Depressing, pessimistic, bitter. These adjectives can perhaps best describe the Belgrade conference on “What we mean when we say Europe”, attended by leading intellectuals from the former Yugoslavia. Whether they came from Slovenia, an EU member of over ten years’ standing; Croatia – the newest member state; or from the candidate or prospective candidate countries, almost all participants shared the same feeling: fatigue. Moreover, the harshest criticism of Europe was delivered precisely by the intellectuals from the member states. Others still had some hope.
An overwhelming majority of participants spoke nostalgically of Yugoslavia, maybe even of socialism, which they fiercely criticized back when they lived in it. Both Yugoslavia and socialism appeared in the Belgrade debate as a world more prosperous and happy than the European one. Were these just intellectual laments, musings of the habitually dissatisfied, pointless complaints offering no solutions?
Where does this integration fatigue come from? I believe there are several reasons for it in the ex-Yugoslav societies. When the Yugoslav nations created their nation states in the wars of the 1990s, some of them for the first time in their history, they expected the new national framework to solve every problem; expecting that instantly after gaining independence they will become more successful, freer, or as they used to say – come into “their own”. But once they reached their goal, they didn’t like what they saw in the mirror. They failed to build institutions, strengthen the rule of law, individual liberty, economic progress, social well-being. And then they faced a problem. They could no longer blame Yugoslavia or communism for their failure. They had to face it as “their own”. A scapegoat was urgently needed. Inevitably, this part was assigned to Europe. They are disappointed in Europe because they are disappointed in themselves.
Disappointed in themselves and disappointed in Europe, because when they say “Europe”, they see themselves as a run-down backyard of an edifice with a splendid facade. In Yugoslavia they were an important international Cold War actor. Now they feel like the poor cousin from the sticks in muddy shoes. They’re trying to wipe off the dirt on the back of their pants leg, only growing more embarrassed. Lost in transition, they failed to find their place in Europe, and Europe did not see itself in them. This is why many participants spoke of neocolonialist relations, orientalism, neoliberal capitalism which deepens inequality feeding on the poor. This is why the Yugoslav socialist paradise looks like a future ideal, and not the long discarded past. The fatigue turns into resistance and the new Eurosceptic Left is on the rise.
Somewhere along the line, Europe lost its own way. This is why “we” too, coming from the backyard, see the simplified image – Europe is the EU, the EU is Brussels, Brussels is the treasury and the treasury is empty. As the young leftist from Zagreb, Srecko Horvat, said in Belgrade: “We came to the after-party”. Europe allowed itself to be perceived as a bad parent: one who raises a child with money and when the money runs out, he’s left with no arguments. Usually, this is when a child looks for a way out in rebellion or starts searching for another authority figure.
This disappointment with self and Europe fell on fertile ground. Analyzing the European discourse in former Yugoslav countries, as some participants of the Belgrade debate have shown, one can conclude that these countries see Europe from the outside, as the “other”. According to this narrative, it is because of Europe that we have to follow laws, build institutions, take care of national minorities and protect freedoms. It is seen as a burden, an abandonment of the “self”, an undesirable constraint. This is how both the Right and Left see it. For the Right, it threatens national identity, globalizing it, forcing it into the melting pot of multiconfessionalism and multiculturalism. For the Left, it is the antithesis of social rights, an exploitation of the deprived South, a crude market devoid of values. The European crisis gave arguments to both.
The view from the former Yugoslavia was the view from without, exhausted, disappointed and despondent. This says a lot about the Balkans, but it speaks volumes about Europe. This is its mirror. Enlargement fatigue and expectation fatigue are parts of the same problem. For Europe, this should be a symptom, and not another misunderstood “Balkan exoticism”. While the Balkans and Europe see “otherness” in each other, they fail to see the problem.
It is true that Europe, like democracy, needs to be in crisis, that it is its natural state. It is also true that the threats are growing, that Europe is also threatened in Kiev and in Paris. But in order for crises and threats to make it stronger, as in previous cases of historical turmoil, Europe must redefine and profoundly reform itself. It must rethink what is common and what is particular, how far national sovereignty goes and where the common goal begins. This, in turn, is also what needs to be done by the former Yugoslav states, still ethno-nationalistically gazing at their own navel. The Balkans perspective shows that Europe’s greatest problem is that it no longer understands itself, that it is no longer “our own”. This is why it will again become its own once it becomes “our own” too, once it becomes a problem solver, and not the problem itself.
Speech from the Berlin conference “Europe?”.