“Tišma’s dog” or: Where is Europe drifting?
“We are stuck on an ice floe as if frozen, not knowing what action to take as we drift along downriver.”
Right at the beginning of his book “What if Europe fails?” – published last year – Dutch historian and writer Geert Mak describes an incident recounted to him by the Serbian author Aleksandar Tišma. In the winter of 1999, by a stroke of bad luck, Tišma’s dog Jacky found itself stranded on an ice floe in the River Danube. Petrified with fear, it sat on the ice and was slowly drifting downriver. Shouting at it did not help – it seemed to be paralysed by shock. It was only thanks to the brave intervention of a child who grabbed it by the scruff of its neck that Jacky was rescued from this precarious situation and brought safely back to dry land.
Looking at the current situation of the European Union, Mak cites with approval Tišma’s conclusion: “We are stuck on an ice floe as if frozen, not knowing what action to take as we drift along down the river.”
Does this picture seem too drastic, too one-sided, perhaps even too dramatic? Geert Mak’s publication credentials are manifestly not those of a “Eurosceptic”. But in this essay he finds it necessary to sound the alarm. Does the European integration project, with its commitment to the principles of human rights and democratic values, still have a chance of surviving? Is it not rather on a collision course with global “free market” and “free competition” thinking – an ideology which dismisses “normal human existence” with arrogant contempt, having long ago shed any pretensions of social concern?
In the wake of the crisis, people do not seem to understand what has happened to them – they are “withdrawing into a kind of social anaesthesia”. Mak sees two dangers here: people are more likely to succumb to the allure of populism (and here Mak rightly distinguishes clearly between the present situation and the populist nationalism of the 1930s); at the same time, they risk losing confidence in the basic capability of politics and politicians to deliver solutions. “That is what our ice floe looks like. It’s a good thing that we know about it. But now what do we do?”
Geert Mak has no panacea to propose. But he does see in the current situation an opportunity for us to finally see Europe the way it really is, with its strengths and its weaknesses. Leaving aside all distaste for the political sphere, we need to ask ourselves what we want to do with this Europe of ours. Rather than allowing ourselves to carry on “drifting”, we can start exploring the purpose of our journey towards European unity, as well as its limits. We need to discuss these things, Mak concludes – we as citizens need to start “doing” politics and democracy again. This will call for different – and, by all means, opposing – concepts, objectives, visions and ideas. In this sense, David Cameron’s Europe speech last week is a useful contribution, if it is picked up, pursued, questioned contradicted – in other words, if it is discussed; the European debate at the BOZAR among European politicians like Sylvie Goulard, Mario Monti, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt is one obvious forum.
What is still needed now is for the citizens themselves to want to participate in this discussion, because: “In order to get off the ice floe, we, the citizens of Europe, need to want something ourselves – and that is also part of the problem, because we have forgotten how to want something. The financial markets have sold us on the idea that we shall not want for anything anymore. They could become our rulers because we Europeans allowed it to happen.”
Political reawakening for the citizen – not as some sort of diversionary vocational therapy, but as urgently needed healing therapy to change some deeply ingrained old habits: now, that would be a worthwhile objective for the “European Year of the Citizen”!
Translated from the original text in German