The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident, by Geert Mak, Harville Secker, 151 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-1846551383
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century, by Geert Mak, Vintage, 896pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0099516736
His name is – or may be – Ali Özbagriaçik, but we will call him the insole vendor. It is early morning on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul but the insole vendor has already been up for several hours. By ten o’clock he has sold three pairs and has three million lira in his pocket. There is freezing rain and his teeth hurt again but the insole vendor is cheerful. Lots of soldiers have been crossing the bridge and soldiers always have cold, sore feet from standing guard. With any luck he will make twelve million today and will be as happy as Mr Micawber.
The insole vendor’s daily budget … is allotted as follows: morning soup: one million; cigarettes: two million; tea: one million; dinner at a roadside stand: two million; a bed at the boarding house: three million. His friends, however, say that he has failed to mention his final purchase of the day: before going to sleep he drinks a bottle of red wine, the cheapest sort, the kind they refer to around here as ‘dog-killer’. Lots of the local merchants drink it. Two million. Bringing us to a total of eleven million. And he usually slips his son a little money as well.
The denizens of the bridge, Özbagriaçik the insole vendor, with his friends and colleagues the bookseller, the cigarette boy, the umbrella man, the old porter, the tea seller and the perfume vendor, are Geert Mak’s regular (if temporary) companions and his guides to the way of life of the marginalised poor of Istanbul, those who have fallen on hard times, lost their families, their bearings or their wits and been left to fend for themselves on the streets of this teeming city of over ten million people.
The perfume vendor talks of his village, a perfectly ordinary village, there are thousands more like it: “It was built up against the mountainside; twelve houses, some goats, sheep, a few potato patches, a beanfield for the army, sometimes tomatoes for the market in town, we squeaked by.” Now it no longer exists; in fact its name has been expunged from the official records. Families grew too large, the houses too crowded, the food they could grow was insufficient to feed them. “One winter night – I’ll never forget this – the village was besieged by a pack of wolves; they tore apart about twenty sheep. After that everyone left. What else could we do?”
Some, probably most, went to Europe. The perfume vendor went to Istanbul, where he found various odd jobs, sold bottled water, fruit, fish, socks, watches. He was married, divorced and now lives in a boarding house. On occasional Sunday afternoons he will see his young son. “The bridge is his destiny, there’s nothing anyone can do about that. ‘My family couldn’t send me to school, they were too poor, it was that simple. I can pay my bills, I make ends meet, but I’m on my own, that’s all.’”
In his short but sparkling new book, Dutch historian and journalist Geert Mak interweaves stories of Istanbul’s Galata bridge and its functioning if rickety economy with forays further afield, geographically into the Anatolian heartland, the impoverished and wartorn Kurdish southeast or the promised land of Izmir (lots of tourists to fleece), and historically into the city’s previous incarnations, Byzantium/Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Roman world, and Islambol (“where Islam blossoms bountifully”), the seat of the Ottoman empire for four and a half centuries and “perhaps the most multicultural city of all time”.
Westerners, when they talk of what happened on May 29th, 1453, speak of “the fall of Byzantium”. Mak’s acquaintances on the Galata bridge, however, always call it “the conquest of Istanbul”. Certainly it was a day of horrific violence. Blood ran in the gutters, adults were slaughtered, boys and girls enslaved and houses and churches plundered. According to the surgeon Nicolo Barbaro, who has left a detailed account and who was himself lucky to survive, hundreds of severed heads bobbed in the waters of the strait in much the same way as rotten melons would sometimes block the canals of his native Venice.
Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman commander, who was twenty-two when he took Constantinople, was a formidable figure. On returning from a victorious campaign in 1455, the historian Mustafa Ali tells us, he “spent many nights in debauchery with lovely-eyed, fairylike slave girls, and his days drinking with pages who looked like angels”. When he found a cucumber missing from his palace gardens, it is said, he had the chief suspect disembowelled to find it. He was also a great strategist, an accomplished linguist and a skilled administrator. He rebuilt Constantinople, not this time as a fortress but as a dynamic port and trading centre, and made it the centre of a new empire.
By 1477, that is less than twenty-five years after what Christians had called “the blackest day in history”, more than a third of the city’s houses were again occupied by Greeks, a fifth by Jews and a seventh by other non-Muslims. Each neighbourhood took on its own specific character – Islamic, Armenian, Jewish, Greek, Western – leading visitors to feel as if they were walking from one culture into the next.
