frontiers of Europe .
This story begins at the French coast. One of those areas where Europe ends without discussion: just ocean and no chance that a halfdrowned boatrefugee will reach it. There I'm reading a mysterious book: Ocean of sea , written by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco. It describes the very absurd meeting between a painter who searches for the exact point where the sea starts and a scientist who is looking for the place where the sea ends.
On first sight such a questions and such confrontation seem to be utter nonsense, because there appears to be a clear-cut border between land and sea, but the more you are zooming in, the fuzzier it will be. What's sea for one moment, will the other moment fall dry. And what just used to be a brave sandcastle, disappears the other moment in the waves.
Nevertheless appears the oceanborder of Europe to be nothing but a philosophical problem. International agreements point out exactly were you can find the border between European and international sea. The western border is a a strong filter: completely impermeable for unwelcome guests and at the same time completely permeable for the American culture that Europe is swallowing, despite its awareness of its own European identity.
There's also hardly any doubt about the southern border, when you are able to see Andalusia as pure European and don't pay attention to the immense European influences in the Maghreb and deeper into Africa, if the poor people who die between Africa and Gibraltar have no meaning for you, so if you succeed in neglecting Africa, which is quite easy for the average European. But there's a fundamental difference with the eastern border of Europe . Where-as the western coast is paradoxly as strong as unthinkable: because Europe takes part of the same West of which it is divorced by an immense bulk of water and where-as the Mediterranean is as small as proverbially divides the European
prosperity from the African poverty, is the eastern border always subject of severe political dispute. Nor breaklines under the surface, nor chains of mountains can serve as sharp frontiers between Asia and Europe . That's why, totally dependent of worldvision and political interests, some people create a border behind Poland and Austria , while other people project that same border thousands of kilometres more to the east. Until 1989 the Iron Curtain functioned as a point of marcation. Now some opinionleaders project that border were the Russian-orthodox church dominates. From the Russian point of view it's totally different. Europe ends at the border of Central-Asia. The minister of foreign affairs, Igor Ivanov, presented the war against the Tcetcenians as a European interest: "In fact Russia is defending here the common European frontiers against a barbaric attack of international terrorism, that is directed, in a continuous and consequent way at the western hemisphere of influence which reaches from Afghanistan through Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Balkan. Russia in defence of 'the safety of our continent en life and welfare of all Europeans? That's a jump that the average supporter of the EU will not make that quickly, but if you look the European geography, it's not that crazy.
Cause where does Europe end in the eastern direction? I start my query at a border which seems to be quite clear: the south-east border of the Italian peninsula . Cause behind that lies ‘chaotic' Albania , the negative of European civilisation. And there lies the Adriatic Sea , which carries asylumseekers and adventurists from all kind of other non-European countries. From for example Dutch point of view this is an important border. Here they have to stop the Kurds and Africans of whom we are afraid that they, once arrived in Europe , will run undoubtedlly to the Dutch prosperity.
But in Puglia this border turns out to be not self-evident Cities like Bari and Lecce may belong, from northern perspective, to the periphery of Europe , but they place themselves into the centre. Bari , Ponte del Orient, bridge to the east, is the message of billboards that are placed everywhere. It's not a bunch of leftist daydreamers that is promoting this central place of Bari in the movements of trade in eastern direction. A Fiera Levante, to be held each year, has to renew the trade-relations and the region is lobbying intensively for the opening of new airconnections between Bari , Tirana and further to the east. 'Professoressa' Serino, scientist of the university of Bari foresees in the future new possibilities for seasonlabour. So you can soften the migration-pressure, she thinks. And what's more: " Albania is around the corner and you can better create a permeable border than build a wall. Today's practise shows that this future already has begun. In spite of the high unemployment-figures is the countryside full of illegal season-workers from Africa and Albania . And black trade is very popular. As Yugoslavia blocked the smuggle of cigarettes during the Kosovo/war, the income on cigarette-taxes of the Italian government went double as high as for the war. As soon as the war was over, they dropped again to normal level.
