The concept of ´Europe´ first dawned on me when I was in the collecting age, that is, about seven or eight. Among the many things I collected were stamps, and among these I was especially interested in this subcollection carrying the letters EGKS – which in Dutch stands for European Community of Coal and Steel. Why was I so enthousiastic about them? It must have had something to do with the mood of those times – with World War II less then twenty-five years in the past, post-war food rationing still less long ago, and finally some good quality of life available for larger groups in European societies. The basis of the newly acquired good life consisted in two things: peace, and the rebuilding of European trade and industry. An industry of which the rock-bottom consisted in coalmining and steelworks.
Some years later, EGKS changed to EEG, European Economic Community, which, as is well known, later transformed into the European Union. Now, as a result of debt, and the emotions around it, a struggle has come to the surface – a struggle about what Europe is, who belongs to it, and on what grounds. Trying to follow the debates about the possible bailout of Greece, in their incredible intensity, I am reminded of the low level of my knowledge of economics. On the one hand, economics seems so emotional, on the other it is based on mathematical models that I could never feign to grasp.
The crisis is also, however, dominated by good old school-yard games, deciding who are the alpha males, and who can decide how the common rules will be applied. A couple of new males showed up on the yard, a short while ago, dressing more casual than usual, and with a grin on their faces that provoked. They not only stirred up the culture of ‘Europe’ as it shows on the screen, but they certainly stirred up this discussion about the foundations of what has been taken for granted for a long time. That what is decided about European states and their interconnected economies, floats on a web of institutions, banks, governments, their representatives, voting citizens, and populist movements that is hard to unravel, and about which we believe what a few select ‘experts’ say for the camera.
I try to understand what happens, and delve in the largely perished remnants of my school and university education on the subject of economy. In highschool it was largely Keynes. As long as we understood Keynes, we were allright. In university, during my years in sociology we had one class which was called PEMA, which stood for political-economic analysis of society. It consisted of lectures, which were historical, and treated old European thinkers like Ricardo and Smith. And there was a very strange book, which we had to read by ourselves. It had a grey cover, and a type-writer font within, and was published in the USSR. It was so theoretical and boring, and out of touch with anything, that I could hardly read it. I reserved four days for the four hundred pages, and managed to pass the exam, but immediately forgot what I had read. Now I am sorry that I didn’t pay more attention, at least during the lectures.
What did remain from that time, though, is the insight that economics is very theoretical. I mean, almost everything seems to depend on the theory you choose. And although I am a great lover of theory, I lost my interest in the subject of political economy because of its complete lack of connection with historical and cultural reality. And that, it seems, is what is at stake now, in the debates about Greece, and the European debt crisis. European history, and clashing European cultures.
Nobody nowadays seem to talk about how Europe developed its complicated negotiations between cultures through history – but this history could help to understand the present struggles. Struggles, not only, between countries, but also between culture groups or peoples within countries. Catalans, Basks, Scots, Britons, Friesians – all over Europe, there are not only countries, but a patchwork of cultures and languages – crossing borders and putting strain on national unities from within. Fighting their own regional economic struggles, which also invisibly are negotiated behind the screenplay of European national politics. As they surely are behind the men of Syriza, as well as behind the Dijsselbloems and all the others.
I remember another time when we discussed the identity of Europe – when Yugoslavia broke up, and in the ‘heart’, so to speak, of the continent, unexpected wars had to be dealt with. Then we heard, and we still do, a lot about the proclaimed ‘Christian’ identity of Europe. An identity which is to me as much a chimerea as Europe’s economical and political identity. It was invoked in the past to spur on conflicts with ‘Asian’, ‘Moorish’, and other ‘foreign’ peoples. It was also referred to in order to support large scale expulsion, discrimination, or even murder of ‘others’. Others which always have been around on European soil. We Europeans are others too, among ourselves.
Continents by nature have no borders, and no clear identities. Nor do religions. Nor unions of nations that try to reserve the best trade deals for their in-group. Humans will always work their way around the artificial borders of any group of peoples, who, despite their complex negotiated internal differences, try to sell themselves off as a unity. Or as a union. At great costs even, as the large quantities of human casualties of ‘Europe’ and its borders remind us of every day. Just rethinking my own history, as a stamp-collecting kid, I think that ‘community of coal and steel’ at least was a more straightforward indication of what attempts at European integration since World War II have been about.