If migration has continuously been in the spotlight since the beginning of the refugee crisis, it is only during the past few months that Italy has really hit the headlines of European newspapers, despite having been one of the main doors to Europe for several decades.
It is no coincidence that this persistent interest for in Italian migration policies has been renewed since Interior Minister Matteo Salvini took office last June . His decision to shut ports to rescue boats carrying migrants has been hardly discussed and criticised, as well as his attacks to Maltese authorities and European leaders, accused of leaving Italy alone in front of the continuous arrivals of migrants that apparently no Italian government has never concretely tackled before.
Salvini’s determined response to the problem of illegal migration might seem very harsh and cold-hearted – and it actually is. But what Salvini is efficiently doing is simply making good on the promises made during the last electoral campaign. Being the leader of the right-wing and anti-immigrant party “League” (Lega, in Italian), it is no surprise that one of his most urgent goals is halting the flow of migrants into the country.
Actually, this is not only an Italian priority. Hungary has built a double layer barrier stretching for 155 kilometres along the Serbian border. France has rejected migrants at its border with Italy. Spain has built fences around the Moroccan cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Greece is at the core of the EU deal for the readmission of migrants coming from Turkey. Obviously, European countries have done their best to stop the arrival of migrants, but apparently more can be done – for example the EU could follow Trump’s advice and erect a wall across the Sahara Desert. Continue reading “Italy is Salvini or Salvini is Italy?”→
Is the risk of undergoing “inhuman and degrading treatments” enough to refuse the surrender of a prisoner from a European Union country to another?
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) tried to answer this question on the occasion of the joined cases Aranyosi and Căldăraru. Due to its functions as described in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the CJEU was asked by the Higher Regional Court of Bremen (Germany) to give an interpretation of article 1, paragraph 3 of the European Arrest Warrant Framework Decision (EAW-FD), with a special focus on its compatibility with the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment included in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. This measure was adopted in 2002 by the Council of the European Union to replace the outdated extradition procedure within the EU member states. What is relevant to us is that the new regulation tool is based on the principle of mutual recognition, which is one of the cornerstones of the European Union integration and cooperation process, especially in the fight against international crime. The principle entails a high level of mutual trust among EU member states. In the field of judicial co-operation in criminal matters, it basically means that a decision taken by an authority in one member state may be accepted as it is by another state. However, this supposed “blind trust” among the member states can cause complications in cases where the principle of mutual recognition clashes with other principles; as in the case at stake, the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment. Continue reading “European Arrest Warrant & Detention Conditions in EU Member States”→
The Polish Sejm has passed a Law at the beginning of this year, which makes it illegal to blame Poles for any crime committed during the Nazi occupation. Even though it also covers crimes committed during the Communist era (and war crimes by Ukrainian nationalists), it came to be known as “The Holocaust Law” in the debate that it sparked all around the world. This shows not only the sensitivity of the topic of the Holocaust, but also that 73 years after the victory over the Nazis, it seems the different Holocaust narratives are rather dividing than uniting Europe. Can, and should a consensus be reached when it comes to Holocaust memory? Or is the motto united in diversity a legitimate solution for the European memory? Especially the latest EU-enlargement challenges the concept of a common European memory, as the Western countries have agreed on their memory more or less, while new members have not been included yet, and bring other, fresher memories to the table: the communist past. Considering that the Holocaust, however, is said to be part of the European memory as negative founding myth, in cooperating Eastern narratives and agreeing on what and how the Holocaust is to be remembered is an integral part of the integration process. Continue reading “Interpreting the Polish “Holocaust Law””→
The American Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger famously once asked “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The modern day version coming from Rex Tillerson might be, “Who do I call, email, text, tweet…”, but the premise remains the same – who does one call to get the lowdown on Europe? With certain leadership figures rising above the crowd, the current U.S. Secretary has some pretty good options available.
Emmanuel Macron – The ambitious new kid on the bloc
The poster boy of French politics, Mr Emmanuel Macron has recently joined the ranks of rosy-cheeked nation state leaders on the world stage. After founding his own party En Marche! in early 2016 (a keen observer will note it shares the same initials as his own name), he led his party to victory less than a year later in the French parliamentary elections. His triumph was unprecedented and audacious; the presidential election was his first time running for public office and he won it with apparent ease. Such a rapid rise power is rarely achieved in politics by democratic means, although comparison could be made to a certain head of state across the Atlantic Ocean who also circumvented the typical route in his bid for Presidential office. Continue reading “The Who’s Who of Europe: The Powerful Personalities in the EU”→
Germany has just experienced one of the most turbulent general elections in recent history. Merkel has gained another 4-year term; for the first time since WWII, a far-right party, the AfD, has made its way into the German parliament; and a three-party coalition seems inevitable. But what else can we tell from this election?
