In 2017 a group of young European thinkers, including Simon Strauß, formed the association ‘Arbeit an Europa’ (‘Working on Europe’) with the aim of exploring and developing the seemingly static ideas surrounding Europe and the European Union.
Nothing that we are, think and dream, belongs to us alone. Everything is inheritance. Everything is transmitted. Europe is not news, it is not a modern invention or achievement. We have received the European idea – which includes more than just geographical data – as a gift from the past. The majority and the powerful speak of Europe today and mean free trade, climate and data protection, legal security and high quality standards for milk. They say Europe and mean the EU, positioning Brussels strategically as a counterpoint to Beijing, Moscow and Washington. As a system of values that secretly wants to be a system of trade, but is too noble to admit it.
The real healing power of the idea of Europe, however, can only be experienced by those who are open to what Europe means culturally: open to the secret, transnational links that exist between art and architecture, language and typefaces; open to the interplay between spaces, gestures and schools of thought. An interplay of different languages, living environments and traditions, but also and above all the interaction between two different regions of the mind: reason and empathy.
Today, in the wake of the EU election results, which saw pleasing voter turnout but also an ever-greater divide between the South and the North, the East and the West, we have to find a new tone with which to talk about Europe. The phrases used by politicians and bureaucrats, traders and negotiators, but also journalists and moral commentators, are ineffective because they focus only on the alleged advantages or disadvantages of the EU for individual member states.
Where defined borders demarcate the individual European countries – as they must, for the sake of the functionality of our social systems – culture flies across them and has the opportunity to touch lives regardless of their location. Finnish violin concerti can be understood in Romania, an Austrian can be touched by a line from a Spanish poem, a Dutchman can see himself in a Polish picture. José Ortega y Gasset once said: ‘If we were to take stock of our spiritual possessions, it would turn out that most of them stem not from our respective homelands, but from the shared European fundus. Four-fifths of our internal possessions are European common property.’
Culture is transtemporal and transnational. This is what gives culture its strength, distinguishing it from politics and economy. In my opinion, culture can only strengthen Europe if it is independent of these other two factors, in particular if it is emancipated from politics. We live in an age in which culture too often lets itself become the maid of moral policy. The urge to make oneself independent from the events of the day, to claim the freedom to create counter-realities and visions, seems weaker than ever. The label ‘escapist’ is attached to everything that is not directly related to current events: when an evening in the theatre for once has nothing to do with Trump, or a photo exhibition has nothing to say about the climate disaster. What has become of the artistic pleasure in the strange, the contradictory, the mysterious, the inexplicable? Why does culture let go of its unique characteristics so easily? Its beauty is precisely that it does not have to be based on election manifestos, morality or profit margins. Art is free, they say. But free to do what? To simply recast the editorials and popular attitudes in whatever medium it is using? Shouldn’t it instead be free to offer another surprising worldview? What Europe needs from culture is disagreement and debate, or productive disagreement.
Following this approach, it is essential to experience the idea of the European Community on a small scale so that it can make an impact on a large scale. The doubts about the European Union, which have become near-constant, can be countered by treating Europe not as a mere administrative-economic institution, but as a cultural focal point. An example of this is the ‘Arbeit an Europa’ (‘Working on Europe’) group, which was started the night after the Brexit vote. Young thinkers meet regularly in different European regions to explore the European intellectual space. They come together to discuss central cultural terms, as well as to meet local young Europeans and older witnesses to history. Was this what Stefan Zweig meant when he spoke in Rome in 1932 about the ‘moral detoxification of Europe’? In any case, he too longed for an inspiring community that would show the younger generations in Europe that by working to increase the intellectual output of their countries they are participating in a shared cause.
His words hold true: whoever makes culture, is engaged in art or has a philosophical thought does something for Europe – not in the form of regulations or trade agreements, not something superficial – but in the form of mental insurance policies, of sentient supporting pillars. Nothing that we are, think or dream belongs to us alone. Everything is inheritance. Everything is transmission. Europe is one big broadcaster. There are so many secret frequencies, so many voices and moods. All we have to do is flip the switch to receive.
Simon Strauß (* 1988 in Berlin) is a German historian, writer and journalist (FAZ). He studied classical studies and history in Basel, Poitiers and Cambridge. His latest book, Römische Tage, was published in June 2019 by Tropen Verlag.
This article is based on a keynote speech given by Simon Strauß at the Forum of European Culture in Amsterdam in June 2018.