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Forget politics and bureaucracy. Having a stronger cultural indentity will unite the EU ǀ View

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The shocking provocation of Nigel Farage at the European Parliament’s Brexit meeting on 29 January, and the forever shocking stories from the Auschwitz commemoration, are seemingly unconnected yet have something in common: the denial of European civilisation. Behind the political unrest bubbling up over these past years lies a deep conflict. It is not only the globalisation process rubbing against national and very local interests, caused by and resulting in further social erosion, but also the largely neglected theme of identity. Expressions of barbarism are still appearing in Europe, showing that our civilisation has not been “finished” yet; there is still much work to do.

The current mobilisation of right-wing protests against the Establishment, against the bureaucracy of the EU, and against immigration and acceptance of war refugees in Europe - stimulated by ignorance and distrust of politics and media - is fed by two interrelated sources which are generally left untouched by the political parties in favour of both the EU and a controlled immigration: national identity and cultural identity.

These two notions describe the forces behind the drama of Brexit and behind the ongoing problems of the EU. Both are emotional in nature. The reason that the traditional political parties, and the gigantic organisational structure of the EU, prefer to avoid tackling these subjects is that they (the organisations) are strongly rationalistic in nature, due to the bureaucratic challenges of the modern world which requires management skills above all else. Scale requires bureaucracy, and bureaucracy by its nature does not indulge in philosophical and cultural questions.

Also, the very different histories of the European nations forces collaborations to be rational, so as not to tread on sensitive toes and muddy the waters with old resentments and suspicions. The tragedy of the EU is that it wants to be an overall structure unifying these different nations. It logically sees rationality as the only way to transcend borders, appealing to common sense, concrete interests, intelligence and argument, instead of patriotic emotions which have created so much havoc in the continent’s past. So, a large territory of potential disruption has been left unploughed, where these days the seeds of all those buried resentments and suspicions sprout into a fresh crop of dangerous sentiments, where the progeny of fascism (lying dormant for decennia) becomes easy to detect (as can be seen in the ‘Völkisch’ appeal of movements like the German ‘Pegida’).

But the one thing that can be seen as being shared by all European nations is culture, in the anthropological sense of how people live and want to live, their values and customs. A network of values, defining European society, can easily be drawn-up; the constitutional state, rule of law, freedom of expression and speech, equal and human rights, social responsibility and so on. At the core of these values can be found the humanism which has grown over the centuries by trial and error, and through the various waves of emancipatory movements.

Culture, in the sense of art, is an embodiment of these values, a stylisation, where the human condition and all its problems are explored. This embodiment is emotional in nature, and thus forms an important instrument in the education of the emotions, which keeps civilisation intact. If the traditional political parties in the EU member states would give much more attention to culture in this sense, as a means of identifying Europe as a unifying force across all borders - and thus, identification with the cultural values that transcend the historically-defined differences - and form the foundations of unity under the pluralism of variety, it would take the wind out of the sails of those right-wing parties whose influence can only be destructive. Obviously, education plays a crucial role here, and it remains to be seen whether a better cultural awareness would prevent people from feeling threatened by a burka at the post office. But it is the only way to a safe, wealthy and free Europe where civilisation can blossom.

Mobilising a European identity would need a grand narrative, not the type of which has been shown to be false, destructive and/or defective, but one that has demonstrated to be viable, fruitful and constructive. In such a narrative, Europe’s cultural heritage should be at the centre as a repertoire of explorations of the human condition.
John Borstlap
Classical composer and author

European - or Western - culture (in an anthropological sense) is universalist, whatever the postmodernists try to claim in their self-defeating jargon. This means that this is a culture that can be chosen and adhered to and can, at the same time, include culture-defining, emotional symbolism in day-to-day life. The Europeanisation of immigrants, which is already happening on a grand scale but doesn’t often hits the front pages, proves that there are no grounds to fear that immigration would undermine Europe culturally.

The values which make Europe such a successful continent are shared by every developed culture. So, there should be place a for Euro-Islam as there is for Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism and so on, all as a form of European culture. Christianity itself stems from the Middle East, an eastern cultural context. There should be European painters, architects, composers, of Turkish, Moroccan and Syrian descent, capable of feeling profoundly committed to the European cultural heritage which is still alive and kicking in the museums, concert halls, opera houses and galleries of Europe.

Culture in the artistic sense is the best means of creating a common commitment to the continent as a whole, inclusive of our cultural differences, and would be a strong antidote to the destructive, primitive forces which show their ugly head in their quasi-decent disguise of “acceptable politics.” It will be clear that a new art, as presented by so many established modern artists and composers, who, like the populist angst mongers, have nothing to offer but primitive nihilism and destructive instincts, is entirely inadequate to this task.

It is to be hoped that younger generations will explore the possibilities of a European art which has a real contribution to make to the civilisation which has, in spite of its aberrations, conquered the world. Its positive, constructive values have universal meaning and thus, appeal for any human being longing for a life worth living.

The emotional experience of identity is not a solitary thing, but a whole host of psychological elements that may contrast but together form the emotional fundament of the personality. Identity can consist of different layers with a different meaning in different contexts. Knowing and understanding the various cultures of Europe and their histories, and understanding the values which transcend the differences, can stretch national identity to a European identity, or form a layer of identity above the national one.

Exercising one’s cultural identity, like cultivating church or mosque visits, wearing a head scarf, visiting Italian opera in a Nordic climate and so ona, can be combined or balanced with a European cultural identity. Mobilising a European identity would need a grand narrative, not the type of which has been shown to be false, destructive and/or defective, but one that has demonstrated to be viable, fruitful and constructive. In such a narrative, Europe’s cultural heritage should be at the centre as a repertoire of explorations of the human condition.

  • John Borstlap is a classical composer and an author on cultural subjects.

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