THE EUROPE EXPERIENCE
von Nina Brnada
Two thousand kilometers in ten days, six cities in four countries: From Euromaidan to EU Parliament, in search of the history, the promise and the future of Europe.
Kiev – Talkin’ bout a Revolution
As flight S7 4625 from Moscow-Domodedovo to Kiev-Boryspil slows its taxi down the runway, a nearby military aircraft halts and seven young men with automatic weapons disembark to surround our plane. Our fellow passengers don’t seem to find this odd – neither the suited men nor the extremely attractive women. They seem more interested in each other. One of the women begins putting on make up, while the Ukrainian soldiers inspect the Boeing 737-500. Surreal. What are they looking for? Bombs? Spies? Us?
Bang bang, he shot me down. A hip-hop version of the Nancy Sinatra classic sounds form the car radio. A taxi is bringing us the 20 kilometers from the airport to the Ukrainian capital, past a Russian Lukoil gas station, an American McDonald’s, and a logo of the Austrian Raiffeisen Bank.
“Were from?” asks Juri, our driver, and points to us. “Everything is normal in Kyiv,” he says/ “Very Normal.” Bang bang, I hit the ground. We pass LPS apartment blocks and cross the Dnepr River into the city center. On giant advertisement poster for Siberian Airlines are the words “Київ” (“Kiev”) and “Москва” (“Moscow”) and between them a peace sign. These are the last days of March. Russia has annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea, in the east of the country the first conflicts have broken out. Juri points to the poster: “That is not good.” Bang bang, that awful sound.
Having arrived at our rented flat, we shed our three backpacks, the laptops and cameras and open the balcony door. What a sight: across from us is a burned-out building, measuring a city block. Six floors below us are dozens of tents, decorated with flags, specifically those of the Ukraine and the EU. We see barricades crafted of tires and trash, wreaths and crosses and groups of bearded men huddling around burning trash cans in sub-zero temperatures.
Mайдан Незалежності (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), Kiev’s independence square. Maidan. It’s 9pm, GMT +0300. After two flights, three passport checks and a total of fifteen hours we have arrived: at the start of our journey. We will cover 2,000 kilometers by train in 10 days, visiting four countries and six cities. Kiev, Lvov, Krakow, Dresden, Frankfurt and finally Brussels.
Not only will we travel through Europe, but also through its history: back to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, to the First and Second World Wars, to the sites of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity. We’ll travel back to communist terrorism was a reality and on to the command center of the euro crisis. Finally our journey will take us to European Parliament and the seats that 500 million EU-citizens will seek to fill from the 22nd to the 25 of May. On the last day of the EU elections the Ukrainians will decide on a new president.
In the spring of 2014, a story about Europe, one that assumes to also tell the history of Europe, can only begin here on Euromaidan, the precise place where a few months ago the EU helped set off a chain reaction. Since then it’s relationship to Russia is being redefined – has it that of Europe to itself.
On the morning after our arrival we walk across Maidan, past men in camouflage clothing guarding a barricade. Blank faces, steaming kettles and rough hands that peels potatoes. The only ones left here are those that that have no home to return to, explains a friend, who has spent the last few months here. He describes the atmosphere on Maidan as follows: two months ago the people were dead serious, a month ago proud, now they are simply aimless.
They’ve been losing ground – literally. “Under the cobblestones, the beach” was what the Parisian revolutionaries chanted in 1968. This reality is quite different: Beneath these cobblestones is dirt. The entire Maidan as well as the surrounding streets were cleared during the revolution. Old women did their part by prying out the cobblestones with a hammer and chisel. Just like a bucket brigade, the people of Kiev passed the cobblestones along to the front; stone for stone to regain their territory, piece by piece. That was at the end of February.
On February 18th the situation had escalated when sharpshooters took dozens of lives in one night. Until that point the revolution had already lasted three months and three days later it had reached its first goal: president Viktor Yanukovych fled from Kiev. A Christmas tree as high as a house still stands on the square and at the top is ta photoshopped image of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He has Hitler’s side part and moustache. They call him “Putler”. Every few meters are collections of flowers, candles and stuffed animals, to commemorate the dead, whose photos hang everywhere: “the heavenly hundred.” It’s strange when legends are still young. They weep for the dead as mythic figures, but the earth has yet to settle over their graves.
“Slava Ukraini,” a voice resounds from the stage of Maidan, “Herojam Slawa”, the uniformed men who stand in a row in front of it answer – simple people, who have become heroes. “Hour to Ukraine – Honor to her heroes”, that is the slogan of this revolution and the toast in every tavern in Kiev. Orthodox priests read rogations here, every few days the Ukrainian singer Ruslana, who won Eurovision 10 years ago performs here, and you here the National anthem over and over “Ukraine is still not lost!” Not yet.
Ukraine means “border country” Most of the time it was a country, on whose territory the border of foreign powers were shifted, between polish, Russian and Austrian rulers. The Ukrainians were people without a state, until 1991 when they succeeded the Soviet Union. But still, they remain border country dwellers, especially now between the EU and Russia.
Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to let Ukraine go; a mere month after Yanukovych’s fall from power, Russia annexed Crimea and ordered troops to march on the border to eastern Ukraine. In a couple of weeks pro Russian groups will be occupying government buildings in the cities of Eastern Ukraine.
But Ukraine has already made its choice, says foreign minister Andri Deschtschyzja: “The Ukrainian people have chosen the EU.” He’s tired; his eyes are red having just returned from New York. Deschtschyzja was ambassador to Finland and Iceland, not even very meaningful countries. But now, now he’s on the phone with US Secretary of State John Kerry, he was in Vienna when the ISCE decided to send an observation mission to the Ukraine and met with the EU foreign ministers in Brussels. The former diplomat was abruptly thrust onto the world stage and seems anxious, stressed and overwhelmed.
He’s standing on the third floor of the Hotel Ukraine with a view of the Maidan. The Lobby served as the sickbay during the revolution. Now the “Ukraine Crisis Media Center” is here, every hour press conferences are being held. A temporary government was put in place until the presidential elections can be held in May; its members are the old squad from the opposition parties and politically ill-equipped/inexperienced veterans of Maidan, no one voted for them and no one envies them: They have to enforce uncomfortable reforms and cope with the loss of Crimea and the tumult in the East of the country. Most likely they’ll be dropped and replaced after the election.
Another problem is that Ukraine’s future belongs to the same people as its past. Before the magnificent backdrop of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral Julia Timoshenko begins her presidential election campaign. She seems frail. There are more than a dozen people on stage, but precious few in front of it. The square is not even half full, about one thousand people showed up. Amid the timid cries of “Julia, Julia”, a few old ladies – the current majority – call out “Julia, the women are with you”. It’s far from euphoria.
