A work-in-progress: The challenges ahead for Europe

We draw on the expertise of an art director, a doctor in political science, an immigration-focussed art centre, a journalist, a philosopher as well as a festival curator and put one simple question to them: what are the challenges lying ahead for Europe and how can we solve them?

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

Olivier Costa on piecing back Europe’s social fragments

In the early days of my career as an EU academic, times were different. I’m talking early 90s here: the Berlin Wall fell, the Maastricht Treaty negotiations were in full swing and on a social level – amongst both academics and citizens – there was this general sense of positivism and enthusiasm towards the EU as the model of the future. I would even go as far as to say that there was a general consensus that nation-states were relics of the past. What is striking however, is that this exact moment equally marked rising public concern on the actual extent of the EU institutions’ powers and whether it was actually reasonable to organise political decision-making on a supranational level. Whereas EU affairs had been a matter for specialists and experts since the 60s, the general public was beginning to discover the challenges that came along with the further integration of the EU for themselves, engaging in structured and thorough discussions themselves.

How did this social revelation evolve from the early 90s till today?

I would say that the precarious balance between positivism and concern has shifted towards the latter. Whereas people used to believe in the EU as a means towards a brighter future and ideas of intercultural exchange and free movement of people held a positive connotation, I’m unable to see a single positive emotion linked to European integration today.

What are the causes that lead to this pessimism?

I identify three factors. The further expansion of the EU towards central and eastern European countries was managed to the best of their ability, but in terms of decision-making, coherence of objectives and agreeing on “European values,” a EU with 27 members rather than 12 is an entirely different ballgame. Mind, I’m not saying it was entirely a mistake, since these countries didn’t have a plan B. Their democracies were very fragile, there were issues with social fragmentation and nationalist movements and the Yugoslav Wars reminded everyone of the EU’s peace-keeping purposes. And from an economical point of view, Western Europe actually benefitted from the expansion since, in turn, they got access to a new substantial market.

Secondly, the 2008 financial crisis put an end to the convergence of Western and Eastern economies, leading to a one to ten ratio between the lowest and highest wages. Not a single economic entity can endure such a gap as it creates too many distortions, and because of this we’re currently dealing with the precarious relationship between European corporations and an increasingly dissatisfied citizenry, suspicious of the EU’s free movement of labour. As a result, no further efforts have been made to welcome new member states into the Eurozone, in contradiction to its foundational idea. We’re dealing with a system here where everyone was expected to play the same game and abide the same rules, but somewhere along the road we got stuck. We’re in a very hybrid situation with a single market, a halfway integrated currency and extremely differentiated social policies, leaving no room for more ambitious goals in terms of education, research or environmental policies.

There’s also the recent rise of populism: like all democracies, the EU has been taking a heap of blows from populist movements for the past few years. But unlike nation-states which always have politicians, critical thinkers or journalists to counterweigh whatever it is the far-right of -left is claiming, the EU can’t rely on these checks and balances. Most citizens and national politicians have become unwilling to advocate for the EU. And since no one believes what the European Commission has to say about its own governance, the EU takes the beating without fighting back. Especially since it takes a mere 20 seconds for a populist to blame the Commission for all the waves of migration since the 50s, while it would take 10 minutes to explain that that isn’t accurate.

And this leads us to a crucial aspect: EU affairs are highly intricate, while people have very limited knowledge of it and are generally not informed enough. Fighting against populist discourses on EU affairs is a highly asymmetrical battle. Populist rhetoric is easy: it plays on emotions and fears, like patriotic attachment and love for national traditions and history, paired with social fears on just about anything. Advocating for further European integration doesn’t merely imply an emotional register, but a technical one too. GDP, import/export, sustainable development and the likes. Very depressing issues which don’t help in paving a way into the hearts of people. You need a whole lot of time, information and resources to get your message out there, but I’m afraid that today’s society doesn’t offer a lot of room for these three elements. People are so concerned with being stressed out over the future that it’s become hard to make them realise that life has never been better, barring the remaining (and very real) problems. The European institutions were founded upon rationality, European law, expertise and evidence-based policies, since they needed to substitute ideology to overcome cultural and political division. Unfortunately, it’s precisely these core values which discredit the EU today in the minds of many.