Winners and losers:
A record six parties have entered the Bundestag. They are: The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), The Left (Die Linke), The Greens (Die Grünen), the FDP (Free Democratic Party), and the AfD (Alternative for Germany).
As it stands, no party wishes to cooperate with the AfD, and die Linke is a traditionally difficult ally due to its uneasy past regarding the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD). Since the SPD vows to withdraw from the grand coalition that it has formed with the CDU since 2013, the only feasible possibility is the CDU-Greens-FDP coalition – also known as the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, named after the three colours. Although coalition government is not something new for the German politics, a three-party coalition is still not commonly seen in the German parliament. Continue reading “German Elections Explained – Inside the politics of the 2017 campaign”→
Around 150 students are holding up sheets of paper in blue, white, and red. Rester avec nous, they shout, stay with us. In the moment the camera clicks to shoot the French flag formed out of sheets of paper, the sun breaks through the clouds again. A good sign for Europe? Maybe. What is sure, is that the pulse of Europe now also beats in Groningen.
On a Sunday afternoon, on the second of April, 2017, the first Pulse of Europe event was held in Groningen. Pulse of Europe is a pro-European movement that has emerged in Frankfurt, Germany, around the end of last year. Against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum, the election of President Trump, and the rise of nationalist sentiments all across Europe, the initiators aim at raising awareness about the many advantages European integration has brought to European citizens. They have been organizing weekly events on Sunday afternoons, first only in Frankfurt, then in an increasing number of cities in Germany, now all over Europe. (see http://pulseofeurope.eu)
The first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen took place on the square in between the University of Groningen’s main building, and the University library. Blue and yellow balloons distinguish the pro-European character of the event. An estimated 150 people gather around the stand that offers free lemonade, and on the stairs of the Academiegebouw, the main building of the University of Groningen. Most of them are students, and they seem to be mainly internationals. The German percentage remains unspecified, but might rise up to 70 percent according to the author’s educated guess. Possibly unsurprising: several generations of Euroculturers are seen amongst the supporters as well.
The event starts off with the European anthem, Freude schöner Götterfunken. As expected, nobody knows the lyrics. But this is no problem, because of Jeremy’s enthusiasm. Jeremy, who is the organizer of this first Pulse of Europe event in Groningen, is genuinely happy about the number of people that have showed up. After only eight days of organization, the turnout is a remarkable success. Jeremy invites us all to hold short, three-minute-long speeches about our opinions and attitudes towards the EU. Although the open microphone had been announced beforehand, students are reluctant to take stage. Nevertheless, many important topics are brought up by the students daring to speak to the crowd: Europe as a peace project, borderless Europe, the EU as a refuge in times of globalization, Europe as a space for diversity and exchange rather than close-minded nationalism. A lot of praise for the EU indeed, but students are, after all, those who benefit most from European integration.
After a couple of speeches, the organizers hand out the sheets of paper in white, red and blue. The reference is clear: the flag serves as an appeal to the French citizens to make a clear statement for Europe, diversity, and collaboration, and not for Marine Le Pen’s chauvinistic nationalism, in the upcoming Presidential elections. The next Pulse of Europe Groningen-event is scheduled, of course, for April 23rd: the day of the French election. That time the event will take place on the Grote Markt, the central square in the Groningen city center. Can more people be attracted than only the students who directly benefit from the EU and its Erasmus program, or who are regular international students? Let’s hope so. After all, rester avec nous should nowadays be pronounced in all European languages.
At the end of the 20th century, it seemed barely possible that nationalism would come back to the West. The international community was supposed to learn the harsh lessons of the past and reach the important conclusions. Terms like globalization, multiculturalism and internationalism were no longer just a part of political discourse, but also entered the language and the reality of common people. Being cosmopolitan became trendy – especially to younger generations in the West. The fifteen years following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty became a sort of Golden Era for the European Union. The integration process seemed unstoppable – three enlargements of the EU took place, including the biggest in the history of the Union in 2004. The common currency was established in 2002, replacing the national currencies of twelve member states within the Eurozone, which also kept on growing. Nationalism in Europe was close to dying out in the new millennium.