Julia Timoshenko was the heroin of the Orange Revolution of 2004. Back then civilians took to Maidan after the rigged elections, to drive Viktor Yanukovych out of office for the first time. Today Timoshenko’s sparkle has faded, despite wanting so badly to be a Martyr. Yanukovych threw her in jail in 2011 and on February 22 she was set free, on the same day as he was overthrown. The political system of Ukraine has the telltale signs of an afternoon soap opera. The actors stay the same, as do their motives: power, wealth and revenge. They change sides and alliances, hatch schemes and reappear out of nowhere – and the Ukrainian people have to watch, chained to the couch, with the remote control just out of reach/with no remote control in sight.
The revolution hasn’t changed any of this and Timoshenko is just one of plenty. Pedro Poroschenko, the presidential favorite in the polls before Timoshenko appeared is another example and perhaps a better one: a.k.a. the “Chocolate King”, this oligarch is deemed to possess a fortune close to $1.6 billion; his “Roschen” chocolate is available in every supermarket, he owns a media empire and an arms manufacturer. In 2001 he was vice Chairman of the Regions Party of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, who had just been overthrown, but in 2004 he supported the Orange Revolution against him and became the head of the national security and defense council until he quarreled with the then Prime Minister Timoshenko for whom he proceeded to serve as foreign minister in 2009. Six month later he stepped down only to make a comeback in 2012 as Minister of Economic Affairs under Yanukovych. He didn’t stay long and then quickly sided with the Maidan movement; the former boxer Vladimir Klitschko even gave up his own presidential candidacy to support Poroschenko. So does it even make sense to talk to the street for people like Timoshenko and Poroschenko? ; Is it worth one hundred deaths just to see the same names on the ballot? “First, we should clear up some misunderstandings, says Natalja Gumenjuk. Thirteen stories above the streets of Kiev, it’s late evening, the highways draw illuminated lines through the city. At 28, Gumenjuk is the managing editor at Hromadske TV, the TV station of the revolution.
A handful of journalists got together in mid 2013, to found Hromadske TV, because there were only two existing choices: direct propaganda or reporting on unimportant things. Since Yanukovych’s downfall Hromadske has been broadcasting on the national channel’s frequency for several hours a day.
It was a big misunderstanding, says Gumenjuk: “We weren’t demonstrating for the EU but for our freedom. Freedom of expression, security and self determination are not exclusively European, but rather humanistic values.” In the first weeks the people on the Euromaidan, as it was first called, had hoped for support from the EU. Today the people speak of the Maidan and no longer very well of the EU. “How many deaths does it take for the EU to intervene?” Gumenjuk asks. “Did it really have to be one hundred?”
The door opens. It’s Mustafa Najem, the Editor in chief of the station. He’s also the man who started the revolution: When, on November 21st of last year, it became clear that Yanukovych was not going to sign the treaty of association with the EU, Najem posted the call for a protest on Maidan on Facebook and hundreds showed up. A day later, on the November 22nd, Hromadske TV broadcasted online and was to be the channel of the revolution. “On our second day of broadcast we had 700,000 viewers,” says Najem. The lines between journalism and activism blur here at Hromadske TV.
Once again, the door opens and Nadeschda Tolokonnikowa and Maria Aljochina sit down with us. The two Russian punk musicians have become famous under the name Pussy Riot and are here to learn the lessons of a revolution, they say. Macaroni and grilled chicken are served.
Much of what is said in the current conversations had already been heard after the revolution in 2004 – so what’s the difference between then and now? “Then we were driven by the hope that things would get better,” says journalist Natalja Gumenjuk. Is she confident? “It’s now of never,” she says.
Essentially the revolutionaries of Maidan consist of three groups: The so-called right-wing sector, so the representatives of the nationalist splinter groups. Then there were the army of rough men; they sported beards, homemade camouflage uniforms and baseball bats. Then there were those like Gumenjuk: young Ukrainians, mostly students, multi-lingual, armed with shoulder bags, smartphones and twitter accounts. That’s why the conversations with them were characterized by such mutual empathy, since we found common ground so quickly: We have read some of the same books, from Kafka to Andruchowytsch, and here too they like listening to Bod Dylan and streaming Jon Stewart.
But soon we are confronted with the big difference, that thing we central Europeans have that they want: security. The safety to express yourself and enjoy your sexuality freely and without fear. The security of knowing that tomorrow you’ll still be living in the same country with the same borders. And the feeling of safety from Yanukovych’s snipers and Putin’s tanks. Things that their current government, the EU, the USA, that no one can promise them. In Ukraine it seems that only one thing is certain: Nothing is for certain.
Ukraine is not only a border country between the EU and Russia, on the Main Square in Kiev, Soviet bureaucracy meets the digitalized service-oriented society. At the entrance is a sign saying opened “24/7”, so around the clock and underneath is the amendment: “Break: 0:00-6:00”. We ordered our train tickets online. That’s been possible since 2012 because of the European World Cup in soccer Victor Yanukovych raised the infrastructure to western standards. We show the woman at the counter – platinum blonde hair gathered in a bun, wearing a white lace shirt, sitting behind a sign that says, “A cashier shall not give information” – our reservation confirmation on our iPad. It’s a magical moment, going by her look of astonishment.
Our train was built in Soviet times and is made up of two cars. It departs from track 2 at exactly 22:50 and will arrive in Lviv just as punctually seven hours and thirty-six minutes later. It’s been well maintained, the thick carpeting gives it living-room appeal and for the equivalent of a few cents they serve a generous cup of tea, green or black.
We are a bit puzzled by the thick blankets, but Anastasija, a Ukrainian woman in her late 20s with an open expression, intercedes charmingly as we draw back the mattress covers. Westerners! We feel uncomfortable being so clueless about how to behave under the local conditions. She feels uncomfortable that she doesn’t have smartphone. Easterners! Her last time visiting the capital Kiev was five years ago, but now Anastasija is sitting in a 4-person compartment, on her way back home to seemingly far-away west the Lviv. This part of the Ukraine is more Ukrainian, but Anastasja’s mother tongue is Russian. She says she feels like a Ukrainian, but her father is Russian.
Did Ukraine really complete a successful nation-building process in only one generation? Is it a country in which the daughter of a man who sees himself as Russian can simply feel like a Ukrainian? Or is Anastasja just telling us what she thinks people like us want to hear. The Ukraine being torn along social and geographic lines or is it a question of ethnic and national differences? Maybe we’ll find some answers in Lviv.
Lviv – Go West
At dusk we reach another world in the same country. The people of Lviv are called “Leopolitan”, which already sounds like the Monarchy, like Joseph Roth and the “World of Yesterday,” that Stefan Zweig mourns after in his memoirs. An it looks like it, with its little old trolley cars, the cemetery at the edge of town, with headstones that read German names and a dimly-lit Jewish restaurant near the demolished Synagogue, where we have to bargain with the waiter over the price of our meal. One hundred years ago the city of 750,000 was the capital of Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which has shaped life, thinking and architecture here.