In this way a society could arise that consisted of communities that worked and did business together, but were otherwise imprisoned in their own compartments of neighbourhood, house, family, gender, rank and standing … The city’s tolerance depended on looking the other way; contact with those other worlds was devoid of all curiosity … Everyone was welcome, but it was strictly a one-way street. The capital of the world was, in the final account, concerned only with itself.
Most Westerners lived on the north bank of the Golden Horn estuary, in the district called Galata, or the wider area of Pera (Greek for “outside”). First, the Genoese were given a free hand to run it as they wished. Later there followed Venetians, French, Dutch and British. The nineteenth century Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis gazed across the Galata bridge and mused:
The tidings from Europe, which pass through Galata and Pera quickly … reach the far shore only in mutilated form … the fame of the greatest men and affairs of the West is blocked by that stretch of water … and across that bridge, traversed by hundreds of thousands of people each day, not one idea crosses in a decade.
Yet even as de Amicis wrote this was beginning to change. “When a man goes to Pera, everyone knows what he is looking for,” a prominent Turkish reformer told the French ambassador. Yet go they did, and not just for the forbidden delights of the flesh. The French poet Gérard de Nerval had visited in 1840 and marvelled at Pera’s shops, with windows displaying fashionable clothing, jewels, patisseries and lingerie – just like Paris. Increasingly the Ottoman middle classes came to look too, thronging La Grande Rue. It all became too much for the sultan, who passed a decree banning Turkish women from entering European shops, though they were still permitted to gaze at the windows and dream. Better-off Ottomans bought up Western furniture, even pianos; fashionable clothes had to be Western clothes – Turkey’s traditional silk and embroidery was suddenly passé.
For an entire period in its history, Mak writes, Istanbul actually ceased to be a Muslim city. A census of 1886 found there were more Christians (444,294) living in the greater urban area than there were Muslims (384,386). But this situation came to be quickly reversed as the empire suffered successive military defeats at the hands of Russia and the emerging Balkan nations, resulting in a stream of Muslim refugees retreating to the “motherland”. Istanbul also experienced an influx of poor Kurds, who brought with them a strong dislike of Armenians, as well as Christian refugees from Muslim hostility in Anatolia. In 1895 armed Armenians marched on the Sultan’s palace, chanting for liberty (and hoping for foreign intervention). The government responded by releasing the rabble on them: the killing, which claimed hundreds of victims, went on for two days.
Yet alongside repression, modernisation too gathered pace. Men abandoned the turban and the beard, adopted Western clothes and, increasingly, Western mores. The 1907 census showed that only two per cent of married men in Istanbul had more than one wife. Women began to appear in public without headscarves. A cartoon from the magazine Hayal showed two women meeting on the street, one in traditional dress, the other in Western clothes. “Daughter, what kind of outfit is that? Aren’t you ashamed?” asks the former, to which the latter replies: “In this century of progress, you are the one who should be ashamed!”
Ideas, Edmondo de Amicis had remarked, were slow to cross the Galata bridge, but it was now time for Europe’s contemporary big idea, nationalism, to make its appearance in Turkey. Modernity, or the idea of modernity, often went hand in hand in this period, Mak remarks, with the idea of the national, national pride, national progress. He quotes – and seems to endorse – British historian Philip Mansel’s view that Istanbul’s traditional cosmopolitanism was now challenged for the first time by a version of that “strident nationalism which dominate[d] the political, intellectual and emotional life of other European capitals”. “The social, economic and cultural bonds created by living in the same city,” Mansel writes, “could not outweigh the emotional satisfaction, the sense of righteousness, solidarity and self-sacrifice, provided by nationalism.” (One might quibble with Mansel’s reading, however, on several counts. Did nationalism – strident or otherwise – really so dominate all other European capitals at this time? What about socialism? What about the passion for education and for civic and social improvement? And what did Istanbul’s vaunted “cosmopolitanism” actually consist of? According to Mak’s account it was primarily characterised by a number of distinct peoples living in close physical proximity but spiritually apart, indeed regarding each other with either indifference or hostility. Finally, whose interests might it have served for “the Sick Man of Europe” to remain a sleepy and easily handled oriental backwater rather than striving to become a modern nation with the power to choose its direction and make its own alliances – as indeed it was soon to do, with Kaiser Wilhelm, in 1914?)