However, reality has collided with this optimistic picture, and despite the common trends of globalization and integration, the right wing started gaining popularity. Nationalism has changed its look, and has probably become more moderate and polished, but it did come back. This turn in the development of Europe is not illogical: the economic crisis, the so-called Islamization of Europe, and financial inequality of member states have all contributed. The recent European migrant crisis tops the cake.
Yet, what’s really striking is how fast something that was commonly seen as intolerant, odd or just shameful can get significant support in Western society. In this regard, the only thing more impressive than this phenomenon itself is the speed of its evolution. Right-wing politicians and public figures that were formerly treated with disdain suddenly achieved high-profile positions.
The French National Front, with its charismatic leader Marine Le Pen, serves as a shining example. Even though the ultra-right populist party experienced a decline in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s managed to rise from the ashes like a phoenix in this one; seeing success first at municipal elections, and then in 2014 winning 24 of France’s 74 seats in European Parliament – an unprecedented number for the National Front. Now, the scariest thing for liberals is Le Pen’s presidential campaign this year. Considering the events of the past five years, her candidacy should not be underestimated.
Similar things are happening in Germany, where luckily they have not yet reached that extent. The right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland is represented in the majority of German states, despite the fact that the party is fairly young and was only founded in 2013. In the European elections of 2014 AfD gained 7%, significantly less than the National Front’s 24.9% in France. Nevertheless, this number is very impressive for Germany, where the Nazi past makes the population less likely to support ultra-right political parties and the state was paying attention to the issue. Somehow, AfD leader Frauke Petry managed to successfully apply the bottom-up approach and gain the support of some people, often with low income and lower levels of education.
Those were the founders and the main political powers in the European Union. However, the “right turn” is typical for other countries as well, including Austria, Switzerland, and those in Southern and Eastern Europe. While nationalism has traditionally been rather strong in Eastern states like Poland and Hungary, the “right voice” in Scandinavia – considered to be incredibly tolerant – is much newer. In May 2016, the BBC published a brief Guide to Nationalist Parties Challenging Europe. The article is well-structured, and worth reading for those seeking basic information on the phenomenon.
From 2014 to today, the trend has become too obvious to ignore, and naturally begged the question: “Why?” As mentioned before, normally financial crisis and refugee issues are named as main factors. The ideals of the European Union did not equate to those of certain cohorts of people. The establishment, in turn, did not always react appropriately, failing to suggest working solutions to current problems, and people started to look for alternatives.
Having faced multiple problems, the European Union as a huge bureaucratic machine appeared to be slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, it turned to be fertile ground for populist parties that often suggest rather extreme solutions. The European idea has definitely known better times, yet despite Brexit, it is too soon to speak of the decline of the European Union and the concept of supranational government. The EU’s history is rather short to make conclusions, as it was started in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community.
It is more a speculation, but maybe, using the terms of Samuel P. Huntington, there are certain waves of democratization; in this case waves of nationalism. Or, to be more precise, they are not simply waves but spiral bends, if one can see the process as a spiral rather than a sine curve. If so, the phase is temporary – the only question is its intensity. It does not help that nowadays the “right turn” does not seem to be unique to Europe, as evidenced by the recent US elections. On the bright side, European integration has gone so far and economic binds are so tight that cutting ties often means losing profit – which should make the politicians think twice. The most challenging aspect for the establishment is getting closer to common people, a skill that has been mastered by right-wing populists. So far, we have not passed the point of no return, and this “wave” is a good lesson for the EU to learn from its mistakes. To cite a famous saying: history repeats itself until the lesson is learned.
Olga studied Political Science in Russia and the USA, finished her M.A. Euroculture studies in Germany, and currently lives and works in Moscow.
This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.
It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.
The surge and decline of Geert Wilders
In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.
It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.
Puzzling for a coalition
With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.
Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.
The Netherlands in Europe
What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.
However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.
On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accusedthe organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
It is a cold and grey Saturday afternoon, just one week before Christmas and I am rushing over the empty Platz der Menschenrechte, Human Rights Square, in front of the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe. This huge building was constructed with German Pünktlichkeit during the First World War and managed to avoid demolition in the late 1970s after having been a reliable space for the preparation of violence and destruction. With sentiment echoing Adorno’s phrase, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the city of Karlsruhe in the post-war decades seemed paralyzed and helpless to interact with this huge memorial of violence production in its heart.