What can be done then to “pave a way” into people’s hearts?

It’s hard for me to say; I just don’t see a clear solution. I can only hope that we’re experiencing a temporary peak of populism, fake news and the likes; that people will soon become aware of the limitations of these politics of simplicity. In the meantime, we really need to start thinking about how to reform the EU to make it more transparent and efficient: after 60 years of crises, deals, compromises, treaties and agreements, it’s looking rather beastly now. Mind you, sophisticated issues require equally comprehensive structures – but progress is definitely possible here.

Olivier Costa (1969) holds a PhD in political sciences and dedicates his academic career to all things EU affairs. He has been teaching at the College of Europe in Bruges since 2000, home to those who are looking to get a grasp on the EU’s inner workings.

Els Rochette and Idris Hassan Hardi on a European solidarity culture

Els: Speaking as Globe Aroma’s artistic director and with our specific mission and identity in mind, it’s evident that I would feel strongly about the current discourse on refugees in Europe. Whether it’s the media or protectionist politics which are to blame, the public opinion on refugees and migration by extension has certainly known a turnaround in these past few years. All too often, migration is associated with declining living standards for the citizens of the host country, as if welcoming these people causes a direct threat to the socioeconomics of its welfare state. Secondly, due to the confusion caused by the recent wave of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, an amalgam of people and situations was made, when in reality they have nothing to do with one another. Refugees aren’t foreign fighters, migrants aren’t terrorists. Yet people tend to fear the unknown, and the way the so-called “migration crisis” is being framed since 2015 certainly doesn’t help. At times, it almost seemed as if entire armies of “strangers” were invading our country, whereas only a mere 0.5% of the world’s refugees end up in Europe.

Idris: Europe’s positioning on migration flows is twofold; bipolar even. Several African and Middle Eastern regimes, like Libya, have been torn down with military assistance from EU countries in the last decade. Like it or not, Libya had a functioning state structure and regulated border control while Gaddafi was in charge. It was only once his regime was overthrown that Libya became one of the most important portals for people smuggling and illegal immigration for the African continent. Europe regularly wriggles itself into military conflicts to end this or that far-flung dictatorial regime, whilst hypocritically avoiding dealing with the long-term consequences of their choices – especially when they arrive at their doorstep.

Why didn’t Europe succeed in handling the recent streams of refugees properly?

Idris: The European institutions failed to impose on its member states a uniform policy on migration. So in a way, it lacked a certain coordination or power to oblige countries like Hungary to respect the quotas, like the number of refugees they had to accommodate. Secondly, the Dublin Regulation – which decrees that refugees should be accommodated by the first country in get registered in – actually stimulates illegal migration. Why should you be forced to stay in Italy when your family is in Germany? In addition to that, the Regulation is in total contradiction to cross-country solidarity. It’s only logical that the number of people arriving to Italy or Greece – countries which have already been suffering from their own socioeconomic difficulties for quite some time – is much more elevated than say in Sweden, simply due to their geographical locations.

Would you dare say that all faith in the European project is lost?

Els: I guess I still believe in a multi-country model based on shared values and ethical principles, but right now, it’s really unclear to me what these so-called European ideals are or should be in the first place. What I mainly see today are extremist politicians taking advantage of people’s fears in the hopes of getting elected, and a shameful lack of solidarity. Finding ways to reinforce our borders seem to be the only thing on which we agree on. Too much economics and not nearly enough humanity. Tomorrow’s Europe shouldn’t be political or economical but rather based on cultural and artistic exchange and social solidarity. A slow process of people becoming international citizens instead of merely Belgians, Germans or Syrians lays ahead of us.

Els Rochette (1974) and Idris Hassan Hardi (1977) met at Globe Aroma, an immigration-centred art centre, where the former lines out its artistic course and the latter practices his art while his asylum procedure is ongoing. Globe Aroma has been offering a creative safe haven to those in need of it for over 15 years and made headlines last winter when a police raid caused a shock wave through the city of Brussels.

