Who or what is Europe? What is the future for the continent? Do we need a new vision of Europe? A large group of European writers and intellectuals discussed these and many other questions in Berlin on 8 and 9 May. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened the conference on both days.
European Writers Conference: A dream of Europe
However, the European Writers Conference on 8 May looked not only to the future, but also back to the first International Writers Conference, which took place in then West Berlin in May 1988 under the motto “A Dream of Europe”. Some of the writers who took part in the debate on the vision of a peaceful, democratic Europe back in 1988 participated this year too. Today, more than 25 years on, they were asking whether the dream had become reality.
Cultural and political borders
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened the conference in the atrium of the Alfred Herrhausen Society along with Mely Kiyak, Nicol Ljubic, Antje Rávic Strubel and Tilman Spengler, members of the initiative group. In his speech, Steinmeier said the fact that the writers conference was taking place was something of a miracle. The presence of 30 writers from countries as diverse as Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Russia, Belarus and Turkey showed, the Minister said, that Europe’s cultural borders did not follow the same contours as its political borders.
Quite simply, if cultural and political boundaries were always to coincide, how much poorer would literature be! How much stupider politics!
A triangle of literature, politics and Europe
The European Writers Conference, Steinmeier said, therefore tried to create a thrilling, exciting triangle between the three – literature, politics and Europe. What literature could expect from politics, the Minister said, was not a question he as a politician could answer – but ultimately art had to remain free: it must not be allowed to become a political instrument.
On the other hand, he went on, politics may expect literature to highlight cultural boundaries and differences, because, like literature, foreign policy was based on perception and understanding. He cited Kissinger as having said much the same thing: “Foreign policy, Henry Kissinger said, begins with perception, with seeing the world through different eyes.”
Europe has no end state
Europe needs literature as part of a vibrant civil society, after all, the Minister continued. The definitive European “narrative” that so many people were calling for, he said, seemed unlikely ever to be found. Rather than seek a common identity, what he said Europe needed was to allow space for the diverse range of identities its encompassed; it needed tools, he explained, which would enable its many voices to act together. The conference, the Foreign Minister averred, should therefore be not an isolated feature but part of a permanent conversation among authors.
After the opening speech, the authors present formed various panels to discuss different perspectives in relation to Europe. In the evening, the Deutsches Theater opened its doors for the Long Night of European Literature, a public reading of their texts and poems by writers from countries across Europe, including Portugal, the Netherlands and Albania. The authors’ joint manifesto from the European Writers Conference is available .
Combining freedom and social cohesion
On 9 May writers, philosophers, politicians and economists joined members of the public to debate the importance to reality of a “European dream”. In particular, they considered whether the European model could still serve as a reference point for other states despite global competition and the economic crisis.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier opened the conference with a keynote address on “The European dream in a global reality”. He began by emphasising that the European dream was the dream of a society that combined freedom and social cohesion. This model was unique in the world, he said, based as it was neither on pure individualism nor on authoritarianism.
The European model embodies the hope for a balance, never taken for granted and constantly reinstated, between freedom and security.
Europe as a project for peace
Foreign Minister Steinmeier recalled that the authors at the 1988 conference had written an open letter calling for the division of Europe to be surmounted. How little they suspected, he said, that the division would be lifted so soon – and how little had the organisers of this year’s conference suspected twelve months ago that we would now be fearing a new division. As the Foreign Minister put it, the Ukraine crisis was giving many people a fresh perspective on the Europe policy of recent years:
The core of Europe, namely peace and peacekeeping, has been taken too much for granted recently. For many young Europeans, peace in Europe has for decades been as much a part of the furniture as easyJet and Erasmus programmes. Nobody questioned it, and nobody could imagine that it would ever change. But the Ukraine crisis demonstrates in dramatic fashion that the task Europe was founded for has not yet been fulfilled.