Rome is far away, here. Brussels means only EU-founding. The EU supports this region with a bit of work and the of the old hearts of the cities, but Puglia doesn't wish to serve as the border-police of Europe , that's clear. Although you can hear also other voices. "I'm not a racist, and they're also exist of course good Albanians, but it's a aggressive race," Anna Maria Carbonelli says. She's not interested in closer relations with the Albanians. "We have a lot of criminality here already, and there it is worse, so you know what will happen if we come closer to the Albanians. But Carbonelli is working for Urban Bari Europa, payed by the EU. Most of the people of Puglia are very open to contact with the Albanians. The people of Puglia welcomed the refugees from Kosovo, who fled the horrible actions of Milocevic, like brothers. "Some inhabitants of Bari may hate the Albanese people and see them as the new Barbarians, but that's just because they recognise so much of their own bad properties", explains one of my spokesmen. The similarities in language, geographical and economical position are very striking. As striking as the differences between southern Italy and the Europe north of Rome . If Puglia belongs to Europe , the Albanians can't stay away.
When, by chance, coming down in another undoubtfully European border-area, I hope to learn more about the borders. I'm in Estonia and the Ests, lutherianians, are culturally related to Scandinavia . They 've been oriented to the west from the Hanza-time. Individualistic, quiet and blond they prefer to be far away from the noisy, group-oriented Russians, the former rulers with whom the share their country. Nevertheless both groups are condemned to live together. One third of the Estonian population is from Russian background, but will stay in Estonia if possible,, whether the Estonians like it or not. On the contrary: the European Union, of which Estonia dreams to be part of, forces the Estonian state to recognise the rights of the russian-speaking minorities. Despite the feeling of that part of the European population that considers the Russians to be non-western barberians.
Loaded with this kind of images I visit accidentally the Orthodox-Russian cathedral of Tallinn . The impressive building
dominates the skyline. It's build upon a hill, so the many old women who visit the church have to struggle themselves uphill, using stairs that are icy and dangerous. But the church is crowded. Most of the visitors come here to pray at their favourite icon's. When they come near to the saints, most of them behind glass, they kneel to it. Than they enter, whispering and give a kiss on the window. Walking backwards and bending again, they leave the place. But some of the women can't say goodbye to their favorite.They hang around near one of the icons.
The quiet movements of the visitors bring a serene atmosphere to the cathedral. Everyone comes here by himself, has his own goal and own place to pray. If you compare this to the images of massservices in some western churches and the nearly programmed way in which moslim-men go to the ground to pray, this way of praying looks very modern, western.
In one of the corners of the cathedral, a twelve year old boy confesses his sins. The pope listens quietly to him and then starts to speak softly but seriously to him. There is no confession-box, so everybody can see what happens. Nevertheless the two are completely concentrated to each other, and no-one interferes in it. After a while the pope makes the boy bending his upperbody. He lays his hands on the boys back and prays for the boy. Two, three minutes pass before the prayer is finished. The boy walks into the cathedral and finds back his mother. She waves to him to show that he is not ready yet and points to a little shop where you can buy candles. He buys them and puts two of them at the other burning candles. The energetic way he walks through the cathedral is contrary to the silence. He is already displaced, he must go out running or playing football. He can't be silent that long.
This is not a place were Europe ends, I think. Why shouldn't these persons belong to Europe . But if so, we have to include also the Russians. And than? Can it be delegated to the Russians to draw lines? They too think that the barbarians live in the east: the Chechenians, the Tartars, the Chinese. They refer to the migrants who came from the east to Moscow as 'blacks'. These are an easy target for those who want to give an ethnical name to the economical problems. But neither the Russians want to draw the consequences of their hatred against the eastern people. Cause a new iron curtain should divide their own country and should diminish the once immense imperium more than it already has been. Neither the westeuropean, nor the Russian people can afford themselves to cut the East. Being mixed both
Geographically and culturally makes Europe borderless. If it likes it or not.