It wasn’t poetry that brought a spirit of hope into the massive walls in Lorenzstraße – at least not just that. In the 1980s, the artist group “99.9% leerer Raum” moved into the old factory, just before, in 1984, the first ever email was received just a few kilometres away at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT). At that time, enthusiasm for new and connective technology of communication had awoken to end the rather destructive technology of weapons, which had dominated the atmosphere of the massive building. In 1987 the association for arts and media technology was founded, and eight years after the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien), the Centre for Art and Media, opened in the old German weapons and munitions production factory. Since then, the building has hosted exhibitions with a focus on media and communication technology. It is, however, an unusual exhibition for the ZKM, which I am visiting today. Usually, visitors come to stroll down memory lane between the antiquities and rarities of computer and video games, or to discover new developments occurring in the digital arts. Although this exhibition does not focus on technology and media art, it fits perfectly in this historic building.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” is the title of the exhibition, curated by Eckhart Gillen and Peter Weibel and their Russian colleagues Daria Mille and Daniel Bulatov. It is a cooperation between the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO in Moscow. The exhibition contains more than 500 diverse works of about 200 European artists. In Karlsruhe it has the significant subtitle, “The Continent that the EU does not know.” The curators aim to give a second perspective on the dominant narrative of post-war Europe. They present works by artists, who have responded to the breakup of a divided continent after a decade of destruction.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” focuses on a central cultural space. One that was damaged and torn apart several times during the 20th century. The curators present artistic developments, stemming from the huge area that is geographical Europe. With artwork coming from anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the exhibition draws on many sources in its goal of opening up a new narrative with regards to a shared past. The curators claim that until today historiography looked at the arts of the 20th century as divided into two main streams. Firstly, there was abstract expressionism, which is seen as a symbol of freedom in the West. Then there is social realism which, according to these curators, has been seen as a conservative kind of art, an art bent to serve the communist political system in the East. This exhibition, however, is an effort to engage with the history of art in Europe in a less simplified manner. This exhibition explores these themes through comparison, by finding similarities, and understanding differences in a socio-political approach to interpretation.
While walking through this huge exhibition, taking up two floors with an immense amount of art work, I can sympathize with the curators and let myself get lost in the many pictures, sculptures, films and photographs. It is hopeless trying to discover everything: this exhibition is the product of more than twenty years, and 200 people, full of creativity and extreme emotions. It is by accident, that I find the small Picasso, “Pigeon, Blue Variation” from 1951, hidden on the back of one of the huge white walls. The difficulty of mapping this great quantity and variety of art in post-war Europe can also be seen through the different strategies of structuring the exhibition in the three hosting places in Brussels, Karlsruhe and Moscow. In Karlsruhe it is organized into the five chapters “Trauma and Remembrance,” “Cold War,” “New Realism,” “New Visions,” and “Utopia 1968”. While 1945 is interpreted as ‘hour zero’, 1968 is defined as the starting point for a new relationship between West and East. What might seem like a very linear and horizontal approach, is in fact an attempt to entangle spaces, to invite visitors to discover art works that have not shared the same space before. Curator Peter Weibel calls it an active plea for understanding Europe – a goal which is just as important today as it was in 1945.
The idea of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” was conceived already in 2012, and it was supposed to be shown in Russia first. However, after the crisis in Ukraine and the strained relationship between the EU and Russia, many important sponsors withdrew their financial support. It is in these grey and cold days, that it becomes more important than ever to take a break and discover new perspectives on what shapes Europe: memories and trauma, war, utopia, and new visions. Now, in times of a critical public discourse regarding Europe, and in times of planning the building of walls, it is maybe more appropriate than ever to consider the leading questions of “Art in Europe 1945-1968”: “what is Europe?”
What I take with me walking back from the ZKM, in the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe, over the Human Rights Square, is the idea to keep my eyes wide open and to search for hidden ideas. Ideas that are not omnipresent in the main discourse surrounding us today. There was a lot happening in the period between 1945 to 1968 in Europe. It seems like a period of conflict and inconsistency . There is also a lot going on in Europe today, and it is essential to reflect on the present patterns of perception and communication. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” shows that it is worth challenging established constructs and opening a discussion about a common past and a common future. Despite or precisely because of its confusing multitude of pieces, visitors of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can find a new way of looking at Europe in the past and in the present. I interpret this exhibition as a liquid reflection on arts and European society. It commutes between the East and West in Europe, and changes its setting in each location. It is not a fixed construct which needs to be consumed in a certain way, but one that underlines different perspectives. An exhibition is more than its images or sculptures. It represents a reflection on the everyday reality of artists and curators, and it grows in the space where it is shown, and with each visitor approaching it. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” communicates with its surrounding and with its audience and it is worth, I believe, taking your time to look, listen, reflect and respond.
The exhibition “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can be visited in the ZKM until 29th of January 2017 and afterwards in Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.