The May Day holiday seemed more than usually loaded with significance this year: there is an ingrained notion that a prolonged cold snap ought to be followed by a flowering of ideas. May 1st, the pagan celebration of fecundity and the modern-day excuse for grassroots protest, was a neat turning point.
It reflects hopes that this summer will finally tip the European Union into crisis, in the positive sense. The word crisis after all contains the inference of judging and deciding, and there hasn’t been much of that up to now. The past five years have instead been characterised by a kind of ‘turboparalysis’.
The term was coined by the author Michael Lind to describe a condition “of furious motion without movement in any particular direction, a situation in which the engine roars and the wheels spin but the vehicle refuses to move”.
This year’s big freeze only intensified that feeling. As winter did not turn to spring, the same old themes recurred – a member state in acute financial turmoil (Cyprus), rising populism (Italy), fantasies about the EU’s 2014 leadership change (Barroso III), a foreign policy in disarray (Mali) and trouble with minor international despots (North Korea).
The thaw has brought a perceptible change of mood. If winter felt like a mental grudge match with the elements – symbolised by The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan’s geopolitics rehash, and Jan Zielonka’s survey of the EU’s core and periphery, The New Political Geography of Europe – summer is softer.
Environmental determinism is out; Gaia is in. There is, for instance, talk of fostering a ‘European sense of place’, what the French call terroir: a process was kicked off 15 years ago to give citizens a physical sense of the EU, an entity otherwise defined by its shifting borders. It is now gearing up for the next phase.
There have been allusions too to 1816, The Year Without Summer. That long winter famously spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a suitably bleak response to a famine-struck world. But the aftermath is associated with a thawing of political ideas that are said to have brought forth the modern liberal state.
The myth of a cultural flowering after a long winter therefore sits so deep that it may today be self-fulfilling, and there are indeed signs that the EU’s zombie politics are now giving way to something more vivid.
Last week, the Commission President tried to mobilise scientists, artists and intellectuals to deal with European issues. Predictably, his initiative suffers terribly from Commission speak – ‘A Narrative for Europe’, ‘version 2.0’, ‘an online portal for citizens’, ‘core cultural values’, ‘our image in third countries’. Still, it marks a shift.
Although there has always been talk of European integration as an “organic idea”, eurocrats have struggled to connect with Europe’s cultural life. Insofar as the creative arts featured on the Brussels radar, it was largely in terms of political marketing (see, for instance, the dismal Captain Euro).
A decade ago, there was a telling debate about what kind of capital city an entity like the EU needs. It pitted Umberto Eco against Rem Koolhaas, the Italian arguing for Brussels to become a space for cultural exchange, the Dutch architect advocating that the EU’s signature buildings simply be used to brand and market policies.
The recent reworking of the Commission logo shows which approach has prevailed until now, and the UK Independence Party, UKIP, may well have a point when it opposes European flags on public buildings on the grounds that they are not symbols but advertisements.
Even if Barroso’s initiative marks a refreshing change, though, it will do nothing to appease those who dislike thinkers and arty types. (Sensibly, the President’s cultural caravan will bypass the famously anti-intellectual UK and head to France, Germany and Warsaw).
Well, let them remain in the mud with their wheels spinning and engine fired up. The injection of culture into the EU’s technocracy might give it just the traction it needs, and not only because a pause for creative reflection would be conducive to judging and deciding.
The lack of effective European action reflected in Cyprus, Italy, Brussels, Mali and even North Korea highlights the dip in hegemony that comes from an absence of social cohesion at home. Culture, arts and ideas – the only things that really link Europeans – are just the tonic. There may be life in the EU yet.