Narratives for Europe: Voices - Labour Force / Humans

Writers Ece Temelkuran, Neel Mukherjee, David van Reybrouck, Rodaan Al Galidi, artists Bogomir Doringer, Ruud Gielens, Laila Soliman, change agent Kirsten van den Hul, journalist/ editor Claude Grunitzky share their visions and thoughts on four timely topics at the heart of European public debate and media.

Our second topic is Labour Force / Humans:

“WIR RIEFEN ARBEITSKRÄFTE UND ES KAMEN MENSCHEN.” (MAX FRISCH) / ‘We called upon the labor force and the people came.’

Continental Europe has seen centuries of migration and mixing of cultures. The last decade has been particularly marked by ‘economic’ migrations. For example, three million people with Turkish roots live n Germany or the 2,16 million people with north African roots (out of a total of 7.2 million ‘migrants’) living in France. Is Europe a cultural melting pot? Demographic studies suggest so. The sealant used between countries is  often ‘tolerance’.  Is this the right material for building the ambitious and human project as Europe ?

We are living with a worldwide economic crisis, shifting of international power relations (China, India, Turkey, Brazil…) and challenging politico-religious relations. The individual seems to be danger. Meanwhile we are all in the same soup. 

Rodaan Al Galidi

You are appointed EU President. What’s action point No.1?

Everyone gets their money back. 
Europe will be an empty and cold continent in 90 years. It will be an unhealthy place as a result of its unhealthy air. Everything in the ground will have run out and the Europeans will have long hoisted their sails and left. Just as with the Indians, we will write about them very beautifully and say that they wrote nice poems and novels, brought the greatest changes to the world, and created the best democracies and human rights. In each country, the immigrants will build a museum for the last two Europeans. For example, in Groningen there will be a museum with two Hollanders. Sadly, they won’t be able to hear about how great they used to be, and how after the 20th century they had their worst period ever – and how before that, they were the greatest captains of the ship of life.

Europe 2100: draw a mental map. Where are the boundaries?
South Europe is always the European economy’s biggest problem. But always the best solution when it comes to culture. Every country that stays above 10 degrees in the winter simply has a bad economy. This will never change. In the future, the EU will be split into north and south, because southerners keep their money at home along with their children while northerners keep their children in day-care and their money in the bank. That’s why the south is both the EU’s headache and its diarrhoea.  Northerners have proven perfect for a union as they split up into two types: bureaucrats and citizens. The border will be defined over the long term between where the money flows and where it stagnates.

Has integration in Europe failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?
Integration in Europe has not failed. The immigrants themselves have failed. They did not understand Europe correctly – not before they arrived, nor after. From the failures of the immigrants themselves, Europe has grown tired of immigrants who jump on their shoulders with their mountains, deserts and hills. It’s just too heavy. So Europe has pulled back because her shoulders hurt from all those immigrants who are here for 50 years and never bothered to learn Europe’s language, understand its thoughts or admire its beautiful face. I’m talking about those who have been living in Amsterdam for the last 50 years and still don’t know the difference between Van Gogh and a nice young cheese.

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?
I discovered my ideal society in a kebab shop in The Hague. There I saw all these Iraqis who would normally never be able to live together or even sit in same waiting room of a barber, dentist or doctor. But here they came together over a kebab to sit and eat. Christians, Kurds, Sunnites, Shiites, Arabs… I saw all the Iraqis there. And so I discovered that the meeting point for humanity is not the head but the stomach.  And it’s a very tasty meeting point.

My ideal society is formed in such a way that people can enjoy what the earth gives, not what their thoughts take away. To be clear: just give me a shoarma joint after a nice night out in a bar with friends. It’s more bonding than any European Parliament or National Assembly can ever be.

Kinan Azmeh

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

I would first realize that such minister should not exist!! It is equally funny to have a position called: the ministry of ethics, or the ministry of friendship :)

I hear lots of talking about tolerance between people. I think this is the wrong approach. Once usually tolerates what he/she does not like. What we are discussing here is not tolerance but acceptance, accepting that there are people in the world who look/act/behave differently that what one is accustomed to. Integration should start on the most basic level: education. Integration begins in the family, school, university all the way to the applicable laws that protect every citizen's right to be different. Having a ministry of integration is a sign that the society in which it exists is having major issues.

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

My profession as a touring artist allowed me over a long period of time to work on my own stereotypes and dogmatic labeling as what the "other" might be. In principal, everyone who does not accept my existence as a freethinking individual can be labeled as the "other". The real challenge is to surpass such labeling for the sake of a better society. In general, we have to accept even those who consider us to be the "other" shall continue to exist and they also are an essential part of any society. We also have to understand that the change in their "acceptance" attitude cannot be achieved in a short time. 