Today Lviv is a placid city. It’s somewhat provincial, the way some men sidle along in pointed paten leather shoes. But it’s also elegant the way Lviv’s women carry their oversized shoppers on their lower arms and present their beautiful coats on the lively corso. Their outfits are not store-bought; here everyone makes an effort to wear unique and classy attire. In Ukraine’s Lviv it’s all about seeing and being seen.
We walk along the cobblestone streets, passing a number of facades with EU flags, as if the city was preparing for a parade: The blue background with a circle of yellow stars waves at us from the Lviv city hall, aside souvenir shops and above the entrances to establishments like the “Strudel House”, where the sound of waltzes emanates onto the street and coffee and traditional Austrian pastries are served. But the “Strudel House” is folklore and nostalgia; even the Jews in the kosher eatery aren’t really Jewish, we find out we’ve fallen for the shtick of a rather controversial theme restaurant.
Indeed, the world of yesterday no longer exists. It fell victim to the First Word War, when the paths of Vienna and Lviv parted with downfall of the Danube Monarchy. In the Great War 17 million people died. Until that time, it was the bloodiest war in history, which began exactly one hundred years ago. Many historians see it as the beginning of a new era, which lasted until the fall of the iron curtain in 1989 and marks the “short 20th century”: in those 75 years the history of Europe became more dense than ever before. Unimaginable atrocities were committed, not only in Europe; it was the advent of a new world order.
Lviv is the center of the Ukrainian national sentiment. The Swoboda-party, which is often seen as right-wing extremist, was not only founded here, it was has a majority in the local government. But in Ukraine “Pro-West” and “Nationalist” only seem to be contradictory at first glance. Here, patriotism means emancipation from Russian supremacy. The understanding of Nation is one of the asynchronies that remain between the former eastern block and Western Europe. While much of the European Union dreams about overcoming the nation state, in Ukraine it has yet to rise, somewhere between Donetsk and Lviv.
“The nationalism in other European countries is more offensive. The Ukrainian nationalism is defensive, it’s directed at Putin,” says the bookstore owner Halja Schyjan. We’re strolling with her and her 10-month-old daughter Theodora though the Lviv’s old town, while she explains why things are so complicated here. In her old soviet passport it differentiated between nationality and ethnicity; everyone was a soviet national, but they belong to the ethnic group of the Russians, the Poles, the Jews or the Ukrainians. Now everyone has a Ukrainian passport, but they have yet to become a nation. Hanging on Theodora’s buggy is a blue and yellow bird, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which is tied right next to it. The Polish border, and therefore that of the EU is 80 kilometers away. Halja knows Krakow, 350 kilometers west of here, better than Kiev, which seems further away, 200 kilometers to the east.
The people of Lviv have a distinct advantage over the more eastern citizens: because they’re near the border, they can apply for a so-called shopping visa in Poland – and from there move freely within the Schengen area of the EU. “ I don’t like Kiev, it’s stressful and feels almost a little bit Asian,” says Schyjan. To her, European cities have a much more relaxed atmosphere.
“We were never Russians, we were always a part of Europe, part of European culture,” says Serhi Kiral, who works for the influenctial Mayor of Lviv, Andri Sadowi. His business card has “Chief Investment Officer” as his title. He seems to think just as western as his title suggests, wears a light shirt and doesn’t simply tell us his version of the occurances of the past weeks, he sells it to us. His message: Everyhting’s going to be fine. The wounds of Maidan are long from being healed, Crimea has just been lost, but Kiral is already dreaming about his city’s bright future. It will be a conference city, for which he wants to have a grand exposition center built, and he hopes for a new hotel that livea up to interational standards. “We are ready,” he says. Ready for the West, for investors, for liberation. The recently signed treaty of association with the EU is far from enough for him, he wants more. An air traffic treaty between the EU and Ukraine should liberate the airspace over his country, lower the cost of flying and up the use of the Lviv airport, which is currently at five to ten percent of capacity. Their expectations from the EU are “extremely high”.
The train that will take us to the EU – across the border into the Promised Land the “Chief Investment Officer” so admires – is the most beautiful one we will board this trip. The beds are already made with freshly ironed sheets. First a man in a light blue shirt brings three half-liter bottles of water without us having asked. A few minutes later another man knocks on the door, presenting us with Croissants in plastic wrap.
Some people can sleep wherever they are, but others can’t even let go here. Too many questions keep you awake. Big ones: How can the security the Ukrainians want so badly be achieved? It won’t be with financial aid or association treaties alone. If the Union wanted to guarantee any sort of security from Russia, it would have to offer them membership. That, however, wouldn’t do much for general security in Europe. A few weeks later, at which point we’ll be sitting back in our newsroom in Vienna, Putin will warn Ukraine of a civil war, there will be fighting in the East. This territory seems to be cursed. “Bloodlands” is what the historian Timothy Snyder called it, where between 1932 and 1945 14 million people were killed in this region of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics. Did we learn from the atrocities of the past? Will we return to the Cold War? Are we entering a Cold Peace?
Around midnight, there’s another knock on the door. It doesn’t sound like the rap of the croissant man. It’s the hammering of authorities. This is the EU border, Schengen. A fat woman with round eyebrows and blond bangs is standing in uniform at the door to our compartment. She wants our passports. More of her kind will follow, altogether five, first Ukrainians, then Poles, but she is the only woman.
Two of our passports are Austrian, one Croatian. That is also the one that gets the authorities’ attention – despite being an EU passport for about a year. They look at it skeptically, turn it over, hold it up against the light of the compartment, and put it through a hand scanner. Does it belong to an intruder? Is it even real? When we ask the authorities why they want to know so much about the reason for our journey, they excuse themselves in a friendly manner. They have their orders. Open your backpack! They rummage around in it. Just in case. Welcome to EU-Land.
Krakow – Why Does My Heart Feel so Bad?
First we go for breakfast. On Plac Szczepański near the Cracovian city center we sit in sunshine, gradually shedding the night in the train. The waiter is wearing a white t-shirt and a beard; he brings us coffee, covered in creamy milk foam, with dark borders forming a heart. We know this kind of embellishment from Kiev and Lviv; the coffee there tastes just as superb as it does here. We will think about it often – because from Krakow to Brussels it will only go down hill in this department. After Kiev and Lviv, Krakow is the first Erasmus city on our trip, so young people from all over live here. Lots of tourists, a group of Italians in colorful sneakers, people ride bicycles on the streets – that too is a first here.