Thierry Brunfaut on believing in the dream

With the European Parliament elections of May 2019 near in sight, I have the sense that something is stirring within the creative sector. For one, Base Design was recently approached by Act for Democracy, a bottom-up initiative looking to establish a sort of think tank dedicated to the future of Europe, with Rem Koolhaas, Stephan Petermann and Wolfgang Tillmans as some of its driving forces. If you were to ask me why Europe appears to be in trouble, I would go ahead and say it’s all down to perception. I would hate to simplify the EU down to a brand, but at the end of the day, its perception by its citizens boils down to similar questions in branding: what do you do, why are you doing it and how can you make that clear to others?

And there you have it: people don’t relate to the EU or its institutions emotionally, and there’s no clear dream, mission or purpose to which the citizens of Europe can identify with. People haven’t got a clue of the full extent of the EU’s impact on their everyday lives. For example, there’s this yearly Europe Day event here in Brussels, yet no one cares nor bothers to pass by to get their hands on a balloon or listen to EU bureaucrats talk about how great it is. I brought this as an assignment to my students at La Cambre: help Europe out! One student came up with a brilliant idea. Instead of trying to explain and convince people on how widely beneficial the EU is to our daily lives, let them experience an entire day without EU legislation. Borders are no longer easily crossed. Job offers are limited to your home country. Currencies have to be exchanged, and so on. Sometimes you really have to shove it in people’s faces in order for them to understand.

In your opinion, is it the EU’s responsibility to sell itself to its citizens in addition to their actual policy mandate?

I wouldn’t use the term “sell” – I see it more as the ability to clearly transmit to people what you believe in and stand for. Either way, at this point, we’re way past due. In my line of work, it’s crucial to project from the get-go some kind of greater goal or dream worthy of chasing. And since economic reasons lie at the origin of the EU, the guys in charge back then of course didn’t bother to take the time to explain the bigger picture. Take the Erasmus Programme as a counterexample – one of the very few European initiatives that actually made its way into the hearts of people. And it makes perfect sense too: it’s an excellent example of the projection of a dream and its application into real life. Hundreds of thousands of kids have been able to experience something life-changing because of it. Ask these exchange students how they feel about Europe and they’ll reply that it’s awesome. The bottom line is that if the EU doesn’t succeed in presenting itself to the public as something more than just a political entity, it will not be able to stop this rising wave of Euroscepticism, nor generate a whole lot of pro-European enthusiasm around the May 2019 elections.

You mentioned earlier that you feel the EU’s time is up. What would you propose they do in order to avoid a separatist disaster in 2019?

The beauty of Europe is that it defies definition, constantly remodelling itself with time. Europe is mobility; it’s new countries. It’s about accumulation and openness to everyone’s different symbols. Although this all makes for a highly complex issue, it simultaneously inspires new thoughts. If we want the European project to succeed, it’s not campaign, folders, billboards or websites that we need, but rather the people of Europe. Strong believers of a cause are the only ones with the capacity to convince others of it. I’m sure Eurocrats are very talented and more than capable, but the Junker Commission just hasn’t got what it takes to make people change their minds. That power solely lies in the hands of Europe’s peoples instead.

As one of Base Design’s founding partners, Thierry Brunfaut (1963) is one of the key figures in today’s international realm of branding, be it cultural, commercial or institutional.

Johannes De Bruycker on facts, stories and memories

My partner Kasper Goethals and I didn’t conceive The Caravan’s Journal as an alternative model for contemporary journalism perse. We ended up finding each other through shared passions and a desire to build a project around it. We first met when we were studying journalism together, and somewhere along the line I even asked him to help me out with my bachelor’s project. I was studying television and thought it was completely ridiculous to have to write, interview, film and edit a whole thing by myself so I invited Kasper in on it. I wouldn’t dare say it was our finest piece of work, and I flunked for having turned my project into a collaboration. Yet at the very least, we realised that we’re both on the same page when it comes to thinking about how a story can benefit hugely from having different people with different skills working on it. Getting out there together, brainstorming on how to add some punch to a story.

