Stories Jul05 2016, London

New Europeans: Hitherto and Hereafter

Starting in January of this year, the New Europeans project fell at what felt even then like a crucial moment for Europe. The previous summer had seen one of its member countries, Greece, reduced to economic collapse and a humiliating acceptance of the austerity policies imposed on it by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. This, despite a decisive “OXI” vote against these policies in a popular referendum. Meanwhile the refugee crisis was at its height and showing no signs of abatement. Public attitudes to refugees had fluctuated drastically in the months leading up to the project, from the widespread sympathy arising from the image of the poor child washed up on the beach in August, to a slowly resurgent hostility following a continued influx which was punctuated first by the Paris attacks and then by reports of sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Add to this the overall sense that the European political process was facing a growing crisis of political legitimacy and you will appreciate that we had a veritable smorgasbord of problems to sink our teeth into.

But we were just a small group, with limited power or resources to actually influence the big things that were happening. And besides, solving Europe’s problems was never the specific goal of our project (truth be told, we never did work out what the goal was). Even so, we put a lot of thought into these problems, and made some really beautiful projects in the process… In addition to the articles to be found on this site, we produced a series of short films (available on our vimeo), we hosted a whole variety of events, we took several trips outside Amsterdam (most notably to Calais migrant camp and to several locations in Brussels) and at the wall we staged numerous artistic interventions.

“the friendships forged in the six months that we were working together will sustain themselves long after the project has finished”

Many of these projects are guaranteed to have long afterlives. Elisa and Tessa have just completed a series of beautiful short films in which they explore people’s life history through their treasured souvenirs. Brought back to life by Domenique and Charlien, the Goddess Europa will continue to stalk our political class in various guises, a much needed focal point for the public’s frustrations. The Hortus Europa will remain at the site, a potent reminder that a widespread project of storytelling is needed to enhance the cultural bonds we share in Europe, with contact having been made with the people from the neighbourhood to maintain it. Containing another, simpler, European story of debt, the conversational flags have been packed away, but as portable as they are, they remain poised to return once Freja and Charlie return from their summers and focus on finding a new home for them. But perhaps most obviously, the friendships forged in the six months that we were working together will sustain themselves long after the project has finished and through the website we can continue to utilise these strong bonds as we continue unpicking the problem of Europe.

Perhaps the main obstacle we faced in meeting the demands of the project arose from the need to continually act and react without properly dwelling on what we were doing. As a result we produced a lot of things that were in the end not properly fashioned into the kind of finished product that lots of people could come to see. Indeed, so many things were produced that we feel that it’s worth continuing to use this website to make proper sense of all the things that we did. And besides that, since the British referendum to leave the European Union it feels all the more important that we retain it as a space which deals with European culture and the bonds that unite us as Europeans.

That one of the EU’s largest and most influential members has taken the drastic step of leaving the European Union is testament to the troubles facing European unity. This is a crisis that has been many years in the making, a product of a growing split between, on the one hand, an outward looking, internationalist, metropolitan class and on the other hand an evidently more sizeable group of people, mostly residing in smaller towns and cities, who feel more comfortable defining themselves through a national identity and who clearly feel they haven’t benefited sufficiently from being part of the EU.

It should be said that European unity does not start and end with the European Union. In fact, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the union, in it’s current form, has enhanced the aforementioned division between the metropolitan and more provincial sections of each constituent nation state, by being a primarily economic union characterised by the policies of free trade and free movement, something which largely benefits the young, fit, healthy, highly-educated and mobile, those primarily concentrated in big cities (and those who mostly voted to Remain in the EU in the referendum). It is important, then, to think about what we can take from our own project that might contribute in some small way to enhancing a European unity that transcends the strict confines of the European Union and benefits more than just this metropolitan class.

On this note, our final publication (available to download here) sought to highlight several intriguing parallels between the difficulties we faced during our project and the problems besetting European society. In projects like ours and in our society more generally, success is too often determined solely through things that can be measured, there is an over-reliance on quick fixes and the spectacle of change and there is little interest in the long term effort required to do something truly transformative. What is absent in both cases is an attempt to produce something distilled from long term experience that precisely articulates complex ideas in a comprehensible way: what we would call a story.

Our answer to these problems was pretty straightforward and by no means all-encompassing: all of us need to spend time developing a culture of storytelling. Such stories should provide people with simple, comprehensible explanations to the big things happening in the world. The stories should forego too much detail so that they people can assimilate these ideas into their everyday life. But they must arise from a depth of knowledge that can only come from long term experience.

Because let’s face it, everyone in the UK benefits from a strong cultural bond with the rest of Europe, and everyone in Europe benefits from cultural exchange with other people from across the continent. It’s just that the primary vehicle for creating this bond, the European Union, is manifestly failing to make a compelling case for why ordinary people should stick with it. In the debate preceding the referendum, arguments for the EU were mostly based on dry economic information or on the idea that EU citizens can effortlessly leave their home country to live, work and travel in any other country in the union. Leaving aside the fact that this wouldn’t wash with a lot of people whose life has mostly been spent in their home country, the strength of these appeals is nothing compared to that which could be created by a well told story highlighting the shared cultural bonds created by European exchange and co-operation.

And so, with that in mind we aim to keep this website going as a platform to tell some stories. And if we can continue once in a while to use this as a space to display work which brings tremendously abstract ideas like “Europe” to a human level then we can probably finally mark this down as a successful project. But that remains to be seen. For now, we will leave you by saying thanks for following our work these past six months, it’s been emotional.

comments