Talking Europe – Learning through dialogue about the current state-of-affairs
Having conversations about Europe, the current situation and a potential future for the continent are much needed these days.
Europe started out as a dream to end and transform the polarities that led to two big wars in the 20th century. It is a probably a romantic ideal, centered around the idea that the individual interests of different states can be balanced on a superordinate level to create something the caters to the best interests of the whole. With a resurgence of nationalism and right-wing parties across Europe, the attempts of Britain to leave the European union this dream seems threatened.
Against this background, the political dynamics in Europe have rarely been hotter than today – or at least it seems like it. For me personally, it is difficult to grasp and understand the different voices within this field and the underlying interests, needs, perceptions.
Mapping the field
Attending a process work training in Amsterdam hosted by the Deep Democracy Institute, I was more than happy that the group put the topic of “Europe!” on the agenda for a group process. The following words are my personal attempt to map the field.
It is a summary of the voices, positions and shifts that happened in the dialogue and exchange with around 40 to 50 people from various countries, including among others Czech Republic, Germany, France, Poland, the UK, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy.
As we all know, the map is not the territory. And the themes I got out of the group process are my personal insights and interpretations. Somebody else might tell the story of the conversation in a different way.
I also want to add, that the discussion was a lively one. That people contributed with their passion and their emotions. With their hearts and minds. That also means that the discussion went back and forth between different topics and ideas. It was non-linear. My attempt in this writing is to capture it in a linear way. A way, that is natural for any written text.
Things look different from different places. These places can be in our heads or physical. When we look at something from a different angle, we might also think, feel and act differently. This is especially the case with something as abstract as Europe.
Right from the start of the conversation a voice claiming “I love Europe” was answered by a couple of voices describing how the current state of “Europe” falls short of the good intentions that lie behind it´s foundation. Some of the problems that were mentioned are:
Europe is a mess. It does not manage to create a unified stance or a clear position enabling action on the most pressing issues: a constant stream of migration across the globe and into Europe, climate change, economic and social differences, the rise of right-wing politics.
Europe is hubris. Europe is supposed to be a voice for human rights, liberal values, peace and fair trade (as these elements are part of its founding myth and official rhetoric). Yet, in its actions or non-actions these values do not become visible.
From the abstract to the local perspective: Feelings of marginalization
The conversation deepened, as a participant reported her experiences in the Czech Republic. She described how much of what is local to the Czech Republic has disappeared. What can be bought in the super markets and the brands that are visible in the streets are not local. They are – to a large extent – German. In the view of the participant, this represents the economic and political power of Germany.
And therefore, also its ability to influence – and dominate – the political and economic processes in Europe. This view was underlined by other participants joining this voice, representing Poland and other countries to the east of Europe. At the heart of the sorrows and angers voiced was the felt imbalance between the power and the influence that each country exerts within the European Union.
It might be that each country has a seat on the table, but the power to influence what is going on and the benefits that come with being part of such a construct as the European union are unequally distributed. From one perspective this looks like that Europe is Germany, shaped by its economic power and serving in its interest.
What started as a focus on the economic dominance of some countries, also extended into a short discussion on the disappearance of identities, of local cultures, on the fear of being forgotten, excluded and marginalized in the discourse.
Working through Power Imbalances
One of the many things that fascinate me about process work is its awareness for the multifaceted nature of power. High power (often called rank within PW, see here for a short description) comes with privileges. In the case of a political system, the privileges of different political actors can take the form of the impact that this actor (in the course of the group process, the main actors are assumed to be countries) has on the political or economic process.
In response to the voice accusing Germany to marginalize other localities and countries, a participant voiced the perspective that Germany is often asked to pay and take over the liabilities and debts of other countries. That there is, indeed, a reliance on – especially the economic – power of Germany to support other countries in need.
Furthermore, it could be that this responsibility on the shoulders of Germany comes with an increased influence. That indeed, this responsibility might justify that the German voice is louder than others.
Later in the discussion, the topic of rank and the awareness of one´s own rank became a topic again. An important shift in the discussion came when Germany asked other countries to own their rank and take their share of responsibility for the fate of Europe. To become a part and a companion in shaping the future of Europe.
Especially participants representing `bigger` European countries like Poland and France accepted and confirmed this perspective. And at the same time, especially participants representing the polish voice, acknowledged that they are not doing a good job relating to the European Union. While the benefits are clearly seen, there is a fear of losing one´s identity and influence in the process. That this makes some reactions defensive and aggressive.
A major shift in resolving the paradoxical situation described further below became possible through shining light on the complexities of the interests and feelings involved.
Deepening the perspective of rank and power, a person speaking from the perspective of Montenegro (as a representative of a rather small country), acknowledged that while small countries might not be able to shoulder the same weight as larger countries, they understand that they still should show up in a self-confident way, owning their own culture, heritage, needs and interests, as this enables a relationship to be established.