Has integration in Europe failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?

Keeping in mind that a society is a living organism that changes with time, and there for its needs change also with it. Therefore it is hard to judge a large issue like this by "fail" or "pass", as this is and should be an ongoing process in any society. Obviously, on a romantic level maybe, one can argue that the Dutch and German national soccer teams as they appeared in the recent Euro cup (for example) are a significant sign of what a new integrating Europe looks like. But again, this is only scratching the surface. In any case, I am not in a position to judge neither the failure nor the success. I just see signs of movement, which is positive in any case. 

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?

 I am inspired by communities which are actively pursuing a better life for all involved, the society itself, the nature, and other communities around. It is a community that understands the responsibility towards its members and to humanity and nature at large. A community that honors freedom of thinking and action while not turning a blind eye to other communities that are not directly in touch or interaction with. In that sense I am not able to single out one community that inspires me around the world, though I truly respect communities that are trying to be self-sustained and independent. Which in turn gives them the needed freedom to think and act. In relation to how the question is framed, one should remember also that integration and accepting the other is only one of many factors that makes a society/community functional. 

Chrissie Faniadis

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

This is a question that does my head in, because I am so passionate about it. 

My first action is to take on my colleagues in government and make them understand that integration policy has to be much higher on the political agenda than it currently is, with resources to follow. I believe that the political climate in Europe in general is underestimating the importance of developing integration policy that will truly allow people to become part of society. My follow-up action is to redefine what integration actually means, put it into a bigger frame and allow more components than mere language tests and ID cards. I would talk more about citizenship and less about “tolerance”, a holistic approach with a clear focus on interculturalism.

I believe being an integration minister in today’s Europe is one of the toughest, most thankless political jobs one could have. There is never enough money, the investment and results are long-term and not always spectacular or instantly measurable. This however does not make them less important or worthy, on the contrary! I am seriously perplexed at how underestimated this policy area is! It baffles me that we think that social investment is somehow a waste of time and resources. I often have this discussion with friends or colleagues, and the arguments can be “it’s a bottomless hole”, “yes, well, when your parents came from Greece things were different”, or “nowadays most immigrants are from outside of Europe, the cultures are too different”, or “society can’t handle the sheer numbers of people arriving”. My response is, DUH! Yes, things ARE different, yes, people DO come from different cultures, and HELLO - this is the world we live in! I don’t pretend that these are easy topics to deal with. But we’re doing us all a disservice by ignoring the problems that an inadequate integration policy gives rise to.

At the same time we need to also raise the status not only on rights but on commitments (I prefer this term to “obligations”). The responsibility for a well-functioning society where its newest members are fully included in its structure lies not only on the part of the immigrant or the part of the receiving community. The responsibility lies squarely in the hands of both parties. Our commitment to society is everybody’s business. Ultimately integration policy is about active, committed citizenship, something which I believe has fallen lower on the list in the face of prioritising big business and risky financial investments. Isn’t about time we brought it back up again?

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

“The other” to me is a very personal notion. I have a vested interest in the society I live in, I cherish people who do good and contribute, in whatever big or small way, and I try to do my part and be committed and present. For me, “the other” is anyone who brings destruction, on whatever scale, and is disrespectful of their surroundings and fellow citizens. From this perspective, “the other” isn’t tied up with a specific ethnicity or minority. The other is someone who in one way or another does not feel part of the society her/she lives in. This “other” could be ruthless companies who pollute whole ecosystems for financial gain, or the guy on the tube who crams a burger in his mouth and throws the wrapping on the seat and leaves. To me, that is “the other”, and it is personal, because it has to do with one’s principles and perceptions of what is right and what is wrong, what one would and wouldn’t do, what is acceptable and what isn’t. 

If one looks at it from this perspective I believe the discourse becomes a different one from what we are used to when discussing “the other”. It is still a question of it being what oneself is not, but it is no longer confined to a discussion about ethnicity or nationality. It broadens the discourse and it becomes a matter of values and ethics, and those are often shared across cultures, nationalities and minorities. It also becomes a more interesting conversation, less closed and absolute. There is always that great moment where you feel a connection and affiliation with people who on paper are so different from you, but with whom you find common interests, common perceptions, common convictions. We don’t have enough meetings like that, enough moments where people can connect and break through the barrier of “the other”. 