With a population of 760,000 Krakow is Poland’s second largest city after Warsaw and of great historic importance. When it was still the capital, until the end of the 16th century, Poland was seen as being more powerful that Russia. Besides, this was the home of Karol Józef Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II. At the end of April he was declared a saint, an important event for the Catholic country.
Ten years ago Poland joined the EU and since then its development has been seen as a success story. Economic growth is far above the EU average, Poland Gross National Product grew last year four times as much as that of Germany, according to Eurostat. The economic interlacing with its neighbor contributes greatly to its success – similarly to Austria. According to the National Ministry of Statistics, one quarter of the polish exports went you Germany last year. Still there are reservations towards the EU, according to surveys. Two thirds of Poles are against introducing the euro, which is however more likely due to the current euro crisis than to general EU-skepticism.
Not far from Wawel, atop a hill in the center of town, which used to serve as the Polish Queen’s residence, we arrive at Café Szafe. It’s a bit hidden, apart from the tourist hotspots and was opened by an artist couple – he writes children’s books, she illustrates them. It’s a little world all unto itself, wardrobes have been repurposed to make benches, there are wooden fairytale creatures all around and at night it says open “until the wooden goat is wrestled to the ground.” Chris, the waiter, pronounces his name in English, he probably always does that when “internationals” sit at the bar. We ask him, what kind of a city it is that we now find ourselves in. First of all: it’s still a small town, in which you can “bump into your Ex-girlfriends at every corner.” The Cracovian’s idea of entertainment is reading a book and, in the evening, maybe listening to a blues guitarist by candlelight. Lots of Brits come here, looking for the simple life of the east, Chris says and grins. On long afternoons, he himself entertains self-ascribed intellectuals and artists, creative minds and alcoholics.
Still, Poland has changed radically over the past years. “May father always joked that we in Poland won’t get new soccer stadiums before I’m an old man.” Chris is barely 26, and thanks to the European Cup in Poland and Ukraine the country has four of the most modern stadiums on the continent.
Poland has become so embedded as a member of the EU that no one cares about the EU election here either, says Chris, “many people try to ignore politics.” Throughout our journey the people have shown little interest in European politics. They never introduce the subject themselves and when we do, it’s met with general statements – or resentment and incomprehension, as with Chris. The former captain of the national soccer team, Maciej Żurawski, is now a candidate for the EU elections he says. “He’s my childhood idol, an intelligent soccer player. But he has no clue about politics.”
He too, wonders whom he should vote for, or can vote for. “I don’t know yet. The people here often don’t vote for a party, but rather against one.” The history has changed the once religious and ethnically diverse regions that make up the Poland of today and “made a cultural monolith” – like almost everywhere else in Europe. “Today, the people who live in Poland are 90% Catholic and 100% Polish. That’s terrible,” says Chris. Ascension to the EU has changed in that respect.
Here and there, Klezmer music drifts through the streets, folklore for the tourists. Active Jewish life is virtually all gone. During the Shoa, every fourth Cracovian was Jewish, their Quarter was Kazimierz. Distinguished Rabbis came from here. Today, their synagogues still stand, a least they have survived the great catastrophes. If you leave Kazimierz in the south and cross the Weichsel, you arrive in the city quarter, Podgórze, where the Nazi’s jammed in the Jews before they sent them to their death. The movie director Roman Polanski survived the Krakow ghetto as a child, his pregnant mother died in Auschwitz. And to this day the Enamel factory still stands that belonged to the German Oskar Schindler. He saved the lived of some 1,200 Jewish forced laborers and the world now knows his story thanks to Steven Spielberg.
Lviv, in Ukraine and Krakow in Poland are visually and idealistically as similar are cousins with the same haircut. They are connected, in history and fate: Lviv is often seen as a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but for 432 years until 1772 it was under Polish rule for three times longer than under the crown of the Habsburgs. After the First World War it fell back into Poland’s hands until Stalin brought Lviv into the Soviet Union in Second World War. The cites not only have the same haircut, they also share the same ugly scar on their faces, given to them by the second world war and Holocaust. In 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union marched into Poland nearly simultaneously and the country ceased to exist. Poland and Europe are still suffering the consequences.
The past century has produced ethnically cleansed areas in a once mixed Europe. It erased the national, religious, lingual and indigenous diversity. Complex identities in which different cultures were united in one person were not uncommon. For instance Jews in this part of Europe juggled multiple languages, Yiddish, German, Polish and Ukrainian. That was forced to give way to the conformity and the pursuit of clear dominance of one group. In this case the Germans. Deutschland über alles.
Wake me up before you go go. In the bus on the way to Oświęcim, Wham! Blasts from the speakers. The music seems inappropriately loud, inappropriately joyful, and if a passenger in conversation breaks into laughter, there’s an urge to shoot him a poisonous glance. You put the boom boom into my heart.
Oświęcim, or in German Auschwitz, is 80 kilometers west of Krakow. The drive in the public minibus takes 100 minutes and the passengers are those that travel from Krakow to Czułówek, from Babice to Bradlo, they take this bus every day. They seem lively or tired, amused or carefree; the way passengers seem in a full bus on a Tuesday in April.
Then there are the others, with heavy countenances, tensed, reverent. These include Americans, Spaniards and us. Between the small towns with single-family homes, mixed forests pass our window, fields, streams and birch groves. The sun shines faintly across the wide, overcast sky. Smoking factory chimneys, overgrown train tracks and more birch trees, Birken in German. Birkenau. Cross on the side of the road mark the sites of car accidents, they are adorned with flowers. How many bouquets would you need for the victims of Auschwitz? If we commemorated one of them every day we would need three thousand years. Three thousand years. Auschwitz.
Not only did 1,300,000 people die in Auschwitz, but also something dies that Goethe called the Idea of the Divine in People. Let man be a noble creature, helpful and good. Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Every image, every thought seems inappropriate. The home-improvement center OBI, the discount super market Netto, the fast-food chain KFC; the poster for the “Arena” Circus, which is going to raise its tents here soon, and especially the ad of the city administration: ioswiecimonline.pl. Over the past days we spoke a lot about our visit to Auschwitz, what it would be like, overtired after two wakeful nights on trains. And now we’re sitting here and our silence is so loud. Why did we expect to see what had happened here in the appearance of the visitors? The way they move when they’re getting out of a car or lighting a cigarette? Is it self-righteous, childish? Is it simply human? The irritation when the bus stopped, the driver shouted “Auschwitz” and the first thing we hear are children laughing.
The gas chambers, the ovens, the torture chambers. The human stables. The hair of 40,000 women. The pictures of bodies, thin as branches, thrown on top of each other like trash. 1.3 million murders. Let man be a noble creature, helpful and good. For that alone sets him apart from all creatures we know.
