Illustration: European flag with socket and wires.

Europe’s Forgotten Fringes

The countries on Europe’s eastern fringes demonstrate that not all Europe is the same. Their affiliation to the continent is underpinned by history, however. Is there a common European cultural policy that supports their integration?

There are some places in Europe, whole swathes, strips and regions, a good half dozen countries, which are just that bit different. They make it much harder to get a clear picture of what Europe once was and what it actually is today, because they make the whole thing much more ambiguous. But, with luck and real perseverance, they can provide people with more insight, because they make the concept of Europe not only more complicated they actually bring the whole concept itself into question. For many people they distress and distort, for others they shift, dilute and blur. They are a distraction from what is actually going on in Europe and are spoiling the game.

They are a risk to Europe. But as far as I am concerned, they enrich and expand and are always a challenge. But they are not a risk to Europe, they simply make it more exciting.

But it would by no means be easy to simply integrate these regions into today’s Europe, into what passes these days for the “European scene”. Things would have to be changed, there would have to be special exceptions and special admissions, special cases and special conditions. But confessions go hand in hand with reservations, successions with concessions. They would lead to differentiation and make people aware of the somewhat uncomfortable fact that an end to unambiguity may be on the horizon. They would bring ambiguity, because they are themselves the embodiment of ambiguity.

To integrate these regions there would have to be special exceptions and special admissions, special cases and special conditions.

Dealing with them can be tough and tedious; trying to understand them is always an effort, often unrewarding and certainly not conducive to feeling happy. And yet all these efforts are worthwhile because these regions have a great deal more to do with Europe in a variety of ways than is perhaps comfortable for other parts of the continent, which wrongly imagine they are less ambiguous and more unequivocal. Confrontation with these other European regions that are or have become somewhat different may indeed often be very complicated, but in the end they may at least offer a certain amount of insight.

Europe: Something Evolving, Not Something Complete?

I sometimes feel that the most important job for these regions, regions like my own, is to actually complicate the concept and idea of a Europe that is constantly striving for simplicity and apparent clarity. Their main function is to illustrate and highlight the fact that Europe is something made, not something given, something evolving, not something complete, an ongoing production process, not a finished product. It is of course an idea and an ideal, but not a substance or an essence. It is a constant desire that is very difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy but never an unconditional possession. Europe is, and never will be, a foregone conclusion. And above all Europe is not something definitive, neither in terms of being complete nor of being permanent.

These regions are living deconstructivists (on the assumption that people are aware of them or know something of their existence). They are a constant reminder that Europe is not truly Europe. The Europe of today, that is. And, if you are willing to go further back in history, of the fact that Europe has never been a constant, but has always been subject to doubt and the constant desperate search for self-affirmation, tests and temptations, designs and distortions, corrections and changes. Its spiritual and, in many places, legitimate judicial centre and its values, around which this partial cosmos tries to orbit, are all too often exposed as little more than a vacuum, and that it is impossible to talk of and assert “eternal values”. And it is a reminder that without all this hard work and effort Europe doesn’t actually make any sense as a valid and common entity.

Reminders and Warnings for ‘Best Europe’

Those European countries and regions that have a poorer record when it comes to democracy and human rights, environment and agitation, the morals of its citizens and those of its civil servants, the justice and rightness of the arguments and excuses as to why things are the way they are, as well as countless other issues, all serve as both a reminder and a warning to ‘best Europe’. And they therefore have a lot of relevance to Europe and tend to cast doubt on the crass differentiations between genuinely different European regions. These parts of Europe serve to remind those European countries that are currently in a better situation not only of their past, but also of the fact that there is the potential, and in some places the likelihood, that things in Europe might not actually be so permanent.

12 lockers with coloured doors
Photo: Moren Hsu via unsplash

These regions remind Europe of the existence of the rest of the world because there is nowhere else where such serious, globally important changes happen as quickly, as consequentially and as prominently as here. It may well be that those European countries that are not in such a good state are simply already going through things that other countries may themselves have to go through one day. Good things and bad. To treat them as some kind of special zone in order to keep them at a distance would be tantamount to unforgiveable short-sightedness. It is far more satisfying to share good things and to work together to resolve obviously bad things than it is to simply classify things into good and bad, which on this earth can never be so clearly defined anyway. It may also be the case that these areas are given so little attention because other countries see in them both unpleasant ghosts of their own history and the kind of potential future scenario that they would simply rather not think about.

Is There a Common European History?