Is this borderlesness reason to be jaleous to Africa , Australia or the two America 's? The sharply drawn borders of these continents seem to create a great clarity. But in fact these are no more than passed metaphors, romantic drawings on an old schoolmap, whom only in nostalgic minds feed they believe in the unity of the state. New York and Los Angelos
are already bilingual cities. People from Germany , Portugal , Spain and Italy dominate in Latin-america and Africa exists of such an endless variety that only a troubled western eye can perceive it as one continent.
So should we have to envy Australia . It seems attractive, laying there isolated. But neither Australia can deny the aziatic influences and even racist immigration-laws weren't able to avoid the fact that the continent is mixed with its environment. And even if Australia could bark on its splendid isolation, so what? Since when should take an example of Australia ?
Still it is understandable that the borderlessnes of Europe wakes emotions. An Europe that reaches amoebic till Asia , of course lacks a clear-cut identity. Were is the grip, if even the Russian-Orthodox Church and the islam take part of the European space and if you can't exclude the hot-blooded Albanians and the divided peoples of the Balkans. The almost natural reaction of many Europeans seems to be a cramped (re)orientation to the nation-state. The same people that never believe that the reintroduction of the horse-tramway would be an adequate answer to the actual problem of the traffic-jams think that a vehicle of the 19th century as the nation-state can be a big help. Nearly all the European
states however share that the have a mixed population. As far as we're not talking about historical mixes -nearly each country has its own national minorities - has immigration have lead to hybridisation. Modern European cities have more in common and share more with other metropoles of the world, than with the surrounding countryside. That's a reality no nation-state retoric can deny.
So in conclusion it seems to me meaningles to try to find new European borders or a fixed European identity. From the beginning it has been typical for Europe to be a ethnical patchwork, which was restyled in the course of centuries by a project of nation-building. This may take away part of the sight on the original diversity but not completely. Now that because of new developments in the field of migration, media and trade the unifying force of the central governments comes to an end, Europe can revaluate the old capital of etnic diversity. The colourful pattern of strong ethnic communities - be it culturally, religious or geographical defined - can profit optimally from the new class of quite hybrid Europeans who, as trade-commissioners between communities, as bridges between cultures can realise that the positive dynamic within that communities is granted. Even the culturally strongest communities will change because of this dynamic proces, the weakest may be will disappear into other unities, without bloodshed, while their cultural heritage will be documented and saved.
This presupposes that we are able to develop an open European identity, as well according to content as to geography. European will than stand for a culture that is open to the dynamics from the United States, that is inspired by the old cultural heritage of the Arabs, the Romans, the Greek, the Kelts etc. and that is opening up to the east, under restriction of respecting the positive effects of the French and Russian revolution in the shape of the adoption of civil and social rights.
Even the magnitude of this project should fill the European with proudness. The negative identity, build on fear for the unknown, will be replaced by a positive identity in which the horrors of the past are transformed to a wise balance between strong identities and openness to the unknown world. It is simply not possible to start again, nor can we ignore the effects of immigration, but we are able to make a big profit from the historical coincidence that Europe has a wealth of cultural wells, which, if respected sufficiently, give the possibility not only to deal with the existing and new diversity, but also to get new power out of it.
Europe can learn a lot from the so called peripheral areas. The frontregions of the European countries are already on the way to cooperation, for example the Euregio-zone in the South-Netherlands shows the extra possibilities of this co-operation: The region is not anymore peripheral, but is a strong economical and cultural factor from which Belgium , Germany and Holland profit equally. The border-regions of the European Union, from Estonia to Puglia , offer the same possibilities. Without imperialism, but through a method of mutual permeability those areas can begin to flower.
Supposed that those who are in power in Europe understand that new hybrid identity and therefor give room for this development. Now that in some important European countries social-democrats are in power, there should be room for this approach. But that presupposes that they have to finish flirting with the old-fashioned defenders of the nation-state, they should have the courage to show their traditional voters that their chances are connected with those of the immigrant. To come back to Ocean of Sea of Baricco. The sea is as borderless as full of live. The landanimal Europe could use a bit of this borderlessnes if it will not starve lonely in a selfmade cage.Bordeaux-Bari-Tallinn-Amsterdam 30 maart 2000
This is a translation of an article published in the Dutch paper Trouw, june 2000.
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