Speech of Pavel Fischer, member of the Czech Senate, at the Meeting “Friends of Together for Europe”, Prague, November 16th, 2018 – “THE THREE CHALLENGES”
You came to Prague to work together on the topic of how to live and engage “Together for Europe”. What country have you come to? And what is the state of Europe today, one hundred years since the First World War? You have come to the Czech Republic, a country that declared itself a republic a hundred years ago.
During the celebrations of this year’s centenary, I was intrigued by the ideas put forward in in his speech by the President of the Constitutional Court. He heads the institution whose task is to ensure that the most basic rules are adhered_to in this country. Its president, Pavel Rychetský, attempted to diagnose the state of our contemporary society. Let me paraphrase his basic thesis. In his opinion globalisation has intensified the feeling of loneliness and hopelessness among people. People feel that they are becoming lost in the global world. There has been a blurring of the contours of their identity, and they are sinking into anxiety and fear. Indeed, fear has become a breeding ground for those who create for them an image of the enemy. The enemy might be a richer neighbour, an immigrant, or a person with a different skin colour. In this country, sometimes the European Union itself is identified as the culprit.
In their despair, people are now looking for change, and better still, for some sort of messiah because traditional political parties no longer represent them effectively. Is it even possible to stop such toxic development? And how do you redress a distorted value system? The president of the Constitutional Court sees hope in a greater degree of emancipation of civil society, awakening its self-confidence and restoring the principle of citizen sovereignty. Citizens who stand up for themselves because political representatives are there to serve the general wellbeing of the nation or they should not be in power at all.
Let us take another look at the key terms he used in his speech. Loneliness, hopelessness, identity, fear, enemy, general wellbeing, self-confidence, sovereign citizen. If we look to the best references to European thinking, based on the wisdom of Jewish scholars, Christian mystics and rational thinkers, we can find a spiritual dimension for each of them which could put them in a different light. When articulated in this way, the diagnosis of contemporary society has great information value. But I also believe that we can all see these phenomena in a hopeful light too. And that we can endeavour to do something ourselves.
So where should we start? What should we do first and what, on the contrary, should be left as it is? Let us now take a brief look at the three challenges facing Europe today.
The First Challenge: Emotion
People are equipped to experience emotion. And not only their own emotions, but also to be emotionally connected to others. So even though we can tell ourselves repeatedly that people are rational and sensible creatures, we would eventually come up with a whole range of examples that would illustrate how often we behave irrationally. And that’s actually a good thing.
To understand some of the situations in European politics, it is important to admit that emotions are crucial. Let us remind ourselves of the struggle to solve the eurozone crisis, which manifested itself in finding a solution to how to draw up Greece’s state budget when the economy was in a critical condition. If we work on the basis that a human being is not only a homo economicus, i.e. he/she is not only a consumer or a market player but also a citizen bestowed with dignity and freedom, then the struggle that led to the so-called Greek crisis was very significant.
While citizens were forced to tighten their belts and literally did not have any money to spare, some banks managed to safeguard their earnings relatively well throughout the entire crisis. While in Brussels the solution to the crisis was handled by the implementation of austerity measures, citizens in Greece saw this as rubbing salt into their wounds. Emotions ran high, disgruntled citizens turned against the government, the European Commission and the bankers. And, for instance, against Germany, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel herself.
This atmosphere of intense emotion was something the Greeks primarily experienced among themselves. It was inaccessible to others in terms of language. From a cultural point of view, it was connected to their history, to images from history, and this meant that other European citizens often lacked not only the tools to understanding the Greeks and sympathizing with them but also to helping them in some way: perhaps in retrospect we could have offered a holiday to Greek children in our homes. This would have given their parents a break, and we would have forged links that would also make sense in the future.
Similarly, we could remind ourselves of the emotions experienced by the citizens of other EU member states. It is as if our own political and social struggles have remained limited to the territory in which our mother tongue is spoken. There is a shortage of strong media, a lack of intermediaries which means we have remained somewhat alone with our emotions. And nonetheless, I am convinced that even the best journalist, the most skillful diplomat or the most interesting politician would not be fully able convey the misery, the fear or the hope and expectations we experience in our linguistic communities. Because it is true that those who have a common mother tongue can very quickly understand one another.
When I was younger, I played violin and traveled for many years around Europe with an orchestra. Time and time again I can see that experience as a musician before my very eyes. Even today, I must admit that musicians are more able to communicate and convey a message among our nations than the best political speeches. Indeed, art and emotions work hand in hand. With pictures and expressions, for which we often cannot find words.
And this means that in today’s world we not only need new institutions, but also artists so that they can communicate to us the issues that are possibly only just raising their head now but are nonetheless urgently preoccupying the minds of the people and causing them to worry. Artists can escape the trap of the translator. Artists can work with what would otherwise be cut by the censors who monitor politically- correct words. Looking back again at the sad legacy of the big crisis that began in US banks in 2008, we will see that in many instances the budgets of cultural institutions also had to be cut.
But if the world we live in today is so emotionally disconcerting or unnerving, perhaps now is the time to do the exact opposite. Return art to public spaces. Help the public to figure out what they are experiencing with the help of artists. And give children the tools they need to understand art, otherwise every one of us will remain a little bit alone with his/her emotions, keeping them bottled up inside. Or everybody will remain a little bit alone, if we are talking about the atmosphere in the country as a whole.
The second challenge. Citizen or consumer.
Sooner or later we have to ask ourselves the question – what do we understand by the term ‘human being’? Whether we take it to mean an actor in the economy, a market participant, a consumer or a citizen.
From the very outset, European cooperation has placed an emphasis on economic cooperation, and this was certainly the most effective and sensible thing to do. At the time, it helped to establish collaborative processes without having to talk about some issues or even have them decided by referendum. The founder of European integration based the method on real life experience. Frenchman Jean Monnet, who worked in London during the war, saw with his own eyes the inability of the Allies to coordinate among themselves the supply of troops.
However, the emphasis on the economy cannot only be observed within the EU today, but also in our individual countries. But once again we have to ask ourselves what we actually understand by ‘human being’. If we understand a human being to be a consumer, then our goal will be to provide the highest quality at an affordable price. But we can also understand human beings differently. And by this I mean as an individual graced with dignity, as a free being, as a person with individual responsibility who has the need to form relationships with others. However, a free independent person, living in isolation, cannot be our ideal. After all, loneliness is one of the phenomena of contemporary living, which greatly weakens our society. Loneliness means a poverty of relationships. And there is an abundance of it around. And if individuals remain alone, they can also fall victim to various predators, be it disseminators of information and misinformation, or even economic predators, who sell them things they don’t need at all.
An individual cannot be happy without solidarity and without community and companionship. And at society level, we can see that it is those societies that are capable of living together, engaging in dialogue, coming together to find solutions to problems, and, at local level, forming relationships which involve helping others, solidarity and reciprocity. Such a society is ultimately more resilient. In the face of a threat, people can help themselves and others, find their place in society, provide assistance to those most in need.
But we’re not going to allow ourselves to be deceived. We have been at this crossroads many times before, and not just during the elections. The economy is most certainly of utmost importance for the management of our countries. And without rational and responsible national economists, we would not even be able to draw up the state budget. But let us also ask ourselves how those who want to make the decisions understand the individual. Perhaps they understand the individual as a consumer, that is, for one-time use and until the next election. But, by contrast, it could also happen that they regard the individual as a partner, a teammate, a citizen. So let us put our trust and confidence in that kind of politician.
The Third Challenge. Community or crowd.
The third challenge we observe in today’s societies is the expansion of social networks… [continues]