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In the wake of last week's "Karlspreis" being awarded to Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, guest author Frank Burgdörfer reflects upon this predictable choice and suggests David Cameron as a better candidate given his European achievements.
The city of Aachen has awarded Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, with the "Karlspreis" – an annual prize named after the medieval emperor Charlemagne. It comes as no surprise at all, as the prize is usually given to people who hold key functions in European institutions. Thus the group of potential recipients is rather limited. Council president Donald Tusk and commission president Jean-Claude Juncker were already awarded the prize. As former president of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet got one previously, it will most likely be the turn of his successor Mario Draghi next year. Truly exciting...
Do not get me wrong: Schulz definitely has merits with regard to Europe. However, this is not exceptional because we as European tax payers remunerate him well for his work. He has indeed increased and consolidated the EP’s influence over the last years. Still, giving him an award for that is a bit like awarding the Pope for special achievements in the field of leading the Catholic Church.
Are there no committed citizens, innovate business men, progressive researchers or clerics building bridges in Europe? Cartoonists, journalists, historians, teachers or doctors, who have used their positions to give "exceptional contributions in political, economic or spiritual regard for the unity of Europe", as a declaration from 1990 puts it? It seems that the Charlemagne Prize actually puts the city of Aachen more into the spotlight than the awardee – which is in fact often the case with other prizes too.
"Mild mannered European civil servant by day, superhero, erm, at weekends and at other times on request..." He is Captain Europe, an anonymous employee of the European institutions whose mission is to lift European citizens' spirits during these hard times, while fighting the mortal enemies that are eurosceptics.
It all began back in 2008, when this civil servant assembled all the pieces of a suit that would become his part-time uniform for the next four years… and those to come. Carrying a European flag as his cape and the 12 golden stars of the European flag glued on the torso of a tight blue suit, he went to a costume party. It was the first day of many as a superhero.
"A colleague was particularly pleased with some work I did, so I sent him a picture of myself in costume and told him to think of me as his superhero. The upshot was that I was invited to take part in Europe Day," he explains. A successful experiment, Captain Europe became a fixed attraction in these celebrations, and his phenomenon went viral after, of course, coming up on Facebook and Twitter. "I got so many appearances that I have just had to order a new suit," he says.
Superpowers and Twitter
On the day that the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize, Captain Europe appeared on the Place du Luxembourg, the favourite square for celebrations in the bubble, passing on his enthusiasm to fellow eurofans as well as passers-by.
When you think about institutional Brussels, you picture suited up adults carrying a suitcase on their way to work. Cheerful kids are harder to imagine in the grey bureaucratic bubble that many have built in their minds, but evidently, the so-called eurocrats have children too, and nurseries and schools also have a place in the city's institutional life.
The European School, or Schola Europaea, stands out among all the educational options provided to EU officials and workers because of its initiative to promote European citizenship and common values among the students. Created in Luxembourg in 1953, the project tried to bring together kids from different mother tongues and nationalities, an educational experiment supported by the Coal and Steel Community of the time. Today, there are 12 schools spread across Europe, all financed by member states, and all with the following words sealed in the foundation stones of each building:
"Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe."
Matilda Sevón, a 31-year-old Finn living in Brussels, arrived at the school when she was 15, after her father got a job in the Parliament. Today, looking back at the statement, she doesn't feel it quite fits her situation. "I think of other Europeans as much closer to me than I did before going to the European School, but in some ways I have also become more fond of my own country," she says.
Imagine Europe in ten, thirty, fifty years. Will we ever be able to build a European identity or will Europe turn into one large museum? Leire Ariz investigates what young Europeans in Brussels have to say about Slavenka Drakulić’s predictions for the old continent.
Carmen Păun is a volunteer for the European Youth Press in Brussels. Like many of the young people in the bubble, she came from Romania to study in a masters programme, and after several internships, settled for a job. She has a German friend of Chinese origin who once told her jokingly: "China can turn Europe into a parking lot."
Museums are for the past
It is a similar statement to that made by journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who was interviewed in E&M's latest issue. Her vision of Europe's future suited that of a theme park. "The continent will be flooded with tourists, mostly from the east, who look at the Old Continent as we now look at Babylon."
Păun is sceptical about the EU's future the way we know it, but doesn't believe Europe will be reduced to a tourist attraction. "Did Russia become an iconic park for communism? Not really," she says.
In general, people in Brussels tend to disagree with pessimistic views about Europe's coming years. It may be because people who come here usually do so because they are convinced Europeanists, or because many have academic backgrounds related to the EU, or simply because their work future is often closely related to that of the continent.
Carmen, Jeremy, Francesco, Mourad and Kaltrina - all five of the bubble-inhabitants I spoke to had amendments to make to Drakulić's prediction. Jeremy, a Belgian journalist, put it in a way that summed it up: "museums are for the past! European identity is in its childhood."
In 1760, British citizens from the Thirteen Colonies coined the slogan: "No taxation without representation." They were unhappy with the economic measures implemented by their Parliament without having a political voice in return. Are European citizens echoing this message today?
Brussels seems to have interpreted the latest election results in Greece, France and Northern Westphalia as a rejection of austerity. But even if the economy remains the main concern, I believe the main message to be heard is political.
After all, if the economy was the only electoral key and we took votes as a referendum for or against austerity, would the massive voting of conservatives in Spain have meant that citizens supported the austerity measures later implemented? Hardly believable considering that one of PP's main campaign videos (and promises) claimed: "jobs are the priority."
This being the case, is there any common message being sent by these voters in Greece, France, Germany, Spain and other countries? It is general discontent. On the one hand, for fake promises on the national level, and on the other, because EU officials have failed to make citizens understand the need for austerity. The result? A quasi revival of the years of enlightened despotism, where "everything is for the people, but without the people."
What if Europe had its own version of The West Wing? Could a thrilling fiction show like Sorkin's perhaps make the "behind the scenes" of the EU attractive and understandable for the average European?
When I asked my friends, the answers were all negative: "To begin with, you would need Europeans to speak the same language," or "you would need EU politics to be entertaining in itself," or my favourite, "that would be too American."
It's funny how whenever I come up with an idea based on something that is originally from the US, the argument against it is that it is "too American." After some months dealing with conversations about European identity, I keep noticing how we reject any inspiration from them, but how in fact, we define ourselves as opposed to them. That is, we take peace as our flagship, while the US has a wider acceptance of war; we are proud of our welfare system, as opposed to their "ferocious capitalism." Fine. But none of these will ever mean that we cannot learn from them in those fields they nail. Communication certainly being at the top.
The idea about Sorkin began fermenting last week, when I was disappointed in the lack of headlines about the Spanish general strike in pan-European media. If the issue was big enough for the Wall Street Journal to publish this interactive graphic narrating the struggles of the families in the crisis, why not for Euractiv? I wonder why foreign international media have more coverage of our stories than our own pan-European media.
Outlets like Euractiv or the European Voice mainly cover EU affairs, which does not necessarily mean European news. That is, the pan-European media we have developed so far is not really about Europe, but about the Brussels bubble. Like the institutions they cover, these media tend to be technical and target an elite, but not the general public which needs to be brought closer to the institutions.
While national media often fail to provide in-depth analysis because of their efforts to reach a general audience, pan-European outlets face the opposite problem. They have the right dose of technical and thoughtful analysis, but provide the citizenry with little ground for mutual understanding.
National stereotypes are relative to your own nationality. Especially when it comes to Belgium and its capital, Brussels. Because, let's face it, the home city of the EU institutions is rather unknown to most Europeans. You know that Parisians are snobby, Berliners are alternative and Romans are loud. But...what are Brusselians like?
The adjective you choose will most likely depend on the place you come from. When asked by a newly arrived Italian, my German colleague said they are "disorganised," the Brit chose the word "boring," and I, the Spaniard, just replied that the city was "cold" and "grey." The French apparently look at Belgians as their "villager" neighbours, while everyone else agreed on the word "bureaucratic."
It is not a very warm list of stereotypes for a welcoming... Until you realise that Brussels is an acquired taste. Like coffee and beer, you might not like it on the first try, but by the end of a long stay, you will have learned to love it. Its charm, as with most true treasures in life, is a bit hidden.
You will, however, only wonder about Brussels' identity once you are done with the touristy stage of admiring the beauty of Grande Place and wondering about the importance of the Manneken Pis, the peeing boy that has become the city's emblem. And when you do, you might just reach the conclusion that there is no such thing as a Brusselian identity.
After all, what can be the unifying factor of a country and city that is divided into Flemish and francophone communities? Not to mention the multiculturalism provided by the presence of the EU bubble, as well as the immigration waves from Congo and the French-speaking Arab countries. (You probably wouldn't have guessed that the #1 name among new born children in Brussels is Mohammed.) The doubt is reasonable. But the fact that the identity of Brussels is hard to comprehend according to our own systems doesn't make it non-existent. It is just complex. And it mirrors the complexity of the institutions the city hosts.
Who hasn't heard of the famous Hogwarts Express, which transports Harry Potter and his friends to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? But who knows about the similar train which runs every month between Brussels and Strasbourg? Ensuring the participation of members, assistants and staff of the European Parliament to the plenary session in Strasbourg, the magical device known only to the chosen few is not listed on the public schedule of the Belgian or French railway companies. A while ago, during my mission as an EP trainee to Strasbourg, I started questioning the role and functionality of the Parliament's three seats.
The whole issue began in 1952, when member states couldn't agree on the seats of the newly established European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Decades later, the EU member states decided unanimously to "fix" the question of the Parliament's location: the administrative staff is now based in Luxembourg, and the everyday activity of committees and political groups takes place in Brussels, but the official seat of the Parliament remains Strasbourg, where 12 plenary sessions are to be held every year. However, with every new treaty, the role and functions of the European Parliament increased considerably and its presence in the proximity of the Council and Commission became more and more relevant. With the majority of the Parliament's work already being carried out in Brussels, one might question the necessity of moving the whole "circus" to Strasbourg every month.