The Caravan’s Journal is a platform based on collaboration – that’s its foundation. And pardon the buzzword, but we focus on cross-border partnerships, turning The Caravan’s Journal into a global network in which people from all over Europe are connected through their skills, regardless of whether they’re photographers, journalists or fixers. No matter the time or place, if there’s a story out there that needs covering, our correspondents just pick up a phone and ask their local contacts to help out. This is crucial – how else would we Belgians be able to do a proper story in Ukraine without knowing the language nor the situation’s specific ins and outs? Isn’t it arrogant to even think that you can just get on a plane, spend a few days somewhere and be able to get the facts?

Furthermore, this works both ways: it would be close to impossible for a Ukrainian journalist to get their story published in Belgian media if they don’t have the right contacts or some prior insight into its functioning. Pitching stories as a freelance writer is hard enough without having to add the difficulty of accessing another country’s media. That’s precisely what we’re trying to facilitate here with The Caravan’s Journal. Every member knows their local media, its audiences and the best approach to getting a story across them. Travelling and talking to people is one thing, but your story isn’t worth all that much if it’s just sitting around on your hard drive. At the risk of sounding a bit vulgar, you’ve got to trigger people into reading whatever it is you have to share with them.

Beyond this, we’ll still always have to deal with the question, “What do we consider to be important topics and who determines what they are?” An event in Kosovo won’t even scrape half of the media coverage something similar in France would. And of course, there’s the whole “fake news” phenomenon scaring the crap out of everybody. Still, I’m actually rather confident that the truly relevant stories will always find their way to the public. Instead, what I find more troubling – and we noticed this first-hand when reporting on the refugee crisis in Greece – is that at a certain point, major publishers can decide if and when the public is fed up with this or that topic and decide to no longer cover it. “We’ve had enough stories about refugees,” they said. So even though the troubles are, to say the very least, on-going, people don’t get to read about them anymore.

This volatility worries me sometimes – the rapidity at which news is no longer considered to be news, or people forget the past. It’s easy enough to do a clickbait-esque feature on Trump, but just think of Srebrenica, or Euromaidan. These are crucial elements in Europe’s recent history and continue to live on in the lives of many to this day. The Caravan’s Journal is also concerned with not just being the first reporter on site, but also with documenting the aftermath of certain events. Sure, it’s a cliché, but when people forget their history, it’s bound to repeat itself – and that could mean the end of the European project.

As co-founder of the literary collective The Caravan’s Journal, Johannes De Bruycker (1989) travels the world in search for stories, hoping to increase understanding and empathy across borders.

Marie du Chastel on the travelling arts

As a non-profit exploring the crossovers between art, science and technology within the creative field, we feel backed by European policy-making since supporting and developing creative culture has been a spearpoint for them for several years now. I guess they started to realise that engineers doing isolated research in their labs simply doesn’t cut it anymore in this specific discipline. Of course, a lot of innovation is being developed by Google and the other four ruling tech companies – Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft –, but it equally emerges from this tech-savvy movement of artists and makers. Take Arduino for example: a very basic microcontroller, it was initially developed as an art and design programme for students, but also quickly enabled all kinds of artists with limited programming skills to create functioning, semi-tech works of art. Nowadays, thousands of companies and start-ups are using Arduino to produce all kinds of hardware-based prototypes.

There’s no such thing as a European equivalent for these so-called “Big Five” tech companies. Would you consider that as somewhat of a future threat?

I don’t think of it as such. The American and European realities are very different. If you look at the numbers, most businesses in Europe are SME’s, which means that we’ve got a whole lot of small- and middle-scale companies working across many different fields of expertise. Indeed, there’s no European equivalent to Google or Baidu, but the great strength of Europe lies in this constant exchange and collaboration between its companies and countries.

What I do find concerning however is how certain players are taking over their respective fields, like Netflix and the streaming industry, primarily pushing American blockbuster-like content into the market. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find independent movies or non-American art films online, while the days of finding all kinds of crazy stuff in your local video rental store are long over. You could say that cultural globalisation comes with the risk of compromising diversity or heterogenous representation. The best way to work around this Americentric dominance on people’s online consumption of culture would be to create some European platforms, but I’m afraid that the already established players would be so unwilling to relent their share of their market that efforts would be wasted.