In the final years of the nineteenth century the Young Turks movement organised itself, in the best revolutionary tradition, into secret clubs which soon infiltrated schools, the army and the public service. Many of its leaders were exiled, but in 1908, after an army mutiny, the regime suddenly collapsed. Censorship was abolished, amnesty granted to political exiles and a constitution drafted. In the autumn of that year free elections were held. The sultan was deposed and replaced by his brother. His harem was opened and its 213 occupants returned to their families.
As late as 1908 a happy crowd of Istanbulus had pulled the British ambassador’s carriage across the Galata bridge and all the way up the hill to his residence. But this was an alliance on its last legs. As Mak writes:
Behind the scenes … British diplomacy had performed an about-turn – a strategic switch that without a doubt contributed to the Ottoman demise. According to the British reassessment Russia was no longer an opponent but a potential ally against Germany. At the same time there was a growing fear in London that the Turkish revolution of ‘Jews and Freemasons’ might spread to Britain’s colonial holdings in the Middle East.
By 1912 Turkey found itself at war with Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. The Greeks overran Saloniki and proceeded to its immediate “Hellenisation”. After five centuries, mosques were converted back to churches. Four hundred thousand Turks were driven out. The Bulgarian czar made ready his state carriages for a grand entrance into Istanbul. But the European powers, fearing invasion might prompt a massacre of the city’s Christians, sent warships into the Bosporus and ringed Pera with marines to protect the Greek and Armenian populations. The Bulgarian advance stalled and in December a truce was signed.
In November 1914 the Young Turk government allied itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The powerless sultan protested: “War against Mother Russia! But her corpse alone is enough to crush us!” The Ottoman Empire was to lose five million citizens in the war, most of them civilians (the figure includes Armenians killed by Turks). For purposes of comparison, France lost 1.7 million and the United Kingdom just under a million.
In spring 1915 some 2,400 prominent Armenians were transported out of Istanbul and never seen again. Rumours of deportations and massacres in Anatolia followed. Armenians were thought to be looking forward to a Russian victory, and in some cases actively working for it. There were to be casualties on both sides of their struggle with the Turks but what was to happen in 1915 was of a different order. Some estimates give the number of Armenian dead, through expulsions, massacres and the casualties resulting from forced marches through the desert, at 1.5 million. A quarter of the empire’s population in 1915, Armenians were to form only 8.5 per cent by 1920. Two out of every three had “disappeared”.
After the war Istanbul was occupied (for almost five years) by the Western allies, who planned to dismember the empire and transfer Anatolia to the Greeks and Italians. But a successful Young Turk counterattack led by Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Ataturk) blocked that plan. Ataturk re-established Turkish control of all of Anatolia and transferred the capital to Ankara. A radical moderniser and Westerniser, he banned traditional clothing, replaced the Muslim lunar calendar with the Gregorian, outlawed polygamy, introduced the Roman alphabet and the Swiss civil code and gave women the vote. In a peace treaty signed in 1923 Greece and Turkey agreed to a mutual ethnic cleansing, by which 1.3 million Greeks and half a million Turks were to switch country. Only in Istanbul did the Greeks remain – for the time being. In 1955, at a time of high tension over Cyprus, the final pogrom was unleashed with mob attacks on persons and property in Pera. More refugees left the city in that year than in 1453. Of Istanbul’s quarter of a million Greeks in 1914 only 2,000 remained in 2006.
After so much blood and bitterness, what do today’s Istanbulus think of the West?
‘My God, Europe, we’d love to go there,’ says Önder, the cigarette boy. “There’s plenty of money there, you can do whatever you want, the people respect each other.’ I do my best to put a little water in the wine, but they insist that Europe’s problems are nothing compared with theirs. ‘I’m not interested in luxury,’ Önder says. ‘Rich people’s lives aren’t any better than poor people’s. I just want to take care of my family. And of myself. And of course I want to get married. To a beautiful foreign woman. A blonde Belgian …’
Önder did in fact once try to get away, hiding in a container, but he and his companions were discovered at the border and beaten up by the police: “Why are you trying to get out of our country? Isn’t our country good enough for you?” The umbrella salesman tried too, borrowing money and flying to Heathrow. His sojourn abroad lasted a full three hours before he was sent back on the same plane. Fourteen years later, he still flies into a rage thinking about it, adding: “I had to work like mad for ages just to pay back that ticket. And if I hadn’t repaid what I owed, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it, believe me.”