We must look forward, we must live in the present, says Martha Galiewicz. She was born a few kilometers from here; she doesn’t want her real name printed in press. Martha guides our tour through the former Concentration Camp Auschwitz and the neighboring death camp Birkenau. It is her duty to impart the message of Auschwitz. The Main areal of the concentration camp initially served as Polish army barracks and the houses of the town almost reach its fences. On this warm evening, pre-pubescent boys in tracksuits are riding their bikes in circles in front of the gate. This will be our last image of Auschwitz. Time levels everything. It doesn’t care what happens to people that live in it. Those who live here in the communities surrounding the former concentration camp have their own daily lives, their own troubles. And even those who escaped death in Auschwitz had to somehow live on afterwards. They had to wash their dirty laundry, save money and console their children when they were lovesick. Life goes on, with or without us. Still, that which happened to the victims of Auschwitz is not lost. It continues to have an effect, not only as a warning. Even physically it reaches us today. Auschwitz is an organic place. The dirt we walk on is the same as back then, the nature is the same, the people that died there have stayed there in a certain way. Their ashes rest in a stagnant pond. Historians presume that many of their diaries are still buried underground.
What we saw in the hours at the concentration camp transforms the supranational imperative “Never again” in the living sense of a united Europe and its function to guarantee peace. Auschwitz is not the only proof of how vulnerable this continent is. The current unrest in Eastern Ukraine could slide into war at any moment. Europe’s more recent history shows how quickly that can happen – take the genocide in Bosnia’s Srebrenica in the mid-nineties. Almost every day they continue to find human remains there.
In Kazimierz the bars are full this evening, still the once Jewish quarter of Krakow feel strangely abandoned after we return form Auschwitz. It’s not far-fetched to suppose that the Hostel Panda on the Plac Nowy, where today backpackers from all over the world dance to the music of Moby, was once the house of devout Jews, and that in the attic where our beds are now, a family lived that was obliterated at Auschwitz. We think of Vienna and our own apartments. Among the suitcases that we saw in Auschwitz there were many addresses in our neighborhoods. On that pile, could there have been some with our addresses?
Dresden – With God on Our Side
We arrive at the middle of our path from Kiev to Brussels and realize: in Eastern Europe you won’t find a stronger East-vibe than in Dresden. They have preserved rituals here that we didn’t see in other cities on our trip. For instance, the Weekly market on Fridays in front of the German Hygiene Museum on the Lingnerallee: This has existed since the reunification of Germany, and it mostly offers products that were once available in the GDR. Soaps with the name Atlantik, Jars of Spreewald pickles, house slippers and underwear in packs of three (5 percent spandex and 95 percent cotton). Walking through here feels like being inside a faded panorama postcard, where only the yellow of the dandelions braves the signs of time.
Dresden feels homey, it always seems possible to have a friendly chat and strangers make eye contact for longer. In Dresden it’s more likely that you’ll start a random conversation than other places, be it at the market or in the trams. We think that this approachability has to do with solidarity that was demanded of its citizens as a matter of necessity. Whatever the reason: In Frankfurt we won’t be experiencing this kind of courtesy anymore. He was born in Wroclaw and fled form there as a child, said a man with a flat cap who sits down next to us on the bus stop bench. Now that he’s old his feet hurt. In the GDR people earned less, he says, “but everything was cheaper than today.” Wroclaw, Breslau in German, used to be part of German Silesia, famous for it colliery fields and its special dialect, today it’s part of Poland. At the end of the war he traveled over 200 kilometers by train with his entire family, the man tells us, in a straight line westwards. Through the barred windows he saw corpses that had been thrown in pits. He wants us to guess his age and we play for time, we don’t want to say anything wrong since he looks thin and weak. He finally tells us: 77. Good thing we waited.
In the last days of the Second World War the allies bombed Dresden, when he was still a child. The death toll was 25,000. The city burned for days, even the Elba was in flames. But still, if you cross the bridge over the river and look to the center of town you can see elements of the old Dresden. Since the reconstruction after the turnaround the dome of the Frauenkirche towers over the city like a giant binky.
About 230 years ago Friedrich Schiller saw the same view and, as legend has it, wrote the Ode to Joy, which Beethoven then set to music with his 9th symphony. In the mid-1980s the European Community made it to the European Hymn. Schiller gave wings to the “Florence on the Elba”, as Gottfried Herder called baroque Dresden. Freude, schöner Götterfunken. It must have been magnificent.
August von Starken’s idea was just as magnificent when he built the Frauenkirche in the 18th century: the protestant Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism, in order to be elected king by the polish gentry. Its almost like steps, Lviv used to be under Krakow’s rule, which was under Dresden’s rule. There are overlaps in sphere’s of influence and culture, shared history, which make a whole out of the sum of Europe’s parts. That Dresden was part of the GDR and was rebuilt by it, can not be denied; even if the people of the time sought refuge from the stiff environment of Plattenbauten by making illegal paths through the fields, the facades are renovated by now, most of the apartments have balconies and the spaces between them are filled with generous playgrounds.
But there are also fin-de-siècle districts like Neustadt, where the soy-latte crowd spends its afternoons, which could just as well be in Berlin. The impression of seemingly parallel realities, that appear not to influence each other whatsoever, quickly vanishes as soon as we get to the north east of the city and come closer tot the Stasi Jail and its adjacent buildings. This was once the center of state authority and fear of it infected the city like a fungus.
A one-story property in Angelikastrasse 4, just a stone’s throw from the Stasi building, was once the Soviet KGB headquarters. This is where Vladimir Vladimirowitsch Putin went in and out for five years, in the second half of the 80s, when he was an agent in Dresden. Today the Anthropological Society of Dresden is here and offers all kinds of self-discovery seminars. And we all know what became of the former agent Putin.
The freedom and security that appear so second nature in today in a united Germany and Europe was a sheer Utopia in the late eighties. It was December 5th, 1989 when the life of Herbert Wagner became more meaningful than on any other day. If anything had gone wrong on that day there would have been corpses, he would have gone to prison, he says. When he talks about that Tuesday, there appears to be film playing in his memory, one in which he can fast-forward, rewind and press pause. Hi memory has scanned every moment and saved it. “Today I know how it ended,” says Wagner. “But that morning I could never have dreamt what would happen before the day was done.”
In these hours, 5,000 citizens occupied the detention center of the GDR State Security in Bautzner Straße. For a long time there had been protests against the regime throughout the GDR; and had only been a month since the people in Berlin had climbed over the wall that had cut Germany in two for 28 years. Still, no one dared approach the Stasi – it fueled plenty of rage, but also the greatest fear. Not until January 15th 1990 did their rooms in the capital East Berlin become occupied, more than a month after Dresden. The fact that on December 5th 1989 demonstrators occupied the formerly well-guarded and feared Dresden Stasi-HQ and that not one shot was fired, Wagner still calls “a miracle”.
