Sometimes the journey is better than the arrival. In the case of the European Union, the same sentiment might be put another way: Europa, at least for the scoundrels on her periphery, turned out to be a woman far more pleasurable to desire than she is to possess.
I also entered Europe on the wings of a love story. I moved from America to Slovenia in 1993 to marry Aleš Debeljak, an influential Slovenian poet, during an era when poets were still influential in this part of the world. I came at the precise moment – after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia – when the ardor for Europe was beginning to burn hotly in the eyes of many eastern and southern suitors.
A new normal
Slovenia was no exception, and the scramble to gain the favor of such a voluptuous and wealthy mistress even managed to briefly unite Slovenia’s political elites and her citizenry, both of which, during the half century since World War Two, had been bitterly divided between left and right, partisan and home guard, godless communist and Nazi collaborator.
It was a golden decade. Bedazzled by love myself, I may be looking back at it through a rosy haze, but it seemed like the best of both worlds. Daily life still had an easy socialist rhythm uncluttered by crass materialism. Workdays were shorter, there were generous social benefits, and a more bohemian sense of culture and solidarity reigned. Not even the wars in Yugoslavia dampened the overall spirit; rather, they filled us with a sense of righteousness, holding up a hellish vision of what primitive nationalism wrought as we floated into the arms of a more civilized Europe.
And finally, though we didn’t realize it at the time, we were all buoyed upon the rising tides of global economic growth fueled by massive debt. Love-struck fools that we were, we thought it was the new normal. Europe’s applicants fell under various headings: post-communist, Visegrad Four, ex-Yu, and, of course, countries in transition, from a dead and defeated system to a glorious new future. Little did we know that the transition was as good as it was going to get.
The moment of entry, ten years ago, was magnificent in its way, filled with pomp and ceremony, but soon after the climax, things started to go sour. The divisions that had been so dutifully suppressed during the long years of courtship immediately flared up. The euro, while flattering to those of us who had lived with flimsier currencies, drove prices up, and forced (or tempted) our governments onto the international debt markets. And then, in 2008, the whole great calamitous contraption, all of its shimmering new skyscrapers, its crisp new banknotes, its cross-border regional collaborations, the planes and trains and ferries crisscrossing continent and sea, smashed headlong into a wall, causing a wound, a devastation, a desert of resentment from which we have yet to recover.
Elections are met with indifference
Is there really nothing to praise in this union? Nothing to salvage? What I would praise above all is something rarely talked about: the spatial transformation, the lifting of borders, the ability to move freely from one country to another without the need to show documents, without the presence, so ominous in European history, of visible frontiers. That, more than anything else, makes me feel like we are one people.
I also feel a sense of unity when I go to Kinodvor, Ljubljana’s art film house, and the promotional clip for Europa Cinemas runs. Watching the names of hundreds of European cities flicker past on the screen – Gdansk, Helsinki, Dublin, Düsseldorf – I feel a sense of fellowship with all the other European moviegoers that I know are sitting in other cinemas around the continent, waiting expectantly in the darkness to imbibe from our common cultural cup.
Sadly, although I have long been a proponent of democratic participation, the prospect of European elections has never roused a sense of affiliation or relevance in shaping a shared destiny, and I don’t think I am alone in that. In Ljubljana, such elections are usually met with a shrug of indifference, or at most mild curiosity about who among us will be heading up to Brussels to perform an obscure function while earning a salary some three or four times larger than most doctors or professors do here at home.
A frustrating and difficult marriage
As with many love stories, there is plenty of guilt to go around for the current condition of the relationship. Certainly, Slovenia is guilty for having been smug and self-satisfied, for not working to create transparent, honest, and dynamic leadership, and thus avoid the trap of corruption and complacency. And the center of Europe, its leaders and architects, is guilty for taking the union too lightly, for its failure to live up to real solidarity in both good times and bad.
There has always been much talk about whether the EU is capable of creating a compelling common identity that would transcend, or at least coexist with, individual national identities, as the multicultural entities of Austro-Hungary and Yugoslavia succeeded in doing in their time.
But recently I have begun to see a more serious problem for Slovenia: not too many competing identities, but no identity at all. For not only did Slovenia not gain a meaningful collective identity when it entered the EU, but this rather frustrating and difficult marriage, the compromises made along the way, the failures and disappointments, has caused it, in some strange way, to lose its own.