Today some European countries – and my country, the Ukraine, is certainly one of them – are struggling to justify membership of Europe to both to themselves and to others in any other way than in terms of a common history. Everything else, the reality of their situations today, just seems to conspire against their ever being able to prove their Europeanness. Everything today, be it their politics, culture or development strategies, their overall priorities, the values they espouse, their general lifestyles, aesthetics and architecture, their environment and technology and their sexual mores just seems to be designed to prove the opposite insofar as they all seem to accept there is a contradiction in what being “European” really means or what “Europe” actually is.

On the other hand, those who are currently generally considered to be “European” seem to have gone down a totally different route and have little or no con cern for the situation of these excluded, forgotten and undesirable areas of Europe. The idea of Europe today is much more aligned with the identity of the European Union. The terms EU and Europe have become not just metonyms, but synonyms for each other. If somebody wants to define Europe in a different way they generally have to put “Europe” in apostrophes. However, redefining Europe is something that non-EU European countries need to constantly endeavour to do, for the sake of others, but above all for their own sakes.

Neither Wanted Nor Welcome

The effort needed to do this is not the same everywhere. It is particularly hard for those non-EU European countries, which, in contrast to, say, Switzerland or Norway, are excluded from Europe not because they want to be or because they have chosen to be, but because they are neither wanted nor welcome in Europe. Not being wanted or welcome is not a particularly nice feeling. Wanting to belong, but not being allowed to, is just as bad. It can have a serious effect on a country’s self confidence. This is true of other parts of the world too, but it is particularly true in Europe.

The conviction that they are part of Europe is nowhere weaker than here in these countries. Nowhere is this conviction disappearing faster than here. Nowhere are European feelings of inferiority as pronounced as they are here. And nowhere are they as widespread as here. European self-doubt has reached desperate proportions and European self-loathing is so strong that people are convinced that they have brought all this upon themselves and deserve to be punished by not being allowed to join Europe.

It is particularly hard for those non-EU European countries, which, in contrast to, say, Switzerland or Norway, are excluded from Europe not because they want to be or because they have chosen to be, but because they are neither wanted nor welcome in Europe

This is why people are clinging on to history out of the belief that it is somehow a history that is significant and meaningful to Europe as a whole, which of course it is to a great extent. But it is the passion with which people use this history for selfaffirmation or with which they cherish and nurture it that may appear somewhat strange amongst those whom it is assumed do not belong and who could share a common history and culture with those who do belong. History is our favourite excuse and our main – and apparently only – argument. The obvious is often staring us in the face, but unfortunately it is of little use because we generally don’t recognise it.

You will rarely find as many weird collectors and guardians of historical traditions that point to a one-time common European past than we have here. You will rarely hear stories that are as inextricably bound up with a perceived past and a hoped-for and coveted future. Facts that would be considered a joke in other places are celebrated here with an unparalleled, almost existential seriousness. People may well find this strange or a something of a joke or dismiss the whole thing as obscure or old-fashioned. But this kind of thing gives me hope. Firstly because it shows that there is a genuine desire to belong, to use all available means to prove that they really do have a legitimate claim to being European. And secondly because it is far better and much more productive to take this kind of approach than trying to use a second and much more dubious way of proving their European provenance: the fact that they are white.

This obsession with history is a form of regression. Too little of it can lead to rigidity, stagnation and schematism. But if there is too much history you risk drowning in it, disappearing from sight and losing your place in the here and now. Psychological regression is the same, it is like water where you can swim and enjoy the sensation of buoyancy, but where you can also drown or lose yourself in ist dark depths forever. You can become an amphibian.

There should only be as much history as a given community needs at a given time. But then again, who decides how much is enough? Perhaps there is some kind of social intuition that decides these things. A healthy person should be able to decide when and to what extent he will indulge in regression and should know how to regulate it or even sometimes how to provoke it and so confirm its value. A healthy person will use regression to rejuvenate himself, to gain inspiration and to change. The bottom line is that a healthy person will enjoy regression and reap the benefits.

History as an Environment for Change

The same is true for societies and their histories. History can be a fertile breeding ground for change and turning to history can be inspiring. It is not possible to change existing structures that society no longer wants to keep for one reason or another without first delving into the past, without exploring the concepts of sociology, without turning to historical debate. Every brave and productive change is the result of looking to history, of invoking the past in retrospective or historical debate.

Courage lies not in breaking with history but in affirming it. This is what the word “reform” really means. Every break with history, every intentional break, requires a reasonably good or even excessively good knowledge of history. This is because you can only really break with something if you believe you know it so well that you no longer want anything to do with it.

