Hannes Richter

The Sound of Europe

Hannes Richter

On January 27-28, the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, in cooperation with the Bertelsmann Foundation, hosted an international conference in Salzburg, Austria, bringing together personalities from the world of politics, science, the arts and the media. The participants exchanged views on European values and identity, and the role of Europe in today’s world. Entitled “The Sound of Europe,” the conference coincided with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, and the date of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1945. The following is an excerpt of the opening address by Austrian Federal President, Heinz Fischer.

...I experienced my strongest emotional bond with Europe, the strongest feeling of my European identity, almost 32 years ago in autumn 1974, when I was travelling in the Far East with my wife. We arrived in China, just as it was emerging from Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution. There was hardly any tourism there at the time. It was a completely different China to the China of today. Whenever my wife and I met somebody from, say, the UK or Sweden - which didn’t happen very often - we met each other as Europeans and had in common this fact of being European. Nationality was a subordinate issue. What actually constituted this specific European identity? The fact of geographically belonging to the west of the Eurasian continent? Religious or cultural influences? A shared history? Or something else?




Heinz Fischer

At the time, of course, I did not formulate those questions so clearly, nor could I have answered them. Now I reflect a great deal on these questions, because comprehending the common “Sound of Europe” is of enormous importance to the future prospects of the European project, and I realize that the threads of a European identity reach far back into the past and are irrevocably intertwined.

The mythology of Europa, which - as we know - was originally neither a geographical nor a political concept, begins with the tale of a young princess with whom Zeus, the father of the gods, fell in love when he caught sight of her on the seashore with her friends. He transformed himself into a bull and abducted her over the sea to Crete. But Europa was not a European in the modern sense; she was the daughter of a Phoenician king from Asia Minor. And Zeus was not the divinity of a monotheistic religion of the type that is predominant in Europe today, but the father of the gods of a polytheistic pantheon.

Christianity, too, which is the main religion in Europe today, has its roots close to the homeland of the Phoenician princess and first began to develop in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea, which are completely unidentical to the Europe of today. Europe was much smaller then and at the same time much larger.

The picture is the same when we take a look at its cultural roots. Europe owes its numerical system to the Arabs. The beautiful epic of The Iliad, which had such a strong influence on European culture, concerns the battle for a city in Asia Minor, and Prometheus who, according to the myth, brought divine fire and knowledge to mortals although it was forbidden, was shackled to a rocky crag in what is now Georgia. The Museion of Alexandria, the most prestigious seat of learning at the time, a kind of Harvard of the ancient world, was in Egypt. In other words, many sources of inspiration of the blossoming European culture and science are not located in Europe in the modern sense of the term, or at least not in countries of the EU.




Wolfgang Schüssel (left) and Jose M. Baroso

It was the sum of all these sources, these seeds of cultural diversity, the schools of thought of Asia Minor, Judaism and Christianity, the migration and mixing of the peoples, Indo-Germanic and Slavic influences, Humanism and Enlightenment, which gave rise to European culture, to the European model of thought and way of life, that catalogue of human rights, i.e. that modern concept to which we are now trying to give political shape...

...I need not talk to you about progress made since then on the “building site of Europe,” but the most recent enlargement with ten new member states in 2004 made it possible to speak not only of enlargement, but of the reunification of a continent that had been divided for decades: ‘That which belongs together, grows together.’ Over the last few years, however, we have been witnessing a perspicacious observation by Berthold Brecht, which runs:

“When the difficulty
Of the mountains is once behind
That’s when you’ll see
The difficulty of the plains will start.”

This is precisely where we are today. It is the struggle with the European plains which seems to be causing us much greater difficulty than the initial slope and final ascent to a common Europe. I admit: the construction of the common European house is not proceeding according to the architect’s blueprint. As we have seen in the course of the last five decades, the common Europe is work in progress. It is an idea with a long history; it is a rational idea, and it is a necessary idea.

From where, then, comes this strong headwind we are feeling, if the European project has so many good arguments in its favor? I believe it is not the European project as such which generates such opposition; it is not the basic concept of European cooperation which draws criticism, but rather it is certain specific experiences - it is the real situation on the ground in the European Union of 25 that is viewed with scepticism and meets with criticism from many quarters. Let me give some examples:

1. Again and again national interests are pitted against EU interests.

2. Many citizens of Europe feel they are not being taken seriously with their concerns and that they are light years away from the decision-makers in Brussels and elsewhere.

3. There is a strong temptation to nationalize success stories and europeanize the unpalatable.

4. It is more than just a feeling - that the democratic model is not working, or not working satisfactorily, at the European level.

5. And to cap it all, there is the division between those already living in the European house who would dearly like to lock the door from the inside, and those on the outside who see the Union as the Promised Land, and who are knocking loudly on the door asking for admittance.

It is also true that the answers given to the 20 million jobless in Europe today are not satisfactory. The fate of these millions of people without work is a bitter reality. That is why we must also take announcements and targets concerning cuts in the unemployment rates very seriously. I am convinced that confidence in Europe depends to a very large extent on having confidence in the social stability of Europe. What is more, in the final analysis, problems relating to migration, asylum or internal security also have a strong social dimension... It is my firm conviction that a common cultural consciousness - with due regard for national attributes and differences - forms a decisive part of a common European consciousness.

This European consciousness must have a strong forward-looking dimension. It must take its own goals in the area of science and research seriously and be open for curiosity and for the new sounds of this world.