Historical perspectives: Looking back, moving on
Europe is often portrayed as an alliance of countries joining out of their free will. A second response to the accusation on the German dominance of the European Union was the perception that the countries east of Germany – that joined after the fall of the Soviet Union – did join Europe out of their free will and on their own account. How can they then blame Germany about the current state of affairs?
Yet, and so the response of representatives of East European countries, this also happened out of fear. What other option was there? So, what might seem like a free choice from the standpoint of Germany (and perhaps other nations with a high rank), is not a free choice at all, but the only way that seemed open in the turmoil of late 20th century.
A second historical dimension unfolded as part of the conversation, when German voice problematized the anti-European (and anti-German), sometimes nationalistic rhetoric that can be observed in some countries (including Germany).
And this constellates a paradox: while on the one hand, a lot of countries have benefitted from resources provided by Germany and other economically strong countries, the countries now allow themselves to fall back into a separatist, sometimes even nationalist, narrative against which the European Union was a counterpoint in the first place.
The good that Germany has been doing in working through its history was clearly acknowledged by many voices in the field. And it was also acknowledged that in some cases (e.g. Poland) a lack of historical awareness might stand in the way to a different way of collaboration.
Paradoxes & Impossible Situations
In a sense, how the roles were constituted in the first part of the conversation, with Germany as the focus for the accusations and challenges by the other countries, created an isolated position for Germany. And this isolation can also cause fear (and a potential aggressive stance) on the side of Germany, facing the many different voices.
Another paradox was voiced: While the German role was supposed to support you, it was also expected to ignore the attacks voiced because Germany has a high rank. A situation that seemed impossible to be resolved.
This was acknowledged and in order to move on, a participant highlighted the fact, that nationalist developments can be observed in a variety of places. And that it is not only Germany. In a sense, that meant in the conversation that we have to move on from this narrative of historic guilt.
That this responsibility was voiced by different countries (e.g. Poland) helped to find a (temporary) resolve to the paradoxes and move on from a polarization Germany – ‘Marginalized` countries. This opened the field for different forms of relationships, voices and conversations to constellate themselves:
Open Sesame: moving the conversation to different directions
While the distinction or polarity between `big` (e.g. Germany) and `small` (e.g. Czech Republic) countries constituted the starting point of the discussion, the voices in the field also quickly diversified. Working through the topics mentioned above enabled a diversification of the voices in the field and new topics and contributions to emerge:
Diversity within countries: participants speaking from the perspective of the UK emphasized the polarization and divergence of opinions within the UK. That the country is torn between a decision made and the will of many of their citizens that want to remain in the European Union – and the grief and pain that is associated with not having the power to impact the course of action as a citizen.
Diversity regarding “smaller” countries: apart from the prominent voice of the Czech Republic other perspectives and voices entered the discussion, most prominently Spain. This added the perspective of benefitting and acknowledging the benefits that come with being part of the European Union.
Towards the end of the process, a voice representing refugees and an outside perspective made herself heard. It spoke to the suffering of those who are not part of the European union. And how these voices are not heard. While we did not deepen the conversation at this point in time, the voice also resonated with me personally. While I do deeply believe that there is work to be done inside the European Union to find responses to the challenges that present themselves, a dialogue with voices outside the European Union are necessary to build a different and more vibrant response to our global challenges.
Another voice focused climate change as a threat to the existence as we know it. The voice entered the discussion as a voice of accusation to all countries involved in the discussion. And it accused them of focusing on “petty” problems, and that this focus stands in the way to respond to the biggest challenge of our time: that we will live on a planet that is no longer hospitable to the human species and many others.
All of these contributions could have opened the route for different conversations, further exploring the different aspects and dynamics that constitute the social, political, economic and psychological set-up of the European Union. For me, it was also a way to reconnect to the work we have done with stories-for-europe.de over a year ago.
Learnings and Discoveries
To close this attempt of summarizing what can not be fully summarized, I want to share the learnings that were shared at the end of the process:
We moved from old and rigid discussions to something different. Changing the level of relating from countries to people that are present here. We need a new way of accepting and changing our rules.
Rank awareness is needed to make relationship possible. Every country has power that comes with its rank. Even if the rank is lower in comparison to another rank. It is about owning the power and influence that is inherent in every rank
Relationship and rank topics need to be worked upon while other problems, e.g. ecological ones, are addressed. If this is not the case, the work on topic / the problem solving is blocked by rank and power dynamics.
The diversity in the conversation was amazing. To see the people from different countries coming together here with the determination to be in dialogue. To at least agree upon to engage openly with each other and hear each other out. Also, a readiness, to step beyond assumptions we hold.
Thanks to all the people partaking in that conversation. Thanks for making the abstract concrete.
I do read a lot and follow the news. But for me, knowledge becomes real and understanding becomes true if we can witness and partake in the sharing of the emotions, feelings, aggressions, sorrows, joys and burdens of others. You made that possible! Also a big “thank you!” to the team at DDI for hosting such excellent learning spaces!