In an ideal world I guess there wouldn’t be “the other” but I believe this is unrealistic. It is part of human nature to relate to one’s fellow humans from one’s own perspective and “scan” the people we meet to try and figure them out. But wouldn’t it be great if the scan lead to curiosity and interest instead of suspicion and misconceptions? That I do not think is unrealistic, it is highly doable. What’s more, it is crucial, because “the other”, just like stereotypes, can lead us down the wrong path.

Has integration in Europa failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?

To say that integration is Europe has failed would be an one-dimensional exaggeration. It would be an insult to all those who have devoted their professional, and often personal, lives to bringing people together and helping newcomers find their feet in society. It would be an insult to all those who leave their countries behind in the hope of making a better future for themselves and their families, and who do everything they can to become part of society. Moreover, this statement is a form of stigmatisation of citizens with a different ethnic background to the natives, who have lived, worked and paid taxes for decades, but who now somehow bear the brunt of Europe’s social problems. It is a statement used by desperate politicians up for re-election, and populist forces who want to create scapegoats and provide easy solutions to complex problems.

Integration is a complicated and sometimes frustrating issue in politics. I don’t pretend to grasp all the complexities and layers of it. But I believe part of the problem lies in the misconception that somehow integration is a “one off” occurrence, that when we’ve made some efforts, ear-marked resources and developed some successful programmes, we’re somehow done with it. Or that integration will take care of itself, as long as we put tougher demands on newcomers and make them follow the rules, which in my opinion is a common trend in Europe today. By shifting the brunt of the responsibility to those new to our society we are underestimating the mutual relationship that exists.

I live in a suburb outside of Stockholm that receives a large number of migrants every year. Many of them arrive with very little knowledge or perception of Sweden and Swedish society, apart from it being wealthy and peaceful. They often need counseling to deal with their traumas, and help to start learning Swedish in order to get a job. There are plenty of examples of wonderful community actions, often supported by the local council or the region, that have successfully helped these new citizens to enter into society. On a macro-level they make up anonymous numbers. On a micro-level they are human beings, individuals who want to be part of a community.  

There are always those who don’t really care if they are part of a society or not. They live in their own communities, often with their own rules, acting outside of society’s framework. I see this as a clear indication that we have not done enough to ensure that they feel part of a social fabric, and that our integration policy, such as it has been, has been too passive. Again, to me it is a question of active citizenship, of engaging people and making both commitments and privileges clear. The problems won’t pass by themselves; we need to work on them, continuously, like you would a sensitive stomach. 

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?

I am inspired by so many things! I’m big on social entrepreneurs, people who use their talents and creative skills to find ways of engaging the community they live in. There is a wonderful word in Swedish, “Eldsjäl”, meaning Fire Soul. It stands for people who are passionate about something. There are so many examples, often on a very grass-root level that inspire me. It is easy to feel distant from the corridors of power. Decisions are made that trickle down through the governing system, but it is often on a really local level where you see the difference. It often requires a passionate person or group of people, who want to create something, to contribute, to engage people. I would like to give an example.

A Romanian friend of mine moved to Sweden a couple of years ago, for both love and inspiration. She discovered that there was a plot of land close to the city she lives in that was once meant to be a community garden for local citizens, most of them non-Swedish, but because of a disagreement between the landowner and the council nothing had been done and the project was halted before it was even started properly. My friend took an interest in this project, and started initiating contact with the locals, calling and pestering the council and the landowning company to at least agree to a meeting with her and the group of people she had got to know. She read up on the benefits of gardening as a form of therapy, as many of the locals had trouble finding their way in this new society. Many of them had farming and gardening skills that went unused. These were compelling arguments that lead the powers-that-be to see reason and give this project a chance. The garden is tended to and shared in a democratic way, producing organic vegetables and fruit, and giving people involved a purpose, and an income.

This is an example of what an ideal society would be like for me: community engagement, passion for ones fellow citizens, a curiosity to explore the seemingly difficult and impossible, and sharing knowledge and energy. Lofty and idealistic perhaps, but where would we be if we didn’t dream for something better?

Kirsten van den Hul

You are appointed EU President. What’s action point No.1?

Action point number one: organise a whistle-stop tour of Europe and its neighbours. Town-hall meetings, meet-and-greets, round table sessions across the continent – and beyond. Cause let's face it: how many people have actually ever met the EU President? Too often, European leaders are locked in their ivory towers in Brussels, behind lines of fences and security staff, discussing the rise or fall of the Euro, the accession of new member states or the future of European institutions. While at the same time, more and more European citizens are wondering what Europe is all about, really.

“We are having a hard time as it is,” I heard a student say in Amsterdam. “Why should my tax money go to Brussels, while we have so many issues to solve in our own back yard?”