Mak cites Orhan Pamuk on the daily existence of the poor in the Muslim world. They are ground down, he argues, not just by their poverty but by a feeling that it may in some obscure way be their own fault, or that of their parents or grandparents. As a result their private lives are often in a permanent state of “grim derangement”.
The Western world is scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population; it is a feeling that people have to try to overcome without losing their common sense, and without being seduced by terrorists, extreme nationalists or fundamentalists.
It is also a feeling, Mak suggests, that the West would do well to take account of: the controversy, and resulting deaths, over the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, he suggests, may be less a matter of offending Islamic belief than of offending a sense of dignity and “honour” that rests on a very fragile base.
Geert Mak is best known outside his native Holland for his massive 2007 work In Europe,a book in which, through the device of a long journey undertaken throughout 1999, he retraces the continent’s twentieth century history and, as it were, attempts to “put some water in the wine” of its complacency and self-esteem. “A thrilling voyage through twentieth-century Europe”, coos Piers Brendon on the cover of the paperback edition. And it is thrilling indeed – if one is thrilled by Ypres and Verdun, Caporetto, Guernica, Katyn, Auschwitz and Majdanek, Stalingrad, Cassino, Dresden, Vukovar and Srebrenica (and this is just to list some of the horrors perpetrated in Europe; those perpetrated by Europeans on their colonial subjects are yet another story).
The most impressive and original sections of In Europe are perhaps its final chapters, where Mak talks to former central and eastern European dissidents and intellectuals about the contrast between their hopes, back in the 1980s, to win political freedom and “rejoin Europe” and their experience since. The fall of communism, says Polish academic George Schöpflin, entailed the collapse of an entire system of morality and within the vacuum it left behind eastern Europeans have to find a new form of citizenship. “Huge numbers of people have essentially no idea of what politics is about, what can be reached through it and what cannot. They expect immediate results, and are filled with bitterness when those results do not come … Slowly, very slowly, the myth of the West is being replaced by the reality of the West.”
Anna Bikont, one of the founders with Adam Michnik of the Warsaw newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, looks back on the political success of Solidarity but also observes that “in the end there were no real winners”. The nationalists lost, because instead of their idealised Poland they got capitalism and the European Union; the priests lost, because they failed to gain a real foothold in politics; and the democratic opposition lost too because they failed to anticipate the trauma that the imposition of raw capitalism would have on the planned economy and its social services.
But there may be one group that won: the young people. They’re in favour of Europe, they speak languages, they’ve travelled, they’re open to the world. Great opportunities lie in wait for them. But for the generation that spent most of their lives under communism, hope was the only thing they had, and that hope has never borne fruit.
Not that the expansion of capitalism into previously forbidden territories has not benefited some. In Moscow, Mak meets fellow countryman Derk Sauer, the head of Russia’s biggest independent media concern, with 550 employees, two newspapers and sixteen magazines. Sauer reckons that, in spite of official statistics, there is actually a sizeable new middle class in Russia, “people who get up early, work hard, and actually have money to spend”. They remain officially invisible, however, because they don’t pay taxes. An enterprising friend imports washing machines, bribes the customs officers and sells on the black market. Not just he but his employees too do well out of this.
Almost everything they earn is disposable income. We estimate that approximately a fifth of the Russian population, about thirty million people, benefit from this new economy in one way or another. Of course that still leaves you with 120 million others.
Mak’s final chapter considers the future of Europe, and more specifically, of the European Union. Looking at the major cities of northern Europe he finds them to be great cosmopolitan or “multicultural” complexes. In London, English is no longer the mother tongue of one in three children; a quarter of the population of central Amsterdam was not born in Holland (and the most popular male name on birth certificates in Brussels, I am told, is Mohamed). Mak fears the growth of a permanent urban underclass, unable to take advantage of upward social mobility and replicating, inside European cities, the global divide between rich and poor.