In our part of Europe, awareness of history is also important for another reason. Sometimes it is the only factor that confirms that we actually belong to Europe at all. If this factor were to become weaker or disappear altogether then it is not only likely that we would face long and difficult crises, but it is almost inevitable. This is far more likely to happen if historical factors cease to be the key determinants of whether we belong to Europe or not and current circumstances become the deciding factors instead.

Every break with history, every intentional break, requires a reasonably good or even excessively good knowledge of history.

Then a whole area of common history would start to exist to which we no longer belong and which we could not share in. It would be common to others, but not to us, a commonality that we are not a part of.

This does not mean that there would be some kind of ‘end to history.’ It would actually mean something much worse. History, as opposed to time, would cease to be equally spread across all parts of Europe. Historical time would be split from physical time. Physical time would continue, but historical time would slow down in some regions and even come to a complete halt or head off in a different direction. Historical time would be divided into different regions, different zones of history. This would only be the case in areas where people live together in communities, not in nature reserves, primeval forests, wastes or steppes. This would not be a Europe of different speeds, but one of different times.

Historical Reserves

True reserves are to be found in history, not in nature. There are time capsules, little islands of time, in which historical time does not simply start to slow down, but slowly develops a character of its own, a special, isolated logic. A logic of isolation. How much history can people tolerate? How many differences of history can they tolerate? Sometimes time stops being about creativity and becomes the start of a period of total decay by accepting the muse of disintegration. Decay then becomes the most important and only expression of historicity.

History does not mean “the past”, or at least not only that. This is only one dimension of history. More than anything else history is about a yearning for the historical, the desire for it to continue, the ability and willingness to tell stories. History is about the meaning and context of memory, a comprehensible continuity and a tradition as well as the ability to carry on the story and to accept its legacy, rather than running away from it. For this legacy to be accepted readily it has to be understandable and have some contemporary relevance. It must make sense today.

There is the desire to be closer, but also the love of remaining apart.

Only then can regressions into the historical past be truly therapeutic. If history is seen as something foreign, frightening and incomprehensible then regressions can become pathogenic. The risk of retraumatisation is particularly high, the risk that the only parts of history that will be relived are those parts that are the most pathogenic and destructive. When this happens history is no longer something that you can learn from but becomes something that is condemned to be repeated forever. The more traumatic this history, the higher the risk of retraumatisation. One of life’s ironies is that, while we seem unable to avoid looking back in history, we still don’t know how to use this process in a therapeutic way. Without history we lose the last vestiges of belonging to Europe. With history such belonging would be hard to bear.

The "We" of the "Europeans“

What are “we” as far as Europe is concerned? Why do we, or don’t we, want each other? “We” are the “Europeans”. We are part of a grand and great vision that is concerned with the future and the present just as much as with the past. This vision is so powerful and we need it so much that we are prepared to discover a common past and to put it above all differences and disputes. Because this is how we want it, because we want Europe, with us in it. We are prepared to allow those who we want and desire to share a common history with us and even to assume it. We are prepared to follow our desires because we have a goal that we all desire. This is why we need to love and want each other. It is our love for each other that will guarantee that we reach our goal. So Europe basically boils down to our mutual desires. We love our vision and our tasks and we love each other for being the ones who embody this vision and who will carry out these tasks.

It will be very interesting to see just how far our lust for Europe will stretch and at what point it will stop and why. Then we will learn that “we” all have different and somewhat differing ideas and preferences. Not only in terms of our common goals, but also in terms of each other.

Graffiti "Come Together" on a white wall
Photo: Etienne Giradet via unsplash

And we will have to learn to tolerate these differences, on the assumption that we really do desire each other and are prepared to pay a concrete price for what we value.

There is the desire to be closer, but also the love of remaining apart. The temptation of being as one, but also attempts to love oneself. These contradictions are often in play, a kind of ambivalence between symbiosis and autonomy.

Cultural Policy for Europe as an Area of Common Cultural History

Europe is not so united, or even close enough to being so, that it can afford to do without a common cultural policy. A common cultural policy first has to be just that, and there can never real y be enough of such a policy. We have a rare opportunity here to make the words “common” and “European” a reality for once. In contrast to the wider areas of economic, financial, defence and educational policies, cultural policy is now something that could be applied not just to EU Europe, which is increasingly seen as being Europe per se both rhetorically and emotionally, but to Europe as an area of common cultural history.

Europe is not so united, or even close enough to being so, that it can afford to do without a common cultural policy.

A common European cultural policy is not the same as a common European culture. And nor is it the sum of individual national or regional European cultures. That is something else.

