Late last summer, my wife and I took a ferry from Doolin, on the West coast of Ireland, to Inishmore, the smallest of the three Aran Islands. The tiny ferry, with perhaps no more than 30 or 40 people aboard, was filled with mostly European passengers.The ocean was rough; a short trip to a quaint island turned out to be a test of tolerance between various European nationalities. Italians took over the boat, while the Germans were appealing for discipline and order.
As a person with almost no ethnic identity, I wondered how this boat might survive the rough seas of the European Union. I was trying to imagine what might have happened during the European Summit between Germany, France, and Italy on the small aircraft carrier docked at the island of Ventotene, in Italy, a few days before my disturbing boat ride. Why had the Italian premier called for the summit? What was he trying to obtain from his country’s bigger siblings? How had they understood each other?
Then, a few days ago, browsing my Facebook page, I bumped into a video I had seen years ago. I remembered it to be touching and powerful, so I watched it again. Produced in 2012, somebody thought to repost it when Britain sent its formal exit letter from the EU to Brussels, while the rest of the member-family gathered in Rome to celebrate its 60th anniversary. It must have felt more like a funeral.
The video shows an unusual, impromptu performance of Ode an die Freude (Ode to Joy), Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, an extraordinary piece of music. Very few people outside of Brussels know that the Ode to Joy is also the anthem of the European Union. So, just as we witness Europe crumble, its leaders desperate to solve the problems of the future, a video appeared, depicting strangers in the street being mesmerized by music that is essentially European. The casual bypassers–slowly enraptured by the ascending Allegro of Beethoven’s chords — are transformed into a crowd embodying the European community.
The immediate thought that remains after watching this video a second time is that Brits are stupid, that they foolishly sought the European continent’s disunity knowing full well that it cannot survive if divided. But that thought lasts only a moment under the spell of the powerful, unifying music. For when in London, one cannot but love it, and its need to preserve its unique identity can be comprehended and understood.
There have been many discussions and political analysis focused on deciphering and articulating the reason the British voted for Brexit, and also wild, unfounded interpretations of Westminster’s plotting and political calculus. But the reasons for Brexit are much more apparent than conspiracies: Britain is desperately trying to stop the process of globalization. The irreversible expanding of markets that uniformly dictate the selling of products and the way of life, the melting of British icons into bitcoins. What Brits have left of their own is the Union Jack, the Queen, and the pound. When they voted for Brexit, they did not think, rather, they just wanting to protect their way of life, their homogenous after-work drinks in the pubs, their religion, their accents, their topography. No longer will it suffice to use red telephone booths. Not in the era of bitcoins and internet. There is no way back.
Now that the exit letter was delivered and the negotiations on the separation between Europe and Britain are set to begin, every day changes for the islanders have already stirred up acute nausea. The shifts consist of losing small privileges, adding pennies to the cost of living, increasing instances of hate crimes, and all the other little obstacles that create that unpleasant feeling of being left outside one’s door. The British no longer have the roadmap to the future; they’re improvising.
But what is the future? Do any of us have the map? Somehow we have convinced ourselves that the future has a liberal face, that humankind will inevitably progress toward universal values and ideals. At least, that is how we saw it until Brexit and Donald Trump. France, and perhaps even Germany, may follow. Holland seems to have resisted, just barely. But let’s stop accusing. The revival of conservatism is not the cause but the consequence. The seeds of what we are seeing are buried deep in the foundation of Europe as much as the possibility of Trumpism is written in America’s founding document. Trump, with his talented ignorance, is a spillover of the white supremacy this country has always borne. There is no doubt that American democracy has been written by the hand of whites, by slave owners. The same is true in our European bedrock. It just happened earlier.
The proposals for a “united Europe” dates back to the 15th Century. The Bohemian King George of Poděbrady proposed a treaty between all Christian nations – with its members pledging to peacefully settle disputes between themselves and concentrate military efforts against the Ottoman Empire. This was to be a Christian entity, and it was envisioned as a union standing in opposition to the encroachment of “non-Christian” forces upon Christendom.
In the absence of clear geographical limits, Europe defined itself in terms of its differences from its neighbors—the warlike Muslims of the Arab-Berber kingdoms, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was traumatic; Pope Pius II was the first to tell the quarrelsome Christian princes that they must think like Europeans if they aimed to drive back the Turks. Clearly, Europe began as Christendom, predisposed to the white race, so when refugees flooded Europe, it was the Christians and whites who stood up instinctively in survival. But that instinct, an impulse we all know, should not last long. History is a slow and elaborate process that retroactively allows us to overcome our purely instinctual reactions, the only thing which separates us men from beasts. Fintan O’Toole tried to reflect on the moment of conservatism’s outburst. It’s entitled Has Europe lost its hold on our collective imagination:
It was a story, an imaginative fiction of the kind that Yuval Noah Harari evokes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He makes the point that the capacity to believe in fictional constructs is a defining element of what makes us human, because without it we cannot co-operate with people we do not know: “At the heart of our mass co-operation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination… There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination.”
One of these enabling fictions is “Europe.” It is a story that most of the central and western nations of the continent agreed to tell themselves and each other in order to deal with the legacies of the second world war and the cold war. And like all stories, it sustained itself, if not exactly with belief, then at least with a willing suspension of disbelief. The question now is whether it still exists at all, whether “Europe” has lost its hold on our collective imagination. All the evidence suggests that it has.
That overwhelming video of “Ode to Joy” woke the European who sleeps in me. As I watched again, my heart applauded, feeling the “fil rouge” that connects the European minds. Then a terrible moment of recognition hit me suddenly. That Beethoven Symphony, now the anthem of the European Union, is like all of history, from America to Africa and eastward: written by white hands for white ears. Except for two Asian children, there are only Caucasians in that video. They smiled, they stopped, they listened and got carried away by the powerful music. For a moment, they joined the idea of Europe. Was it an instinct or a process?