The new members of the Union, he notes, are not attracted by the so-called “super-state” model allegedly sponsored by the French, Germans and Italians, preferring a looser free economic zone managed by arrangement between member states. In a tense atmosphere in 2004, the Portuguese José Manuel Barroso was chosen as EU president; he immediately stated that he did not share the vision of any of those “naïve federalists” (the French, Germans and Italians presumably). In 2005 the French and Dutch rejected the new European constitution. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned that time was running out for politicians to agree a sound structure for Europe: “I do not think the generation after us will be able to put together all those national biographies in such a way that the EU will not be split back into its national components …”
While Europe, Mak writes, cannot hold a candle to American dynamism, flexibility and energy, when it comes to quality of life the average citizen of the Old World – particularly its western regions – leaves his American cousin in the dust. But is Europe’s quality of life (and douceur de vie) sustainable without a significant increase in dynamism and flexibility? Barroso for one seems to think not. But we all know, or should know, what the human cost of what management likes to call “flexibility” can be. The American Europhile Jeremy Rifkin writes, in a perhaps somewhat rosy analysis:
Europe has become a huge laboratory for rethinking humanity’s future. In many respects, the European Dream is the mirror opposite of the American Dream. While the American Dream emphasises unrestrained economic growth, personal wealth and the pursuit of individual self-interest, the European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life and the nurturing of community.
Jean-Claude Juncker might agree with this idealistic formulation, but would the European president, or indeed the current prime ministers of Britain, France or Italy?
While some see the European Union as the only effective possible counterweight to “chaotic international networks and concentrations of power” others see it as another manifestation of globalisation, driven by a quasi-religious faith in the market, competition and privatisation. “This,” writes Mak, “is the philosophy of most political elites, but many citizens – even the majority in any number of European countries – don’t believe in it at all.” (It is arguable however that left-wing Eurosceptics are being a little disingenuous on this question. It is scarcely some faceless entity in Brussels that is imposing a neo-liberal agenda on Europe – if indeed such exists. If majorities exist, or can be mobilised, in individual states to defend a social Europe and trade union rights then it is up to political forces in those states to assemble them: that France has recently elected Sarkozy and Italy Berlusconi might suggest that no such majorities exist – or that the left in those countries is not very good at conducting its business. Why blame Brussels for one’s own [national] political weakness? National politics– that is to say the aggregated results of individual states’ general elections – is still far and away the most important factor in determining the future direction of Europe.)
Europe’s tragedy, Mak argues, is that the very measures it requires to survive and flourish, a continuing influx of young immigrants, social welfare reform, open dealings with the Muslim world, tight stewardship of natural resources, reorganisation and denationalisation of defence forces, are often grist to the mill of paranoid or cynical populist movements. (He might also have mentioned the cheerful media harlotry which so often prepares the ground for such movements.)
Finally, and not least importantly, he points to the great structural deficiency in European politics, the lack of a transnational civic forum in which its problems can be discussed. (The European Parliament is not such a forum – at least not on its own.) The Amsterdam sociologist Abram de Swaan speaks of Europe’s “pedagogical deficit: the lack of political fire at the European level, of that spirit so indispensable to a vital democracy”. The European Union, it is true, is not exactly a democracy, and there is no “European people” (though there are certainly people who feel themselves to be European). The disconnect between the administrators of the Union and its peoples has, however, by now become so acute that there is an urgent need, Mak argues, for what he calls “a European coffee house”, a place “where Europeans can together mould their opinions, where ideas can be born, viewpoints examined. Without such an agora all further political processes remain hanging in thin air, without such a permanent debate Europe remains a cascade of phrases, a democracy for the sake of appearances, and nothing more.” How such an agora could be constructed Mak does not elaborate, but in fact there are some such fledgling pan-European forums in existence, getting by from day to day on long hours and idealism while waiting for official recognition and support.
Meanwhile, Europe is suffering from too much complexity and change and has become somewhat overtired and peevish. Following the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitution and the Irish rejection of Lisbon it could scarcely now be guaranteed that a referendum in any country on institutional change or further expansion of the Union would be carried. Indeed the sole “safe” question the citizens could be asked would be “Do you wish your country to remain in the European Union?” – and even that might be dangerous in Britain.
All of this is likely to leave the insole vendor, the bookseller, the umbrella man and the perfume vendor on the Istanbul bridge that links Europe and Asia waiting for some time to come, though to tell the truth it is not themselves but their children and grandchildren they are thinking of. (Perhaps it should be added at this point that Mak’s concentration on the lives and stories of the marginalised, engaging though it is, might without correction tend to give a somewhat distorted picture of contemporary Turkey, which contains many poor people, many middling people and some very rich people.)
