Michal Buchowski: Our coveted Europe

This post is part of a feature on anthropologists on the EU at 60, moderated and edited by Don Kalb (Central European University and University of Bergen).

Today’s political map of the world, and of Europe in particular, is not the same as in the recent past. Until only a hundred years ago, most states that we now take for granted did not exist. In Central and Eastern Europe, where I happen to come from, the four great empires of Russia, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans dominated. By the beginning of World War I, only the Ottoman Empire was in recession. A veritable revolution of the political map of Europe came about as a result of WWI when new nation-states were established in Central and Eastern Europe. World War II moved some states westward. The collapse of the Soviet bloc led to the emergence of several new polities. In the newly emerged space of postsocialist Europe, the number of nation-states rose from 9 to 20, including the European part of Kazakhstan. East Germany was the only polity that integrated with another state to form a bigger country. Five countries remained untouched: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. The creation and expansion of the hybrid political body of the European Union represents in this perspective a counter-project to the ongoing political fragmentation that took place in this part of the continent over the past hundred years.

The Cold War divided the continent into two domains strictly separated by barbed wire and walls. For four decades, Winston Churchill’s political catchphrase, the Iron Curtain, dominated Europe’s self-image. For ordinary people in the Eastern Europe, the emergence and gradual institutionalization of the European Economic Community did not mean much. It was as abstract as if it were taking place on another planet, called “the West.” The image of “the West” was simply overwhelming, embracing all possible related meanings. When from 1990 to 1991 I went to California as a Fulbright scholar, I had no doubts about being in the West. Shortly after coming back to Poland, I traveled to Bremen, also located in the West on my mental map. But this short trip shook my categorical dichotomy. The streets of this West German city felt like my home city of Poznan in Poland. On Sunday afternoons, families strolled through the city, idly engaged in window-shopping, carefully carrying cakes bought in the nearby patisseries for their visits at friends or relatives. Was it the West, too, if it seemed more Polish than any American city? My theoretical anthropological relativism was empirically reinvigorated. At that moment, I felt that, above all, I was living in Europe, be it Eastern or Western, or maybe neither or both of them at the same time. I learned intimately that classifications are ideologically grounded by definition.

After 1989, history seemed to have sped up. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 was reported in the postsocialist media with hope that maybe “we, Central Europeans” can join “Europe” at some point in the future. A linguistic shift from the term “Eastern” to “Central Europe” is worth emphasizing. In the 1970s and 1980s, intellectuals of the satellite Soviet states reinvented the notion of Central Europe in order to underscore their “Europeaness.” Milan Kundera’s famous essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” appeared in New York Review of Books in 1984 and had an even more telling title in the original French edition of 1983 in the journal Le Débat—“Un Occident kidnappé ou la tragédie de l’Europe centrale.” In Kundera’s view, the whole region had always historically and culturally belonged to the West, and only in 1945 was it captured by a barbarian, Asiatic empire. This essentialization of the Orient in its full swing outraged a Russian dissident poet like Josip Brodsky. But one must admit that Kundera’s text had an emancipatory effect. The postsocialist political elites in the region made use of it to justify the idea of returning to the “European home”—the latter being identified with a now more concrete European Union.

Catching up with “the West” took a realistic political turn. Eleven former socialist states joined the EU in 2004, 2007, and 2015. Great majorities in each of them voted in favor of accession. Detractors of the enlargement presented the integration process as an enslavement to the EU, but despite many fears and uncertainties, the aspiration for “being European” prevailed. Marshall Sahlins’s Hawaiians enacted the myth of returning god Lono and had to kill Captain Cook. The Central Europeans likewise fulfilled their own cultural script in which they pose as defenders of Europe against the Orientals and as those who, after turbulent historical storms, finally return to their home seaport. In a specific sense, for many of them it seemed that the history had happily ended, indeed!

The eastward expansion did not only have a symbolic dimension. It also involved democratization of those postsocialist societies. Protection of minority rights was the EU-mandated principle that was of special concern to anthropologists. It has not always been implemented in an ideal manner—the disputable policies of “ethno-democracies” in Latvia and Estonia, as well as the perpetual discrimination against Roma across Europe, come to mind. Nevertheless, EU requirements helped many groups claim their rights and on several occasions protected them against chauvinists. But at the same time, EU expansion and policies have been compared to imperial or colonial projects, as claimed by the sociologist Jozsef Böröcz or political scientist Jan Zielonka. The EU has also been seen as an outcome of—and sometimes an active player in—the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, a highly contested process. I am also aware that the European project has been criticized for abetting political domination by major players in the Union, and for the hegemony of unchallenged “Western” or “international” standards. There are studies exposing evident power relations between East and West, now often supplemented by the North-South axis; these hierarchies are ingrained in people’s minds, officials in Brussels being no exception in this regard. In a similar vein, the bureaucratic logic of the EU institutions has been rightly criticized; a shortage of pan-European democratic procedures is salient. And, last but not least, European integration implies exclusion of those who have not managed (yet?) to make it into the EU. This is all true, and I cannot agree more with this criticism.

However, as critical as we are about the EU, the positive aspects of being part of it for the Central European societies cannot be ignored. Free-market capitalism reshuffled social structures and caused suffering of many underprivileged groups; employment insecurity has become widespread. Should the EU be blamed for all these afflictions? I do not think so. One must also admit that since the fall of communism and integration with the EU, living standards, including life expectancy, have risen significantly. In many cases, European institutions have helped citizens who are mistreated by their own national establishments and courts. Farmers, migrants seeking better lives and disappointed with job opportunities in their homes, Erasmus students, mobile professionals, freely moving tourists, cell phone users happy not to pay roaming fees—they all benefit from the EU. Their experience and opinions count. Despite efforts of the EU bashers, the popular support for the membership in the EU in the eastern flank remains very high.

The EU faces a conundrum that is difficult to be reconciled. On the one hand, in a democratic spirit it is encouraged to be sensitive to public attitudes. On the other hand, it stands for some basic democratic ideals constituting, at least in principle, its raison d’être. But what if the public starts to embrace values contradictory to these crucial norms? The so-called refugee crisis painfully highlights this challenge. In the view of the rising tide of nationalism in the West, blaming the East for not welcoming refugees cannot do anymore, although xenophobia, especially Islamophobia, are widespread there as well. “Pragmatist” politicians, for reasons of purported security or in order to comfort the xenophobes, opt for building the fortress Europe. In order to contain the nationalists, “moderate leaders” bet on an exclusivism that denies foundational European doctrines. This situation also creates a riddle for us, anthropologists. Our ethical tenets urge us to scorn all forms of exclusion and discrimination. As a result, we end up opposing both populists and “pragmatist” politicians. By doing so, unintentionally, anthropologists may become nationalists’ allies in putting down or even dismantling the EU, which in several contexts functions as a safeguard of good liberal practices challenged by populists such as Orban, Kaczynski, Wilders, Farage, Le Pen and company. Hard choices that must be made constantly are an acid test for us all and proof that despite utopian hopes of the many Central Europeans who celebrated “the return to Europe” not long ago, the history is full of ambiguities, conflicts, and difficult decisions, and therefore has not had its happy end quite yet.

Michal Buchowski is professor of anthropology at the European University Viadrina and the University of Poznan; he is currently visiting professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. His scientific interests include anthropology of postsocialism and migration.

Cite as: Buchowski, Michal. 2017. “Our coveted Europe.” 3 April, FocaalBlog. www.focaalblog.com/2017/04/03/michal-buchowski-our-coveted-europe.