I am both afraid and sure many Europeans will agree. As Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans argued on TV recently, Europe should keep its eyes on the road, rather than speeding ahead too quickly. Or else “you end up holding the steering wheel in your hands, while the rest of the car is crashed in pieces on the highway”. So what I would do as EU President is board a train and travel to meet all those people who are wondering what those people are doing in their ivory towers in Brussels. Talk to them, explain what Europe does, but most importantly: hear their concerns. In other words: be a sponge, listen and learn. After all, Europe is like a family. And even in the most tightly knit families, you need to invest in your relationship, even with the distant cousins you only meet once a year.

Europe 2100: draw a mental map. Where are the boundaries?

Fast forward to 2100, welcome to the USE! The USE? Yes, the United States of Europe: a democratic, transparent, inclusive multi-state federation with an elected president. Really? Really. After Switzerland, Turkey, Norway, Iceland and the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia joined the USE, the new country in Europe's waiting room is Russia, which is in the process of being officially recognised as candidate member state, pending constitutional reforms. The Schengen treaty has been ratified by all member states, allowing USE citizens to travel freely - and without visa-  from Reykjavik to Rome, from Glasgow to Gdansk, from Barcelona to Bratislava. In 2100, all USE citizens can live, study or work in any of the member states, making the USE passport one of the most wanted passports in the world. Who wouldn't want to be a USE citizen?

Has integration in Europe failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?

“Wow, your Dutch is excellent, for a Moroccan.” Many of my Dutch-Moroccan friends have heard this comment. Undoubtedly, many other hyphenated-Europeans have had the same experience.

“When will I ever be seen as a Dutch citizen?” is a question I keep hearing. “When will they stop labeling me as a foreigner, migrant, or newcomer?” Their parents or grandparents moved to Europe in the 60's or 70's, in search of jobs, opportunities, a new life. Little did they know their offspring would still be called “immigrant”.

Dual citizenship is often used as a pretext to doubt national loyalty. But why should loyalty and belonging to more than one culture be mutually exclusive?

The city of Amsterdam recently announced they will officially stop using the word “allochtoon” to refer to people whose roots are elsewhere. But will changing the wording really change the way people are seen?

As long as integration is measured through the melting pot paradigm, it will undoubtably fail. Rather than viewing integration as a process of assimilation, or, even worse, as the product of mutual “tolerance” (which, let's be honest, is another way of saying we don't actually give a damn), we should start looking at integration from a diversity point of view: Europe as a colorful mosaic. A multicultural masterpiece made by Dutch-Europeans, Polish-Europeans and Arabic-Europeans, African-Europeans, German-Europeans and, whether they like it or not, British-Europeans. 

After all, as I argued before, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like? 

I grew up in a tightly-knit rural community, where the concept of “noaberschap” (litterally: neighbourship) is still a key element of social life. When my mother and I moved into our house, we were officially invited to join my street's “noaberschap”. Which, as it turned out later, was quite an honor for newcomers such as ourselves. Being a “noaber” comes with a whole set of responsibilities. For instance, each “noaber” is expected to chip in for wedding presents, birthday presents and the annual “noaber” New Year’s party. But there's more to the “noaberschap” than simply sharing the season's highlights. When one of my neighbours sadly passed away, it was the “noabers” who cooked for the grieving widow, made sure the funeral arrangements were looked after and welcomed the guests who came by the house to pay their respects to the deceased.

Looking back, I am proud to have been part of that community. But when I turned 17, I couldn't wait to get out of that social prison, with neighbours keeping a close eye on you whereever you went. “Who was that guy who dropped you off yesterday night?” “Why did you have your lights on till way after midnight?”. I was craving the anonimity of the big city.

Now, years later, I found my new “noaberschap ” in Amsterdam. Not as strictly defined as the one I knew growing up, but still. We look out for each other, occasionally cook for each other, and whenever there is someone who needs a hand, we lend it. That to me is what communities should be about: about knowing there is always someone who's got your back. No questions asked: solidarity in its purest form. 

Laila Soliman

You are appointed EU President. What’s action point No.1?

I can never even imagine being the EU President and I fail to put myself in his shoes.

I do not even really understand what the EU President really does. Honestly the more I see the news about the financial crisis and the austerity measures, the more I get confused about his responsibilities.

Europe 2100: draw a mental map. Where are the boundaries? 

The boundaries of Europe stop where its historical and current influence ends.

Has integration in Europa failed? Or will the problems pass like indigestion?

I can not generalize about the integration in the whole of Europe, at least not at the time being.