Geert Mak is a sceptic in the proper and positive sense of the word. He is familiar with Europe’s appalling sufferings in the twentieth century and recognises the creation and expansion of the European Union to its present size as a formidable and positive achievement. And he wishes to preserve it as something with a real meaning and value for its citizens.
But what if the expansion of the EU were to simply continue, what if expansion were to become an independent trait of the European project, like a bicycle that must keep rolling if it is not to fall over? Would it not eventually become something completely unrecognisable to the citizens of the original member-states? And, besides that, would the Union not be running the risk of a European variation on ‘imperial overstretch’? Might not an all-too-rapid modernisation and democratisation in certain regions – the Balkans, Turkey – unleash uncontrollable forces? And might not the Union itself in that way become too unstable?
In the context of the disaffection or “disconnect” that Mak speaks of a few observations on the Irish No vote of June 12th are called for. First, it was certainly a severe blow to Ireland’s interests which, even if some formula is found to patch things up, cannot but have longer-term negative effects for this country. Second, the Yes campaign was not well run and the No campaign was. One can object to the shameless misrepresentations deliberately propagated by some No campaigners, particularly the right-wing Catholic elements represented by Cóir, but it would be foolish to deny their professionalism and effectiveness or underestimate the weight that cocky ignorance, belligerent irrationality and cheap populist abuse have now accrued in the Irish body politic. (The granddaddy of self-satisfied liberal public opinion, Gay Byrne, supposedly inflamed by the European Commission’s response to Ireland’s rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in 2001 [of course he meant the Nice Treaty], referred to its former president in a recent Sunday Independent column as “that fat slug, Prodi”.)
For the moment, the mood music in Ireland and elsewhere seems to be of “respecting the people’s choice”. What the people chose, however, wittingly or unwittingly, was effectively an exit from Europe so it is almost certainly the case that after a longish period of reflection – and perhaps even a little contrition – they will, as with Nice, be afforded the opportunity to make a more respectable choice. And if they choose differently in Spring or Summer 2009 – something which at the moment cannot be guaranteed – the wheels will be back on the chariot and everything will be fine again. Or will it?
The concerns about Europe which Geert Mak outlines in the last chapter of In Europe are not susceptible of any easy fix. The European Union has experienced many crises and overcome them, though frequently in a “patch and make do” fashion. The most serious of our present problems are not so much structural ones (though structural and democratic reform is necessary) as a “crisis of belief”, which as Mak suggests is intimately linked to the enormous difference between enlisting public opinion behind a union of six nations and one of twenty-seven (or thirty). It is not unconnected with policy: there are certainly concerns about the neo-liberal agenda and apparently endless enlargement, though there is no firm evidence, as the Eurosceptic left wishes to believe, that these (or “militarisation”) are the sole or even primary determinants of current public disengagement from the project. There are problems of communication, at the Brussels level certainly but more importantly at national level. It seems to me that the proper response to these latter problems – and this does not seem to have been grasped in Brussels – is not necessarily more communication but smarter communication.
Can we expect such smarter communication to emerge from our administrative and bureaucratic cultures at home and in Brussels? There would be little precedent for it – most bureaucratic communication is of the nature of “Here are a few more regulations – they’re quite simple really” or “Here’s why what we have already decided to do is a good idea” and it is almost invariably on a micro rather than a macro level. As regards the bigger picture – “Why is Europe a good idea?”, “Why is enlargement a good idea?”, “Is Europe a different animal from the United States, and if so can it afford to remain the same animal for ever?”, “Where is Europe going?” or “What, if anything, is European culture?” – there is only silence.
In the odd, hybrid political entity that is the EU, with its pan-national political arrangements and closed national media and cultural systems, we are expected to care for and relate to Europe, but all we can see – and that more often than not in a distorted mirror – is Brussels. People in Western cultures based on freedom and consent are not generally expected to love and commit to those whom they do not know. After the French, Dutch and Irish shocks, there are probably more voices in the higher administration calling for a radically improved strategy for “Explaining Europe”. Explaining Europe is good. Revealing Europe, an idea so far not given any serious consideration, might be even better.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.