TCS Daily


Europe's Musical Chair

By T.K. Vogel - February 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Looking to the past when faced with an uncertain future is a typically European reflex. Now, the reflex seems to have been promoted to official policy.

Under the improbable yet inevitable title "The Sound of Europe," an international crowd of cultural types and politicians assembled in Salzburg last week to discuss "fundamental questions as to the future of Europe, European values, identity and culture," according to the invitation. (Invitations had gone out to the smartest and sharpest Europeans only. Mere mortals were relegated to following the proceedings through a webcast.) Salzburg was chosen because Mozart was born there 250 years ago last Friday, and because Austria is currently holding the EU's rotating presidency.

The two-day conference included panels with titles like "The European crisis: a sad sound?" or "Conducting Europe" and yielded such surprising insights as "Europe is an orchestra performing together," to quote Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, the host of the event.

The meeting, and the musical metaphors the tone-deaf drafters of the program had piled on top of each other, inspired headline writers across Europe. The Irish Times titled its report, "EU leaders not singing from same Salzburg hymn sheet," while the Financial Times found a "Silence of Europe" descending on the group when a video with citizens' complaints about the EU (in a flight of uncharacteristic fancy titled "Vox populi") reeled off without sound. Indeed, the perception that Europe isn't listening when Europeans are talking was one of the problems the conference was intended to address.

But if that was the goal, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was perhaps not the wisest choice of keynote speaker. The statesman-poet's speech was an overlong exercise in name-dropping, from Elias Canetti and Hermann Broch to George Steiner and Thomas Bernhard, and ended with an exhortation -- presumably meant to be uplifting -- not to take the current mood to heart: "Everybody knows that Schubert did not finish his Eighth Symphony, that Mozart died without having written the last notes of his Requiem, and that Bach closed his eyes on the last notes of a fugue without an end. Incompletion is not failure."

Despite the obfuscation, the intent behind de Villepin's speech was rather clear: to provide a justification for proceeding with precisely the sort of grandiose project that French and Dutch voters rejected last year, when they said no to a European constitution.

In de Villepin's view, the con fuoco rejection of the constitution and the fortissimo haggling over the EU's budget last December should now be met with a ritardando on enlargement. This may be the sort of response Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Affairs had in mind when he warned in the FT of the danger "that the sound of Europe may become the sound of a banging door, the one that is brutally closed at the face of all those who are not yet members of the club." But beyond the runaway musical metaphors, there's a serious point to be made here.

De Villepin was right to bring up enlargement in a debate on Europe's identity. Many Europeans feel their identities as Europeans to be questioned by enlargement at precisely the moment when their more localized and entrenched identities are under assault by "globalization" as they see it -- freewheeling markets, uncontrolled immigration, and all the other angst-inducing myths. This will become even more acute when Bulgaria and Romania, two troubled countries full of promise, enter the Union in 2007 or 2008, not to speak of other Balkan countries (think Bosnia or Albania) later on.

Moreover, the last enlargement round, which resulted in the entry of ten newcomers in May 2004, seemed to provide a ready-made answer to any question about the point of having the EU. Enlargement itself had become a grand project, adding a certain pathos and even beauty to the low whir of the Brussels bureaucracy -- the beauty of having a purpose.

Future enlargement will be to countries that are too troubled to provide any such sense of purpose. And that's what makes the politicians' failure to rally their constituents behind the idea of enlargement so damaging.

De Villepin's speech set the tone for the rest of the day: where it wasn't defensive it was outright delusional. Foreign-policy supremo Javier Solana, for example, told the meeting that the EU had now "turned the corner" from last year's misery and that a new mood was manifesting itself in Europe's culture. (He prudently did so without pointing to examples.) But perhaps the entire premise was wrong: how would a panel of literary scholars and Brussels bureaucrats cheer up their audience or relieve the EU's sense of drift?

It wasn't all doom and gloom or false optimism. Some of the more level-headed speakers -- Bronislaw Geremek, Gilles Kepel, or Dominique Moisi, to name but a few -- actually made this into an interesting event. (Moisi followed up on his piece in the Financial Times by criticizing the current tendency of "Europe" to define itself through what it isn't -- Islam, for example, or the United States, a point that bears repeating.) But their contributions only heightened the contrast with the other speakers, and it is those, of course, who will now return to their capitals or to Brussels to make policy. (One exception was the European Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, who once again displayed the impressive political and diplomatic skills that make him appear slightly miscast in the role of supreme Brussels bureaucrat.)

At the end of the day, the conference seemed to confirm the suspicion that if you need a bunch of intellectuals to define Europe's identity, you're in trouble. And the reaction of many Europeans must have been to press the mute button.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (www.tol.org), a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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