Europa 28 edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave.
Writing by Women on the Future of Europe.
Laura Bates in her introduction tells us that this collection is all about ‘seeing other people’s way of seeing things’: she tells us, “Women see things differently”. These alternative opinions are the perspectives of a number of eminent women from across Europe, reflecting their experience and their perception in stories and essays; they are scientists, writers, and entrepreneurs and yet their voices have seldom been heard until now. Europa 28 aims:
“To see a Europe so far removed from the over simplistic, binary, staid portrayal of recent times. To come to it afresh in all its fractured, fragile, compromised, contoured parts. To recognise its flaws and its richness, it’s gifts and its costs, it’s challenges and it’s beauty…”
There’s plenty to engage with in this sharp collection of ways of seeing modern Europe, it’s historical context, what it means to be European, the nature of the European Union and the future of the continent. For good reason everyone’s gaze has turned away from Brexit at the moment, however, as it is yet unresolved at some point it will have to be returned to. Surely this current crisis points up one of the reasons coming together, cross border co-operation, has such value, if anything needs a coordinated response it’s a pandemic.
Putting the current crisis to one side for the European debate. In the whole of the three years we’ve just experienced in Britain there was never a real exchange of opinions in an open spirit. There is no real vision for the future beyond the bald decision to leave. Bates points out the debate was largely between white, well off, Christian men entrenched in their views. Europa 28 simply seeks to address the lack of diversity in the debate, widening it’s parameters, to hear the voices of those not usually represented.
I found this collection both hopeful and incisive, women do think about things differently. The women here see the human problems and the need for holistic humanitarian solutions. These writers see the refugee crisis as a human problem in its own right rather than an issue that impinges on Europe, suggesting we take responsibility first, not examine consequences first. The crisis won’t evaporate, deal with it properly or experience the misery and uncertainly we currently face indefinitely. Countries, governments, see the issue within the context of their own problems, so it related to overcrowding, social care, financial burden, chopping it up into pieces that never address the fundamental human tragedy. Tackle the tragedy is a point that comes out of several of these essays, a view rarely heard above the din, the xenophobia, the financial fears. Another point that is made concerns the alarming rising significance of neo-fascist views, fear and prejudice that we see across the continent.
Several essays echo the thought that ‘you never know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’. The lack of respect shown to membership of the European Union. While a member Britain chose to opt in and out as it was fit, the rest of the Union let Britain get away with that, treading lightly. So when it came down to it nobody, not even the most ardent Europhiles in government bothered to speak up for the virtues of the Union. It was allowed to slip away without a proper fight. No one is suggesting blanket approval of all things European Union but throwing the baby out with the bathwater was surely a stupid option. The writers here lean towards cooperation, we keep coming back to the simple point that if we listen to other opinions, engaged in debate rather than entrench or hide away we might learn something.
The first stimulating contribution in this book is Cracks in the Ice by Austrian contributor Julya Rabinowich, Austria, (Katy Derbyshire trans.). A potted history reminds us of how we got here, how much we take that for granted and how negligent we are of hard won freedoms. Rabinowich compares the barbed wire of the East-West divide, the iron curtain, with the concept of a common Europe and its ideology. Further comparing that to the current refugee tragedy on the borders. Just how do democracies explain the camps? ‘The ice is cracking beneath our feet’.
Europe Must Be for the 99 Per Cent by Apolena Rychlíková, Czech Republic, (Julia Sherwood trans.):
“What Europeans society so desperately needs nowadays,” writes Apolena Rychlíková, ‘is a chance to take a deep breath and start thinking beyond the present day, a chance to see itself in a different way, in a different constellation and social order.’
Staging Europe by Annelies Beck, Belgium, discusses the Brussels bubble and comes from a cab ride with Umberto Eco:
‘It is not enough for Brussels, or any city, to have a brilliant artist design a wonderful monument, compose a piece of music or sculpt a statue, for people to relate to it as the capital of the EU.’
Eco: ‘In thirty years, Europe will be a colourful continent, not only in terms of skin but in terms of ideas. It will be a continent we’re all kind of religions will have to live together. To learn to appreciate each other’s culinary traditions in a fundamental way to learn about one another’s mentality.’ (2001)
Europe Day or Bloody Thursday by Maarja Kangro, (Estonia), is a story about the Brown Years, far-right movements, populism, and the age of the inexpert opinion, Brexit, ignorance, intolerance, exclusion, nationalism, and ‘mental immobility’:
“The Brits even had a minister who said the people of Britain had enough of experts.”
All of One Mind by Lisa Dean, Ireland, is an exposition on old and new terrorism and Samuel Beckett:
“We need to see that we are much greater and richer than our paltry ideas of identity can stretch to, that we are as Beckett says, ‘Of one mind, all of one mind… deep down we’re fond of one another.’”
Everything I have, I’ve been Given by Karolina Ramqvist, Sweden, (trans. Saskia Vogel). Explores history and feminism and failings in understanding how we got here.
This is a book of different opinions, but it is positive and upbeat about the future if we care to take up the challenge of making this continent a better, safer, more decent place to live. I can’t speak for everyone but this common humanity makes sense to me. COVID-19 struck, it has forced a certain unity of purpose, encouraged a level of cooperation we’ve not seen since in decades. If we can temporarily solve homelessness, why not permanently, it only takes the will. If that can be done why not look to the refugee crisis. Isolation should make us appreciate how interconnected we all are.
Comma Press, March, ISBN 9781910477793, £12.99
Europa 28 edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave.