Main Speech Robert Menasse


The citizen loves the future. For only there, in the wide field of opportunity can and should his success be proven. He does not appreciate the world as it is, it should be richer, more beautiful, safer, bolder, more practical, happier, it should be anything that is possible, but just exactly that: Anything that is possible. History? Pain! The present? Shortcomings! The future? Redemption and confirmation! That is, at least historical, civic awareness. Even the impossible is to the citizen always only a special challenge of his sense of possibility, his greed for overcoming limited and restricted reality. What has happened, that today, in modern civil societies in Europe, even the possible and the clearly necessary are being seen as impossible? Why does Europe remain in a logjam with respect to the reasonable further development of the union, which causes crises, which frustrates the majority of people, and which generates such huge costs that attempts to manage these costs only further intensify the crisis and reinforce the logjam?

Before I become engaged in this completely seized up debate about the European crisis, I would like to recall one simple fact: That progress in freedom and the increasing prosperity were only possible due to the liberation of science and the arts. The liberation of research from religious shackles and social taboos facilitated the understanding of the forces of nature that revolutionise all spheres of life and could initiate developments which, little by little, made possible what had until then been impossible, from the steam engine to space flight, advances in medicine, the acceleration of communication and so on. Everyone will nod to this (but have no answer, when the question is asked, if that is the case, why today, in an undoubtedly civil society which politically impedes free academic research, starves the budget and is compelled economically into new dependencies). But art – and there probably won’t be any more automatic nodding – was also instrumental in the success stories of the bourgeois world: By freeing artists from the constraints of religious employers and noble patronage, through the creation of a free art market, art was able, for the first time, to produce a true image of human nature, to make man understandable in his social context, thereby illuminates the terrain which the citizen wanted to enter and understand as his very own. It was art that kept awake the awareness of human misery just as much as the high-flying aspirations and opportunities of mankind, which showed reality with all its shortcomings, which gave mankind dignity even in its failures, and thus opened up the perspective to its possible size and success. As the bourgeoisie had achieved economic power and was now also preparing to seize political power, art therefore provided it with an essential driving force: It demonstrated the ideals and needs of the citizens as deeply human, of universal validity and free from old ideologies and dependencies. Only then would it also be obvious that democratic societies perceived the support of art and the safeguarding and improvement of the framework conditions for art production as a political duty.

What remains of this? Very little. Socially, art was a sophisticated culture to a ghetto of spectacle, which no longer satisfies the curiosity of the citizen, but just its airs and graces, economically art became the share and a pretext for indirect profitability, on the other hand, the welfare case, and politically an unloved, poorly endowed department.

It has forgotten history and is blind to the future and, if we reflect on our contemporaneity, that is an essential, yet completely ignored aspect of what we today refer to as ‘the crisis’.

Crisis, everywhere you look! Financial, budgetary, bank, economic, growth, location, euro, EU crisis – so many crises, and yet they are all one: One crisis with no light at the end of the tunnel for the economy. This view is devastating, because it is blind to the need to understand its own contemporaneity and to shape the future in an innovative, democratic and socially stable manner, in the spirit of a universalism such as that importantly introduced to society by free research and free art. But today, when solutions to the crisis are sought, the view immediately narrows, already teeming with economic experts, who are ignorant of the real-life experiences and needs of the people and whose advice only exacerbates the crisis. This is, not least, also a consequence of the political neglect of the universities, which are poorly equipped and have only the semblance of autonomy, giving them no opportunity to enter the 21st century. They still educate national economists and business economists in the same way as in the 19th century and these then go on to become political consultants – irrespective of the fact that national economics no longer exists because national economics is a subject which no longer has a base in reality in the Europe of today: Sixty years ago, Europe entered into a post-national development, value creation takes place on a transnational basis, cash flows no longer recognise national borders, the ecology, which was not only a problem but also an economic factor, is neither to be comprehended from a political economic point of view, much less to be managed, and so on. Having a national economist as an economic policy adviser today is as absurd as having a horse-whisperer as a consultant in the automotive industry. And then there are the business economists! A state is no ‘business’, and I am not a ‘client’ of the state or of state institutions. Nor am I, for example, a ‘client’ of the police! I am a citizen of the state and of Europe, and it is one of the greatest puzzles in the analysis of contemporary civic awareness that, in all seriousness, people define their rights of citizenship according to the criteria of consumer protection. However, if a state is not a ‘business’, then a state which has entered into a post-national process is in no way at all to be managed as a ‘business’ (and it would certainly be farfetched to classify the union as a ‘cartel’).  That is why the economically focused view of the current crisis is so devastating: It confirms things for those who are turning away from the European idea because the EU has proven to be ‘merely’ a purely economic project in the interests of the banks and corporations, and who now cite the symptoms of the crisis as proof that this project, which annuls the structural opportunities of a sovereign national economy can never function. The fixation of the crisis analysis on the economy is devastating because it reduces the conventional, global civic progressive thinking to begging for national fiscal stimulus programmes. It is devastating because it sees places where people live only as ‘locations’ and measures their ‘quality’ according to the opportunities they offer for wage, social and tax dumping.

