Yugoslavia and Europe

Nomen est omen. How could I then fail to detect a suggestive and troubled connotation of Zvezna ulica or Union Street? Not because it is a dead-end street. In fact, it is a kind place for playful children and gossiping neighbors who like to hang out at the corner newsstand with a coffee machine. It’s rather because the name of my street continues to evoke Yugoslavia, the political union of Southern Slavs (1918–1991) and my homeland before it was swallowed by the flames of war. Yugoslavia was explicitly established as a trans-national union of states/republics, reminiscent of another supernational Union.

Indeed, many disturbing cultural parallels between Yugoslavia and European Union may be drawn easily. They both feature various Abrahamic religions, including indigenous Islam, diverse nations and ethnic communities, different languages and scripts. Both draw on the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome as well as medieval Byzantine Empire and both include the same elements in their collective imaginaries: the logical mind of Western Christianity and the mystic theology of Orthodox Christianity; the Renaissance and Humanism, the Enlightenment and Industrialisation.

Consider the field of ideology. “Unity in diversity” of the European Union is as elusive as “brotherhood and unity” was in Yugoslavia. Both represent a screen onto which groups and individuals project their own desires and expectations. While Yugoslavism bit the dust, Europeanism still retains fragile hope of appealing to European citizens and peoples.

Currently, Europeanism does not figure very high on anyone’s menu of identities. European systemic and institutional integration are still increasingly void of cultural integration. Europeanism— a constellation of aspirations, images, attitudes, convictions, and concepts providing individual inspiration and meaning to collective behavior—has not yet appeared on the horizon. Trans-national identifications presuppose the need to recognize multiple loyalties. Thus, Europeanism must allow for the simultaneous celebration of local, national, and continental aspects of one’s self or risks remaining an abstract and non-inspiring concept.

Europeanism is to a large degree guided by a profound distrust of ethnic and national identifications. This is, though, politically untenable as we live in globalised world in which “Europeanism” in itself is nothing else but a particular collective identity. Resorting only to institutions and failing to integrate various cultural habits and forms of lived experience, “Europeanism will end up appearing hollow, simulated, and insubstantial.

Back on my street, the guys outside the newspaper stand sip steaming brown liquid from paper cups. I regularly stop there for a jolt of caffeine and a morsel of gossip. Our professions could not be more different, but we’re all roughly the same age. Born and socialized in Yugoslavia we have all seen the emergence of independent Slovenia and now live in Euroslovenia.

Stopping there one Monday, I saw several more people around the tiny table and some paper pieces passing from hand to hand. It turned out that the “manager” brought along a handful of tolars, a former Slovenian currency that due to gorgeously tasteful display of iconic personalities turned into a veritable gallery of Slovenian cultural history.

Little such affection is prompted by euros. Not a single human being appears on euro banknotes, as if the euro is too timid to show a face and too reticent to suggest a biography. These banknotes remain mere abstractions, a no-man’s land, bereft of history and memory.

Must we sadly infer that contemporary Europe is a land with no founding story? Despite being aware of fluidity of common narratives as a social construction, I’m afraid that the answer could be affirmative.

The most worrying consequence of absence of coherent collective narrative, however, are many flourishing offshoots of political populism. Metaphors such as “full boat”, “fortress Europe”, “barricaded society”, hide the pursuit of profit behind the calls for purity and contribute to the erosion of European culture of trust and solidarity.

Institutionalized European solidarity played a key role in contributing to the modernization of Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal but has since been victim of demands for individual freedom and economic profits. Solidarity, once the central pillar of social order, became pushed off to the sidelines, perceived as a luxury which individual nations can, but are not obliged to, afford.

When local political elites divert the public’s attention by making a scapegoat of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees, this is not simply deviation from the norm. Such practices have been running parallel to contemporary European integration, focus on the economic freedom and the unfettered market that helped to corporately homogenize everyday life and marginalized the hidden handshake of political solidarity.

Those who prefer to swear by the hidden hand of the market, however, remain blind to what shape this hand would assume should it become visible—a fist with a pointed middle finger!

Aleš Debeljak

Aleš Debeljak is a Slovenian poet and essayist. He teaches cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and is a member of European Council on Foreign Relations.

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