In what way does KIKK specifically benefit from EU regulations?

Of course, EU funding schemes are an important means of support, and not only for KIKK but also our sector as a whole. I would personally drum it down to just one word, though: mobility. As an international event, we invite artists and speakers from all over the world and as one of the few Walloon events, our yearly KIKK festival attracts more than 2,500 participants from all around Europe. Political calamities like Brexit are a real and true concern for us at KIKK. The UK ranks third in our visitor demographics so a complexified procedure for travelling would definitely affect our strength as a festival, not to mention the quality of our artistic programme. People feel as if Europe as an idealistic project doesn’t need protecting; that it has always been and always will be. Yet on the flip side, we’re also becoming afraid of open borders. If only we were more conscious of all the benefits that go along with it. Not having to file a Visa application to gain access to any of the European countries facilitates the exchange of artistic practices and knowledges to a great extent, and which all too often proves to be crucial within the realm of creative culture and technology.

Marie du Chastel (1984) is the curator and coordinator of KIKK Festival, the yearly affair of the eponymous non-profit organisation looking to promote digital and creative cultures from their home-base in Namur.

Lieven De Cauter on embracing one Europe

A striking and exemplary particularity of EU affairs is that you’ll already find yourself in murky waters once you attempt to even identify one specific problem. Talk about Europe, and you end up with its entire history grinning in your face. Trying to understand the authoritarian resurgences in Poland or Hungary implies a profound knowledge of centuries of developments. Barring perhaps a couple of specialists, most of us find ourselves completely lost when trying to figure out what is actually going on in Europe today due to the complexity of the whole thing. Open up a newspaper and Europe presents itself as some kind of multi-headed monster. We’re still trying to deal with the aftermath of the refugee crisis, separatist movements are gathering momentum all over the place and European economic policies are turning into a complete mess, since the EU institutions never acquired the right instruments to impose their legislation.

The 21st century world is multi-polar, we’ve managed to turn international law into a complete farce and for the very first time since World War II, Europe is having to consider installing a supranational military force due to Trump’s unpredictable stance on NATO. To say the very least, times are tough for pro-Europeans. An absurdity if you ask me: there’s no alternative to the EU and nationalist ideas about local identities are preposterous. There’s hardly anything that can be identified as Flemish culture; as a Catalan identity. There’s one European culture and local variations on the same theme. I remember crossing the Pyrenees for the very first time in 1986, arriving in San Sebastián’s La Concha Bay and feeling at home. I had set foot in a European city and as an art historian, was familiar with everything. Seeing as it’s apparently so difficult to explain to a European that they’re precisely that, maybe everyone should sign up for a crash course in art history, from Romanesque and Baroque art up to Modernism. The same applies to literature: the novel is a European concept with Russian and French interpretations constantly influencing one another. Flemish painters went to Italy, Italians came to Flanders. Even our national pride, fries, are a South American crop. People need to wake up: culture is a hybrid off all kinds of influences. Always has been, always will be, and denying that is plain crazy talk. Nationalism studies rightly refer to this as the “imagined community.” One European identity.

Globalisation and cosmopolitism are inevitable facts and people need to become aware of this. We need more education and first-hand experience on the globalisation phenomenon because truth and lies are in the eye of the beholder. Why do studies show that there’s less racism in mixed neighbourhoods than in all-white suburbs? We need real conversations between real people instead of biased media coverage. We need to let go of identitarian movements simply by embracing several identities. I am Flemish, I am Bruxellois. I am a philosopher influenced by Greek and Jewish cultures, and I am fully aware of that. If we could open our minds up just that tiny bit, we would all be better off. Just imagine the EU falling apart into hundreds of different regions. Stuck in between the States and China, what the hell would Belgium do? Imagine having to cross two international borders when travelling between Leuven and Liège! I’d like to see the NVA figure all of that out. No, really, there is no an alternative to Europe. Or maybe just one – as Elon Musk would say, planet Mars.

Art historian, city activist and philosopher Lieven De Cauter (1959) teaches at RITCS and KU Leuven and never shies away from making a bold statement on current affairs.