Combed hair, a dark jacket and white shirt: Herbert Wagner seems to be a reserved person, not only concerning his wardrobe. Nevertheless, he has an unbreakable spirit. As a practicing Catholic he was regarded as “bound by religion” as it was expressed at the time. Christian activism was especially characteristic of the turnaround, churches served as places for political gatherings and resistance. With others, Wagner organized the Dresden Monday demonstrations and became a member of the “Gruppe der 20”, the key negotiators that had dialogues with the Regime. No one could have predicted the momentum that brought about the turnaround – or similarly that Herbert Wagner would be a leading figure. After the turmoil he was to serve for the CDU as mayor of Dresden for over 10 years until 2001.
His wife’s relative were also held prisoner by the Stasi at this location, in the cells of the detention center. Today he carries the keys to it in his pocket since Wagner has begun volunteering at the memorial site. In the former main building, an angular box, much has remained the same as it used to be: two detention centers with halls of cells on the basement level, interrogation rooms and offices in the upper floors, at the center an auditorium with a stage and two grey tube TVs fastened to the walls, surrounded by stiff curtains in a dull orange. Sometimes visitors to the place include those who worked here fulltime for the Stasi, “to inspect whether we’ve made the tiniest mistake, so they can accuse us of falsifying history to turn it into a ‘chamber of horrors’,” says Wagner. “And or course they don’t feel like answering uncomfortable questions from their friends or family and have to justify their behavior under the dictatorship.” Admitting to and regretting your guilt was not an easy thing to do in the social climate after the turnaround, says Wagner. Many who followed the regime stuck their heads in the sand after the downfall and hoped this cup would pass from them. Not least because people saw what happened to those who went public with their relationship to the GDR: In the new unified Germany they were chased through the streets. “I would have hoped for more debate and reconciliation,” says Herbert Wagner. “We all have to give each other more chances.”
Frankfurt – Dance the ECB
The great tale of the reunification doesn’t end in Dresden, but in Frankfurt. And it reaches far beyond Germany’s borders; it would effect all of Europe. Not only are socialism, the wall and iron curtain history, but also the national currencies. The introduction of the euro is closely linked to the reunification. It’s the result of negotiations between France and Germany, the two great powers of Europe, previous bitter enemies – particularly talks between Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. The image is still present: two older men, hand in hand standing in the rain at Verdun. France supported Germany during the reunification; in return Germany sacrificed its string currency, the Deutschmark.
Frankfurt am Main, as part of the pact, would be the location of the European Central Bank, where the Fiscal politics of the EU would be decided. It was not Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and not Council President Herman Van Roumpuy, but ECB Chief Mario Draghi, who declared on July 26th 2012, at the height of the crisis that “everything necessary” would be done to save the euro. Frankfurt is perhaps with most important control center of the European crisis, its institutions are the guarantor of the financial security of Europe.
Not quite ten years after the euro was introduced in 2002, it threatened to tear the union apart. In 2010, two years after the US real-estate bubble burst and the financial world staggered into a crisis, Greece was broke, and not much later, Spain and Portugal followed into the crisis. The security, the wealth and even the social harmony – suddenly everything seemed in danger. How could the wealthiest economic region of the world so abruptly find itself at the brink? Were we really at the at the verge of Hyperinflation, or should we be worried about deflation? All of the comparisons to the inter-war years, to the dark past which we had driven through over the past days, were they justified? Frankfurt is the pace where Europe becomes abstract and unintelligible.
The only concrete things are the pungent stench or urine at the train station and the unshaven man who asks for €1.80, which he says is what he’s missing for a fare. Nowhere on our trip is poverty as visible as here, not least because the divide between poor and rich is wider here than anywhere else. From the Train station Kaiserstraße leads directly to the ECB Tower, past the red light district and the cross street Moselstraße, past the confused people that curse into the air, past a jewelry shop in front of which a collapsed drug addict blocks the entrance, causing two policemen with baby blue gloves to drag him from the door to a shop window.
Jutting into the sky, the Euro-Tower has an oversized euro sign in front of it and has become the symbol for the Europe of Financial Capital, a 148-meter high scratching post for all left-wingers and critics of globalization. In contrast to the right-wing populist parties, they don’t reject the euro per se, but rather the fiscal politics of the Union. In a crisis that began in abstract spheres before it had real consequences, in which we speak of unimaginable number and virtual money, the ECB is concrete, tangible enemy. It supplies banks with cheap money while its policies force the southern countries to practice drastic austerity, putting it on the side of the banks not the people. Unlike the Right, the Left protests on the street, not in parliament. At the entrance the ECB, activist of the platform “Blockupy” have written “€mpört €uch”, “Time For Outrage”, next to it the call for protests starting on the May 15th, just in time for the EU elections.
“Our fight is like that of the opponents of nuclear energy,” says Sybille von Foelkersamb, retired Journalist and one of five members of the organizing committee of Attac in Frankfurt. They had voiced warnings of a big catastrophe and no one listened to them. Then the crisis came, out of nowhere, just like in 1986 when an nuclear reactor exploded in Chernobyl. In both cases the dangers are invisible, not concrete; but the consequences are.
Suddenly Attac was being taken seriously and people were listening. Representatives of the organization were part of every debate. But not the elections are coming and no one wants to talk about the crisis – Attac isn’t getting any more invitations. The financial transaction tax that Attac proposed has been adopted into the political mainstream, but what the EU countries want to pass und that title “has nothing to do with the initial idea of the tax anymore,” says von Foelkersamb.
At the pinnacle of the crisis, there were not only protesters on Wall Street in New York, but also an Occupy camp with Activists in front of the ECB in Frankfurt. “The finny thing was that they were welcomed by everyone. The City of Frankfurt even asked them before Christmas whether they wanted a Christmas tree for the camp,” said Michal Ziegelwanger, Editor of the satirical magazine Titanic, with offices in Frankfurt. He was also part of the Occupy movement, albeit not a particularly popular one: Titanic made it their duty to market the anti capitalist protest, so Ziegelwanger sold coffee cups with the “Occupy Frankfurt” logo and t-shirts with slogans like “I made a banker stop and think.”
Ziegelwanger has lived in Frankfurt since 2009; the city is “very green, that’s a positive thing.” Otherwise it’s a “provincial town that feel like a big city because of the skyscrapers.” It’s a city in which the people that don’t work in the skyscrapers and can look on the city from above can’t afford the apartments down below. After Munich, Frankfurt is the city with the highest rental prices in Germany and everywhere new houses and districts are being built overnight – and each one is named after Europe. But Europe is not being developed here, Europe is being decreed and built in a dull Style that almost borders on aesthetic violence. The new streets are called Europa-Allee, Brüsseler-Allee on Den-Haager-Straße. But they are not meant for the average citizen of the Union; this is where those people live and work who stand for the Europe of Capital. Surrounding the new ECB buildings, an entire district is planned. The so-called Europaviertel (Europe Quarter) between the exposition center and the train station at the other end of town is almost completed.