The truth, even if it has been forgotten, is that the European Union was never primarily an economic project, the process of the unification of Europe was not begun for economic reasons or even out of necessity, and it was never in the interests of ‘the economy’ to drive this process onwards. Neither the real economy nor the financial industry have exercised pressure to that effect to consequently expand the communitisation. On the contrary. One only has to recall the economic situation at the time of the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, from which emerged the European Community and eventually the European Union. At that time, Europe was still experiencing reconstruction after the war, companies’ order books were full, after years of shortages the internal markets of the European states were not sated, and a considerable part of the exorbitant economic growth and the recovery was due to major government contracts, to reconstruction and expansion of the nation-state infrastructures. It was the economic policy of the sovereign nation state, which was therefore the focus of the interested parties, in particular the larger companies, and not the utopia of a united Europe. Today, if one rereads the discussions which preceded the founding of the ECSC, then one would have to be illiterate to overlook all the objections from industry representatives who argued against surrendering national sovereignty in such economically critical sectors as coal and steel. Neither was establishing the conditions for transnational value creation in Europe in the interests of the large, powerful companies of the time, they did not even see this as an opportunity for the future. And today? Is it completely clear that today, the EU has finally become merely the Europe of corporations? Wrong again. Even today, the corporations do not have the slightest interest in the consistent further development and political consolidation of the union, for instance in the absolutely crucial communitisation of the finance and economic policy: For as long as the nation states have defended their sovereignty in economically relevant areas, such as fiscal policy, so long have the states been open to blackmail from the corporations. They, the corporations, can depress taxes and duties, compel the liberalisation of labour law and so on, simply by constantly threatening to relocate to another state, which speedily guarantees better conditions – without having to leave the huge European internal market. Europe as a whole, however, would no longer be blackmailed to this extent. A level playing field for all on the same continent would therefore offer no advantage to the corporations. Therefore, the EU is not a product of the corporations, rather the logjam against further development of the EU is a product of the corporations – insofar as this can be generalised in any way at all.

