Europe as a Labyrinth in the 21st Century

As part of the ‘New Narratives for Europe’ project being delivered by the Free Word Centre, Gabriel Gbadamosi writes the first of a series of essays, exploring the nature of European identity today

This piece originally appeared at the Free Word website

I am a British father with some hope for Europe to be a safe and constructive place for my children to grow up in, for them to be able to contribute during their lives to a better world than the terrifying one I experienced as child – characterised by Cold War, exported conflict, Third and first World poverty, ongoing barbed wire racism and the nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction. Before I can speak of that hope I have to outline some of my difficulty with Europe; I don’t ask people to share my misgivings but to understand them.

I was walking some years ago on a street in the Czech Republic, thinking about the role of Czechoslovakia in the opening of the Berlin Wall and how still closed it felt for an African European like me in the new Europe, in a place like Brno, when a lump – a spiked cathedral – of ice fell from the roof above and smashed at my feet. When I looked up from the shock of my own near death, at the people passing in silence – and shadow – on the other side, with no one calling out to tell me how dangerous the sunlit side of the street can be, I realised how critical, how urgent it is to reach out and connect, to make society: not to be everywhere a stranger.

Despite smiling at the Czech sense of humour in the response of a writer from Brno on my return from the walk – ‘You see, not everyone can walk on the sunny side of the street’ – I quietly packed my bags and left. I did not feel safe. I did not feel safe being exposed to the dangers of silence – a silence compacted in the cold of European history – which covered a retreat from state-controlled public life into the shadows of privacy where the cultivation of Czech values of humour and resilience following the defeat of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet intervention was tolerated. I could understand it – it mirrored my own experience and public reticence as a black man in Britain – but I felt in it a silent danger.

I could be speaking about the anxiety of walking in Athens during the anti-foreigner violence of the Golden Dawn movement, but a certain understandable defensiveness, a self-protective closure, in the psyche, humour and social mores of a small European nation emerging from Russian domination and German annexation, building walls against its Roma minority and recently separated in a divorce from Slovakia, prompted in me a renewed consideration of division – of walls between and among peoples in Europe and the wider world.

I happened to be in West Africa when I first heard over short-wave radio of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Seeing around me a collapsing infrastructure of roads, railways, ports – cities in the dark – it occurred to me that both the post-colonial settlement in Africa and the post-war settlement in Europe were simultaneously in rubble. Something new and, God help us, better would have to come at the end of that history. The anti-fascist war in Europe was also globally a war of decolonisation, and the two for me were connected. What I saw over the next few years in Berlin was instructive. Out of the rubble of the Wall an artist had reconstructed a watchtower, substituting in place of its search light a silently revolving Mercedes symbol: the liberal, democratic, capitalist West had won. Even more ominously, where all trace of the Wall had gone – and you couldn’t find your way from A to B anymore, so ended up lost – a piece of graffiti continued to hit home: DIE MAUER IST IN DEIN KOPF – the Wall is in your head.

German friends in Berlin described the emotional effect of the Wall coming down in 1989 as a stone having fallen from their chests that they never knew was there. But they reserved their sharpest commentary for the process of German reunification. Be careful, they said, of the clocks: having connected the electricity supply of the two parts of the city, some of the clocks had stopped, others were running forward crazily fast, but some… were going backwards. In order, for example, to prosecute Erich Mielke, former head of the East German Stasi secret police, the German state was having to go back to the Nazi-era records of his crimes as a Communist street fighter. Within the labyrinthine transformations of Europe lurked an old and as yet unreconciled monster to which Germans, ‘with our history’, seemed particularly alert.

To wake up to footage of the Holocaust as I did on television in 1974 was to become conscious of my own position in Britain as part of a racial, visible and heavily-policed minority only partially integrated into a wider society that might turn on us. The rise of an anti-racist movement fed by US Civil Rights protest and British experience – intensively rehearsed on television and in the media – of an expansionist and racist Nazi ideology that had threatened to enslave us all forestalled that threat. Yet Britain, as a long-standing principle in its relations with Europe, has promoted division: never to let two powers combine or a single power arise on the continent – a Louis XIV, Napoleon or Hitler – that might overwhelm us on these islands. We continue to hedge our bets, remaining outside German economic domination in the Euro and the Schengen agreement on borderless movement, for example, while pushing within Europe for our interests in free trade as an international financial centre and in our subsidiary role as a ‘Trojan horse’ for the United States in Europe. Containment of a United States of Europe, of the idea of an ‘ever closer union’, is a structural goal. We have always engaged with Europe because we fear it.

When it is argued in favour of our participation in the European Union that it has kept the peace in Europe since the Second World War and who can now imagine a war between member states, we are also speaking of a politics of fear and containment. When a generation has grown up that experiences the Union as a normal part of a well-furnished European house, it is also possible to imagine a labyrinthine architecture – physical, political, economic, bureaucratic, cultural and conceptual – both holding us together and housing psychic tensions proved by our history to have been explosive. Socialist solidarity in the former Yugoslavia proved flimsy and a precursor to ethnic cleansing. How will the neo-liberal economies of Europe, energy dependent and increasingly, competitively challenged, fare in the face of encircling oil and trade wars from the Ukraine to Libya? The Arab Spring began as food riots from Tunisia to Egypt, and as a reminder that European trade barriers and subsidised agriculture, at the very least, play a role in the export of conflict across our own borders. The drowning of refugees and economic migrants in the Mediterranean speak to Europe as a destination for hope, but only once the closure of European space as an analogue of our internal tensions is no longer seen as part of the problem.

How, then, given all this, can I hope for my own children to remain safe and connected to the world in a peaceful, stable Europe, open to change and responsive to others? I could cite US President Obama’s campaigning politics of hope in response to a politics of fear generated by former President Bush’s ‘war on terror’. But who would now believe me that encouragement of a groundswell of participatory politics could effect a values-based revival of democratic engagement and vision for Europe when in the US it was answered by the rise of the Tea-Party movement with its isolationist, defence-oriented, anti-social program stance?

Rather, where I see hope is in the gap between what people feel, if they do, as a subjective capacity for concern and compassion – linked to a desire to feel well and whole as individuals making their way in the world – and the objective, helpless crises of the world out there as it is, torn by poverty, degradation and conflict. If Europe can articulate and act on that desire to integrate well-being in oneself with ‘ever wider well-being’, it will have found and deserved its place in the global society it helped create. The role of Europe now, as I see it, is to heal that gap, so often experienced as a wound, a rupture, a sense of dislocation around which walls and barriers are erected to stem a flowing sense of loss – an outflow vividly realised by East Germans voting with their feet to walk out of their own state into Czechoslovakia. A multi-lingual, multi-cultural, richly-resourced and experienced Europe, able to explore its own labyrinth of difficulties and reach past them, is in itself an argument for a common future – one which must hold out the thread of hope for ourselves and others.

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