Journalists are only allowed in the new ECB buildings with a guide every few weeks, and the current ECB building is off limits. Just the “Euro Information Centre” next to the main entrance is open. But it’s simply a souvenir shop where you can buy euro-memorabilia and coins from all the euro countries. The crisis didn’t halt at the doors of the souvenir shop: people bought less of the euro coins form the different countries and more bought euro gold and silver coins, which are also on sale here, the sales woman tells us. It’s a beautiful image, almost an act of subversion: Directly in the building of the ECB, the people that no longer believe in the currency buy euro coins. Not for the nominal value, but for the raw material from which they are fashioned. All of that happened less than two years ago, but at some point in that short time the crisis, the existential crisis, appears to have fallen into an easy slumber and disappear from the perception of the media.
But the urine stench at the train station is very much present, the rushed people in suits too; and the best coffee to be had here is at Starbucks, Vanilla flavored. We board the ICE to Brussels. A seta for these 400 kilometers costs €116, double what we paid for both comfortable night trains and the 900 kilometers from Kiev to Lviv and Lviv to Krakow. In only a few hours we will have reached the final destination of our journey.
Looking back at the history that has shaped Europe and the places in it that we have visited it doesn’t seem to be exaggeration to say: The great promises of a united Europe are at stake, namely the economic and physical security od its citizens. With youth unemployment reaching up to 60% and the rolling back of government expenditures across the board it’s difficult to talk about economic security for all. And with a country like Russia, which appears to feel free to cannibalize neighboring countries and steadily move closer to Europe’s borders, the security from military confrontation is also no longer a given. But what is Europe with out these promises? And what about Ukraine? Should, or can Europe make it this promise?
Brussels – Safe European Home
Brussels-Midi, the city’s central train station is the last on our trip. Here Europe is a city within a city. The bus from Midi guides us past elegant art-nouveau districts directly to the entrance to EU parliament, into the social center of the bubble, the Place Luxembourg, where the cafes fill at lunchtime and after work with thousands of Europe’s employees.
The social fabric in the Europe Quarter is strictly codified, from the outfits to the design of the business cards. Men wear suits, women wear pant suits or work-wear dresses. The street scene resembles – right down to the shoes and the roller bags – any other globalized busi-ness-district, like London City or New York’s Financial District.
Around 40,000 EU officials work in Brussels’ Europe Quarter, 2,500 diplomats, dozens of lobbyists and journalists, military and NGO-activists. They’re wearing Armani? Must be a lobbyist. No tie? A journalist. Long hair? An intern. On a daily basis, in the middle of the Place Luxembourg, between Europe’s employees, a few dozen people gather with banners. Correct, they must be demonstrators. Today African homosexuals and transsexuals are protesting. They say that Europe is not doing enough for the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals in Africa. Tomorrow women will be here saying that Europe is not doing enough for the rights of women.
It is the local ritual of civil society, and it belongs to the ritual of the European apparatus just as much as voting, which is happening only 100 meters from here, in the assembly hall of parliament. European Police College. For. Against. Abstain. Adopted. Overall resolution. Passed. Nominal vote opened. Ended. Passed. It goes on like that for hours. The chairperson reads out the voting topics, the delegates press buttons in the name of 500 million citizens. It is the pinnacle of European democracy and it is unspeakably boring.
What happens backstage, the struggles over positions, the gaining and trading of expertise, the negotiations that can take years, remains hidden from this scene. Democracy consists of rituals. Rituals mean accountability, predictability and security. And that means boredom. Not counting elections, boredom is big part of democracy; in fact it’s a measure of stability, if you will. In Teheran, in Moscow, in Kiev it’s not as boring as in Brussels. But the citizens of Brussels criticize that too.
The vote is over; in front of the assembly hall journalists and cameras are waiting, activists fro an alternative trade mandate and German students with a kilometer-long letter in the name of Romanian street dogs. Next to them an orthodox Jew in conversation breaks into laughter: “You’re a wise man,” he says in French. Behind him and Indian declares in polished English “We need to get involved!” into a TV camera. Unlike the commission and the council, where there are almost no external visitors and the atmosphere in the hallways is reminiscent of a revenue office, away from the voting process the EU Parliament is a colorful place, multilingual, electrifying, sometimes dizzying. If you visit the in-house cafeteria at lunchtime you’ll think of Babylon: People from all over Europe, all over the world are chatting and laughing and talking on the phone and smacking their lips, all at the same time. For a politician whose job it is to “prevent the worst,” s he himself says, Jörg Leichtfried looks contented. The Styrian is the head of the five-person SPÖ delegation in EU Parliament and he’s already been working here for ten years. Until now his job has mostly been about watering down the decisions of the conservative Parliament majority. Now Leichtfried says: “This election is an election of direction.”
Brussels is a city of meetings, an appointment usually takes 20 minutes and is booked weeks in advance. Spontaneity happens in other places, Brussels is an appointment-planning town. Most of the delegates whom we ask to speak with spontaneously have no time. Leichtfried has ten minutes. So, an election of direction. That’s what all the parties say at the EU elections. Why again this time around? At the moment the conservatives have 274 seats in parliament, the Social Democrats have 194, Liberals 85, Greens 58, Reformists 57, the united Left parties have 35, eurosceptics have 34 and 32 independent. According to Europe-wide polls, conservatives and social democrats are neck in neck. It’s the eighth parliamentary election and not only does the importance in the European triarchy – the commission (executive), parliament (legislative) and council (heads of state that make all big decisions themselves) grow each time – this time, for the first time the political camps each have Europe-wide frontrunners: the candidate of the winning party, so either conservative Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker, or the social democratic German Martin Schulz, will also be preside over the next commission. What that will mean for actual politics, no one knows. This election will certainly not change anything about the opacity of the European decision making process.
The Austrian delegate Martin Ehrenhauser is standing on the square in front of parliament; suit, beard, roller bag and typing into his smartphone. He is happy and nervous. Happy because the EU Parliament just voted for Net neutrality, so the equal treatment of internet users before the law, and nervous because his check-in at the airport closes in 30 minutes. Without further ado we join him in the taxi.
“Net neutrality is a personal victory,” says Ehrenhauser. That’s probably what lots of other delegates are saying at the moment. Parliament work is a team sport, so they are probably all a little right when they say it’s a personal victory. Unlike in Austrian Parliament there is no obligation to vote in accordance with party policy. In Brussels and Strasbourg, the second parliamentary venue, it’s a play of forces. From time to time questions will bring on different majorities, crossing party, national and social lines. Five years ago, Ehrenhauser was a candidate for Hans-Peter Martin. They have long since parted ways, accusing each other of corruption, spying and lack of character. What has he learned in five years in EU Parliament? “Politics is painstaking work,” he’s talking about endurance and stamina. This time Ehrenhauser is running for the “Europa anders” (A Different Europe) party, a platform made up of Communists, Pirate Party and Der Wandel (a party founded in 2012, for equal opportunities and sustainable economic models) – he is the candidate of the buccaneers.