In fact, the EU is about something completely different than the immediate satisfaction of the interests of the corporations, the vision of which extends no further than to the next quarterly results. The European Union is firstly and essentially a cultural project. At the beginning, there was an idea, which, as said, could not be derived from capital investment interests. An idea, the implementation of which was to finally facilitate sustainable peace across this continent which was continually being ravaged by war. The founding fathers of the European unification project had experienced four wars during their lifetime. All wars of the modern era in Europe were products of nationalism, were national wars of unification and conquest, the consequences of competition and the ideological enmity between nations. Nationalism has led to the greatest crimes against humanity in our history, to wars in which the civilian population is no longer spared, to attempted genocides, to Auschwitz. Only by overcoming nationalism can lasting peace be achieved, can a dignified life based on universal human rights be guaranteed in the long term. And how can this be accomplished? The idea was inspired: Having the nations gradually cede sovereign rights to supranational institutions until, sometime in the future, with all options for political configuration lost, the nations wither away. This idea is bold, but can no longer be described as ‘utopia’ and dismissed for this reason, for a utopia is defined nowhere and never, the European idea however has developed tangibly and realistically for more than sixty years here, in Europe, and has already sustained itself very well. Now is an idea which derives from historical experiences a new definition of the identity and the social affiliation of the people and develops a new way living together, first a cultural phenomenon and in proportion as they attempt to change the political culture and practice, is a cultural and political project. ‘The economy’ is supposed to be a means to an end through appropriate economic policies and to serve the idea – and it can benefit in this way. The offer was: They receive growth opportunities through the internal market, free movement of capital, single currency, etc., with the effect that, through international integration, no nation can make decisions against others based on national egotism without harming themselves economically. The interests of the economy should only be served to a limited extent, and the economy only learned to define its own interests to a certain extent in the process of the unification of Europe. The basic idea of Europe, the peace project, was, to put it bluntly, of no matter. Political economies are, as a whole, largely neutral to the question of war or peace. If there is war, there is simply a war economy. Then there is no need to struggle to depress wages, because forced labourers are available. And once the war is over, then there are once more enormous growth rates, accompanied by beautiful, grand speeches. I believe every captain of industry, manager, CEO, when he says that this point of view is a scandal, nonsense, that he, as a loving family man, abhors the war and wishes for everlasting peace. But we are not talking about candid, individual sensitivities here, but about system logic. And how indifferent economic interests are to an idea such as the European peace project can be illustrated by the example of the so-called ‘Greek budgetary crisis’: To begin with, the German arms industry managed the feat of arming a NATO member, namely Greece, against another NATO member, namely Turkey, with large volumes of military equipment and submarines; it could also be said: An EU member against an EU candidate country, thus representing an incredibly cynical parody of the European idea – and then it succeeded in triggering aggressive nationalistic resentment against Greece: “The Greeks! There they are living beyond their means with our submarines, and they still have difficulties making their payments!”

This example also illustrates how the fiscal and economic policies of the European states systematically undermine the European idea of overcoming nationalism and the Community interests: Each problem encountered is immediately renationalised, debt is not jamming the common policy, instead it is always the policy of the respective nation in which the crisis symptoms are occurring, this nation is then forced to undertake a national effort in the form of a national austerity policy, whereby the system errors of the Community cannot be solved via this measure, although national populations do descend into misery. This renationalisation is the crisis, the anti-European backlash, run by the heads of state and government of the EU.

I do not doubt the logic and inherent consistency of the arguments which political economic policymakers and political economic experts make against a common European economic and fiscal policy, I also understand the psychology of the national parliaments which do not want to lose their most important power, the decision-making authority over budget and fiscal policy. However, we also know from past experience, that even well-founded interests can be very short-sighted and their satisfaction ultimately extremely disastrous, and we now know from experience that, not only can these national logjams and the renationalisation of the European Union policy not solve the crisis in Europe, but like a perpetual motion machine they produce new symptoms for the crisis time after time.

Only two things can help this short-sightedness, one: To look steadfastly and consistently into the future, to rekindle the love of the citizen for the future, his natural terrain, in which he wants to construct, participate socially and politically and realise. It is not the balance of the next quarter which is crucial, but that of our lifetime: Will we succeed in establishing a common framework which guarantees sustainable peace, the rule of law, a livelihood for the largest possible number of people on our continent, a system which is not continually out of breath in the global economic competition, but which becomes a model which the whole world emulates in the long term? And second: A return to the basic idea of the European unification process, a reconstruction and consistent implementation of its cultural policy dimension. Given that a fiscal union is not possible in the short term, a common European cultural policy would first provide the opportunity to prepare the decision for necessary further communitisation of European policy there where it must eventually be made: In the hearts and minds of the citizens. A cultural policy offensive in the broadest sense: An education campaign which liberates the educational institutions from the misery of national budgetary constraints, a liberation of science and research from the imposition of only managing misery, a pan-European concept for promoting and conveying art in all fields, increased cultural exchange, radical expansion of the Erasmus and Leonardo programmes, but also exchanges for journalists such as offered here as part of the Young European Journalists Project in Potsdam – we don’t need any new European media, we need Europeans in the media. And we need imagination and creativity – something of which this year’s winner of the M100 Media Award, dancer and choreographer Erdem Gündüz, is a wonderful example – in order to peacefully capture public space, to demonstrate the requirement for political participation, and to promote cross-border discussions on the appearance of the new common democracy that we need to establish in Europe.

In its premise, Europe is a cultural policy project and must therefore become engaged and creative in this political field: It is nationalism in its most eccentric form, that European nation states, notably Germany, refuse to transfer cultural policy authority to the European Commission and the European Parliament, and most eccentric of all is the reason, namely that cultural policy must remain with the subsidiary decision-making authority. A common European cultural policy would certainly not prevent this, the subsidiarity principle is enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon and is the only item which no-one involved in European development would want to infringe – on the contrary: This principle must be clarified and further developed. All major cultural achievements have emerged regionally, but it is also clear that they could only gain importance because they were simultaneously also universal. Presenting them for the underpinning of national identity and national pride is a limitation of their importance and a misuse. However, if it were possible to appreciate and reproduce the diversity of Europe’s artistic, cultural and scientific achievements as a common wealth, and to see the cultural heritage of Europe not as a sum of ‘national contributions’ but to acquire it as a common heritage, in order to possess it, when it would be possible culturally to create the corresponding common framework conditions, then a common identity comprising many facets would be created which neither standardised individual interests nor eliminated regional specialities. All that would be lost would be the fiction of national pride, this strange phenomenon where one is mostly proud of something about which you can do nothing or to which you can contribute nothing, namely being born by chance within the borders of a particular territory in the world, borders, moreover, which no longer exist within Europe. A European cultural policy which buries national pride would be a major step towards achieving clarification, and it would lead to a European awareness which the logjams of political economic and fiscal policy did not withstand. A small contribution of 99 cents per citizen per year would be a major step in this direction, and at the same time the nucleus from which a common European fiscal policy and European budget could arise. The EU needs its own budget for a reasonable and meaningful, clear policy of integration and harmonisation of living and working conditions in Europe, instead of being dependent on contributions from Member States which bargain aggressively for rebates, which once again only stirs up nationalist sentiments.

Harmonisation of the framework conditions for the diversity of the cultures on this continent: That is a cultural requirement which continues to have an effect in all areas of policy. Why should someone in the Alentejo try to life their life according to completely different basic conditions than someone in Hesse or the Tyrol or in the Peloponnese? Do all these people basically have such different interests and such different expectations of life? Why should a person lose their job where they live because a company relocates after being offered more favourable conditions elsewhere within a supposedly common union? Or accept radical wage cuts in order to allow the national budget to rescue banks active across national borders? Does this correspond to the needs of the person, in dignity and fairness under conditions which apply equally to all, to seize opportunities in their own way and seek their fortune? What opportunities does this person have, if they are a victim of the fiction of ‘politics of national interest’ or a forced national austerity policy? It is just the imposed national austerity policy which does not have the slightest regard for the established cultures and mentalities of the people, which lumps their plights together, and robs them of the prerequisites to live free and confidently as part of a diverse and rich culture and to develop it further.
Those who discard belief in the finest sense of European cultural policy as empty idealism are saying that ideals have no value – and should proceed to explain why harsh pragmatism has destroyed so many real values.

The economic and fiscal union will come – when the Europeans realise that they are Europeans. The citizens who put forth the European culture will then also know to reorganise their political community. This will give rise to the European Republic.

Dreams of the future? Yes! Should we not learn to shape the future again instead of fearing it? And dreams – of course! Because without dreams, life would be a mistake!