26 May 2016

Seeking Europe: a wild-goose chase

Author: Leonidas Donskis / Source:
Byblus, mosaic with the abduction of Europa. cca 200 CE -300 CE, Beirut, National Museum
As we learn from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a "wild-goose chase” is a hopeless quest for something unattainable. It is a fitting metaphor for an Eastern European quest for Europe that no longer exists.

Eastern and Central European countries made their revolutions in 1990s in the name of Europe, for the sake of the return to Europe. Only to wake up with a heartbreaking revelation that their obscure object of desire either did not exist anymore or turned their aspirations down for the benefit of its own tranquility.

Milan Kundera has argued in his novels and essays, that the identity of Central Europe has always been cultural, rather than political – hence its major difference say, from France, the political, historical, and symbolic center of Western Europe. This outlook might explain why all Central European waves of revolutionary transformation were backward-looking, conservative, and longing for the past – and thus difficult to comprehend for the Western Europeans.

Arthur Koestler once said that to be Hungarian is to be a part of collective neurosis. As it is, I would add, to be Lithuanian and, in effect, an Eastern or Central European. Is it the same with being Georgian or Ukrainian? Or are they still in the shoes of Hungarians, Poles, or Lithuanians of yesterday, who deeply believed that their uprisings and political aspirations were all about the return to the European family whose membership, or fellowship, they were denied for such a long time?

Culture, instead of politics, remains a unifying principle of the civilizational identity of Central Europe. Yet this culture is elusive. Kundera in his essay, "The Tragedy of Central Europe” published in 1984, was referring to the silent failure, if not the disappearance, of the European culture of belonging,
But if to live means to exist in the eyes of those we love, then Central Europe no longer exists. More precisely: in the eyes of its beloved Europe, Central Europe is just a part of the Soviet empire and nothing more, nothing more. And why should this surprise us? By virtue of its political system, Central Europe is the East; by virtue of its cultural history, it is the West. But since Europe itself is in the process of losing its own cultural identity, it perceives in Central Europe nothing but a political regime; put another way, it sees in Central Europe only Eastern Europe. Central Europe, therefore, should fight not only against its big oppressive neighbor but also against the subtle, relentless pressure of time, which is leaving the era of culture in its wake. That’s why in Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era. It is only in that period, only in a world that maintains a cultural dimension, that Central Europe can still defend its identity, still be seen for what it is. (Kundera, Milan. (April 26, 1984). The Tragedy of Central Europe, The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 7, 38).
We have a good reason to agree with Kundera’s insight into the nature and character of Central European revolts, which suggests that "in Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era.” Yet we can hardly deny the fact that this propensity to reenact the past, or the will to the past, has its dark side in politics. Churchly politics, radical populism, allergy to human rights, and church-mindedness are not welcome in the European public domain. The imposition of the single ideology or religion on society is the last thing a democracy should do.

In the late 1990s, Slovakia has seen the radical populism of Vladimír Mečiar, akin to what we see in Hungary of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán these days – with its blend of illiberal democracy and nationalism. Add to this bouquet the Poland of PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – the Polish for the Law and Justice Party) and Jarosław Kaczyński, and conflict between the Easter Europeans’ cultural and political identities gets a contemporary twist.

What we see now in the EU, is a rather awkward reversal of our former political roles: Central European countries are now seen as flawed democracies, yet the Baltic States – former members of USSR - are fitting just fine in the EU.In more than one way, they stand closer to Western Europe than the once-progressive Vysegrád Group (V4), which is struggling to survive as a viable political grouping.

Logically, it brings us to the question: why should Ukraine and Georgia be judged only based on their geography and history to be more remote from the Western European model of liberal democracy than V4, the Baltic States, or Croatia?

Kundera was right pointing out that real Western Europe is far from the image of Europe we deeply believedin, as the inspirational source of creativity and cultural identity. An opposition to the EU and Euroscepticism, using Brussels as a punching back for internal political purposes has become a Western European political commodity, much more so than in Lithuania, Estonia, or Georgia.

It is also true, that Western European states’ interests and affinities often lie close to their historical turf: soft power, history and influence will always keep France closer to North Africa and all other francophone countries than to Eastern Europe – just like the Netherlands follow the events in South Africa or Surinam, or Britain watches India and Pakistan.

In a way, are all Europeans as long as we can celebrate Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes as our own, as our contemporaries. After all, Shakespeare emerged ever more ‘Shakespearean’ in Robert Sturua’s stage production of Richard III in Tbilisi.

Yet to think of Europe and to chase it, as an ever-present entity, as a dream somehow outside history, is nothing more than wild-goose chase. This sort of Europe has yet to be created, is permanently and simultaneously being created and undone. The role of Eastern Europe in making this Europe emerge could be far greater than we might now think.
Leonidas Donskis is a Lithuanian philosopher, historian of ideas, and writer. A former Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). Donskis has written and edited over forty books, seventeen of them in English. His works have been published in eighteen languages. He serves now as Professor of Politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. Donskis holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, the UK (2011), and an Honorary Degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from Valahia University in Târgovişte, Romania (2014).

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