Also it is not a substitute for an individual European culture (and never can be), nor should it completely replace individual cultural policies. But it should also not be seen as a simple expansion of these policies either, but should become a new reality. A reality in which, and out of which, much is possible. Much of this was not only not really possible before, but simply was not there as a reality.

Tasks of a Common Cultural Policy

A common European cultural policy should help to create a sense of awareness and feeling for European commonality in that it will show where these commonalities exist, historically, currently and as a challenge for the future. This culture could actually be the starting point for a truly common European era – a European cultural epoch.

The real emotionality of something truly common starts when prejudices are put to one side, even positive ones, with the conviction that even the most attractive clichés are no substitute for reality, but simply stand in the way of more exciting, more surprising and more sophisticated experiences.

A common European cultural policy is not about unification, but about integration.

We call anything different that we are afraid of or that we think is threatening ‘weird’, yet anything different that is curious or fascinating, we call ‘exotic’. In walking this fine line we need to overcome this sense of exoticism as something weird, without losing our sense of the exotic. We need to convert the negative exotic into something positive, to transmute it, to let it evolve.

Young man in blue shirt with the stars of the European Union
A common European cultural policy is not about unification, but about integration, Photo: Henri Lajarrige Lombard via unsplash

A common European cultural policy is not about unification, but about integration. Integration in the sense of the ability (or even the desire) to allow or accept something different, and to allow it to become a part of you. So it is about constant self-expansion.

This concept of a cultural policy has a key role to play in integrating parts of Europe and creating a sense of expansion in those areas where it is needed, and in maintaining a sense of European commonality in those places where other measures have so far failed. It also has an important role in creating transitional opportunities in order to preserve European self-perception during difficult times.

In this respect it is a sign of understanding, of wanting to understand, an ever-present avowal of solidarity. Exoticism can be both obvious and subtle. A common European cultural policy should question the supposedly familiar and help to revitalise what has inadvertently become dull and faded.

A Test Bed for the Present

Local cultures should not be ignored but revealed and protected in order to create a new layer of culture.

At the moment there is not necessarily a common European culture, or at least not obviously. If there is one, then it is minimal, insubstantial and not the result of some kind of consensus.

But there could be a common European cultural policy. This could come about if we genuinely want a common Europe. This is because it isn’t so much a product of history or some kind of organic extract; it is the result of deliberate efforts aimed at achieving more unity in Europe and from Europe. And that means basically having more Europe, something which comes down to desire, to wanting each other and being interested in each other.

A common European cultural policy should help to create a sense of awareness and feeling for European commonality in that it will show where these commonalities exist, historically, currently and as a challenge for the future.

But first it has to arise. In order for this to happen, a common European cultural policy needs to fulfil a number of requirements. It mustn’t try to pass itself off as “high culture”. It mustn’t become a form of “cultural apparatus”. It mustn’t allow itself to be led by some “dominant culture”. Its key function would be to raise the profile of things that already exist; to reveal those things that deserve to be revealed; to clarify things that are (or have become) unclear. It mustn’t negate, but reanimate those things that have become negated. It mustn’t make excuses or try to justify; gloss over or trivialise. It should simply create the sense that Europe is based on two key principles: unbounded diversity that should be respected and amazing prospects for cooperation and commonality both now and in future.

If mustn’t be based on what has already been collectively experienced or what lies in our collective past. A common cultural policy needs to be oriented towards creating cultural visions or a common future. History should be the one foundation of this policy. To constantly remind ourselves of how close we are despite all our differences (history can give us enough examples of this) will be a fascinating new experience.

The second big challenge will be to identify all the tensions, conflicts, varying interpretations and versions of what has happened and is happening, as well as all of our different interests, without falling into the temptation of simply resorting to superficial harmonising, placatory and well-meaning gestures.

Only then will Europe be capable of becoming a test bed for the present.

About the author
Portrait of the Ukrainian writer Jurko Prochasko Schriftstellers Jurko Prochasko
Jurko Prochasko
Commentator, literary scholar and translator

Jurko Prochasko was born in Western Ukraine in 1970. He is an essayist, commentator, literary scholar and translator. He teaches at the Institute of Literature at the Academy of Sciences in Lwiw, Ukraine. In 2008 he received the Friedrich-Gundolf-Prize for the intermediation of German culture in foreign countries. He has also translated several works including “The Man without Qualities” by Robert Musil, two novels by Joseph Roth, prose by Gottfried Benn and lyric poetry by Günter Eich in addition to texts by Martin Heidegger and Jürgen Habermas.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.