The public attention span for EU delegates spans a few weeks every five years. The respective delegates can’t expect much more than a single attribute: Othmar Karas, the boring one; Eugen Freund, the klutz; Ulrike Lunacek, the green. When he gets back to Vienna, Martin Ehrenhauser is going to spend a few nights camping out on Ballhausplatz in front of the Chancellery building, to protest the government’s policies concerning the Hypo scandal.
Ehrenhauser, the rebel.
The delegates that you meet here, their employees and commission officials, diplomats and think tankers – when asked who decides on the future of a united Europe, they all answer the same: the heads of state and government are the ones who decide on the road, the EU Parliament’s job is, to remain with the same image, merely to help decide on traffic laws and design of the roadsides.
Ten minutes left before the check-in desk closes. Our driver passes an ambulance that has its sirens on. Brussels’ taxi drivers know what waiters and concierges here also know: people who are wearing a suit are not paying their bills themselves, so the tip is that much bigger. That is also one of the main reasons that restaurants, hotel rooms and rent are overpriced here.
We’re staying at a hostel. The internet is slow, the shower is cold and there’s Nescafé for breakfast. A bed in four-person room costs €24,50. Hundreds of students are staying here. They say Brussels gets hundreds of thousands of them visiting Brussels every year. For them it’s like ski week without the sports, without nature, without fun, because all they see are hostels and windowless conference rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting and suits. The school trips are not doing Europe any favors. Of course it’s not as easy to just send the students to Kiev. But at least in the places where Europe and the security it provides are absent, you learn to appreciate it.
In Brussels, far form the Euro-bubble, far from the muscles and chocolate is another dilapidated world that still feeds on yesterday’s wealth and is almost never seen by visitors. The multilingual immigration city, in which half of the resident population has an immigrant background, is now divided socially and ethnically; the Congolese have their own quarter and the Moroccans, the Albanians and the Rich. On the backs of the police uniforms it says “Police and “Politie” underneath each other, because Brussels is the only official French and Dutch-speaking city in Belgium, and because sometimes at night diplomat cars do burn. Even today, the city administration levels entire art-nouveau city blocks to make room for concrete, steel and return on investment. One Hundred meters from the tourist-packed Grand Place are condemned houses; it smells like urine, feces and decay. “Bruxellisation”, this word describes in French the citizens see as negative urban development.
The taxi stops in front of a former factory hall in the southwest of the city. It’s a run-down area, the furniture in Café Caracas is covered in dust and taxi drivers don’t like to stop here. But the building has been repurposed into a hip event location. More than one hundred people are meeting here today, according to organizers, the Centre for European Policy Studies, the brightest minds in Europe. At the “CEPS Laboratory”, as sort of workshop for the future, politicians and officials, lobbying and experts explore scenarios for a united tomorrow. The seats have been allotted for weeks and the outsiders are not allowed. The lady at the entrance looks us skeptically; we are not wearing suits and have no roller bags. In English “Datum Magazine” sounds important though and somehow famous: Deitem Megesin. It work and we’re in.
On the walls are colorful balloons, the piles of books are free and so is the coffee in the “Einstein Bar.” Sign guide us to the topic groups: to the left is “Europe in the world”, to the right “Social Europe”. There are five men to every woman, profile: tie-wearers, 50 and over. It’s a cliché image of politics and future: robust gentlemen before a colorful background.
The conversations here can be quoted, but only anonymously: “because I would not advise any EU operative to speak this way publicly,” one man says. We find out that the EU is going to relinquish Ukraine, if the going gets rough: “Its not of vital interest to us.” For us. The Europe of values.
The red line traces the EU borders: a Russian intruder will not be tolerated here, not by Brussels and certainly not by Berlin. The eastern partnership and that to the south have failed in any event and European Neighborhood Policy in general. Key countries like Turkey, which is drifting into neo-Ottoman Authoritarianism, and Ukraine, have been lost as reliable, predictable partners, although the EU is partly at fault, particularly its heads of state and government. Europe’s power still essentially relies on their favor. They act strategically when it comes to creating united positions – but their mandate is still national interest. The result is often a weak authority to act, which makes the EU look hesitant and inconsistent.
In Ukraine it was precisely the Treaty of Association with the EU, which triggered first the revolution and finally Russia intervention. And what did the 28 heads of state do? What did they say to Viktor Yanukovych before he started shooting at his people? What did they say to Vladimir Putin, before he took Crimea? And what since then? No, not enough is what they told us in Ukraine.
“Europe must step away from seeing itself as the Goethean force that brings about good,” the German Josef Janning, one of the few participants of the CEPS Labor that lets himself be quoted. Janning is an influential strategist on the European stage, member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, which is like an official European think tank. At the moment he says we are opening doors to expectations that are a recipe for disappointment and make Europe look like a two-faced organization: “We have to present ourselves more realistically and finally appreciate that allied political groups don’t necessarily have to win. That also goes for Ukraine.”
The conflict with Russia also has positive side, we hear: In the end it will promote the internal integration. That means, and all discussion partners agree on this, that the concentration of the EU will increasingly turn to the problems within our borders: the renationalization and strengthening of the Right; democratic dictatorships like that in Hungary; the regional independence efforts in the Basque region and Scotland; and the social and economic drift away from the crisis states in the south. Whether that has all made it to Brussels? “It’s making its way,” says the German strategist Janning, “namely here and today.”
Here and today then. The last interview, the last words. We drive back to the center of Brussels. In a bar near the stock exchange we drink a cognac and Belgian beer. Scenes from our journey rush over us: the sunrise over Maidan, the strudel in Lviv, the couple that was making love in the room next to us in Krakow when we returned from Auschwitz.
It starts to rain.
Where will Ukraine be tomorrow, where will it be this summer, where in a year? And Where will Europe be? And who really cares, really? Every answer breeds five more questions. One more glass. We close our notebooks and mix in with the tourists, so dizzy, so tired. We buy chocolate for our colleagues, refrigerator magnets for our parents and then get into a taxi.
It stopped raining. The route to the airport goes past NATO Headquarters. Here they told us champagne corks popped when they heard that Putin had taken Crimea. Finally the military alliance has its existential purpose back: muscle flexing with Moscow. On the opposite side of the street, they’re building a new headquarters. It’s supposed to twice the size of the old one. There’s no music playing on the car radio and the driver doesn’t want to know where we come from, or where we’re going.