Maybe in a few years…
However I do not find a true vision on the equality of cultures. 
There remains a hierarchy, in which western culture is still in effect the dominant one.
As long as the immigrant is required to integrate into a culture that is regarded as a superior to
his own, a feeling of constant indigestion that is part of a chronic illness will, rather than a passing state.

What form of community inspires you and why? What does your ideal society look like?

Before January 2011 I would not have been able to describe my ideal society, but now I have experienced it for eighteen days in Tahrir.

Ece Temelkuran

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

The other is a "liquid concept". As I have been living in foreign soil in West and East for the last six years I came to understand that "the other" can easily change. Coming from Turkey I started to consider myself as a Middle Eastern. When I write or speak about Middle Easterners without underlining it I always included the Turkish and myself in the sentence. But the definitions, assumptions, even the "truth" can stand solid until it is seriously challenged. Wait until something really goes wrong and you want to put the guilt on somebody, the other. For instance if you are sexually harassed, or basically cheated by the taxi driver in Beirut then you will have a better idea about "the other" in your head. "The other" sleeps there in the labyrinths of the brain until it appears as the danger. Although it is, whatever the problem is, something that can happen anywhere, your mind will be automatically going for the sentences that start with "the Arabs", "the Middle East". So actually I think there is no other until something threatens you, your being. Or we can upside down the sentence which would make it clearer: If there is a threat the mind searches for "the other" to personify the danger. The human being creates "the other" to make his fear solid to identify it, to make it something real so he can put a finger on it. If we go back to the "labor force-people" dilemma, there were no "people" before the labor force demonstrated the problems of the human being. So the other is an entity that you can squeeze in all your fears.  

Iryna Videnava

You are the Minister of Integration. Your first action? 

As Minister of Integration, my first act would be to liberalize Europe’s visa regime. Most Europeans take it for granted that they don’t need a visa to travel or work in EU countries. But for those of us who live on Europe’s periphery, every business, cultural, educational or tourist trip starts with a long line in an EU country embassy, complicated and sometimes humiliating procedure, and relatively high costs. Both sides, the EU and countries like Belarus, would gain more than they would lose through increased travel and people-to-people contacts.

Europeans seem to have forgotten that the issues of economic development and immigration are intimately connected. There will not be future economic growth in Europe without immigrants, because Europe’s population is aging and not replacing itself. The demographics make immigration a must. But because of visa policies, brave, talented and hard-working people looking for better life are often forced to find illegal ways of getting to Europe. The current visa policies have failed to stop this illegal migration, but helped to forge a new, “Schengen Curtain.” A “Europe whole, free and at peace” remains just a dream for many of us. Seeking to stop illegal migration, the Schengen regime has also inadvertently stemmed the flow of European ideas and values. Mr. Putin understands this well and is building his own Eurasian Economic Union, which focuses on post-Soviet integration and economic development, but without the need for democracy or human rights. In my country, our authoritarian ruler understands this argument much better. We have visa free agreements with and direct flights to other dictatorships, like China, Cuba and Venezuela, but our government refuses to ratify visa facilitation agreements with the EU.       

As somebody who has been working on visa liberalization as a civic activist (so far without much success), I know that this is a very complex issue and requires a great deal of political will, societal acceptance and technical processes in order for a visa free regime to be established. I realize that the Belarusian government is not likely to sign a bilateral agreement with the EU. I understand that there is a risk that some Belarusians would illegally emigrate and stay in Europe, should visa barriers be removed. Yet, I strongly believe that the majority of Belarusians would choose to remain in their country. However, being able to visit Europe, to experience it with their own eyes, would be a life changing experience for many Belarusians and do more for bringing political, economic and social changes to Belarus than the EU’s current political statements or sanctions. A liberal visa policy is the best means to promote not only economic development but also the equally important policies of democracy and multiculturalism.    

Who is ‘the other’ for you?

As an advocate for freedom of expression and media rights, I’ve traveled the world. Wherever I go, whether in Europe, America, Asia or Africa, I meet and work with people like me. They might look differently, speak differently or dress differently, but they are the same as me when it comes to their ideals, aspirations and commitment for democracy and human rights. I feel a unique bond with, and am inspired by free people everywhere. The “others” are my own compatriots, those who face me during the peaceful demonstrations in Minsk, wearing their black helmets and swinging their batons with snarls on their faces and hatred in their eyes. The “others” are those who chase, beat and arrest those of us who think differently, who seek freedom and a better life for our country. The “others” are the police who are supposed to be fighting crime but come late at night or early in the morning to search our homes and offices. They are the judges who are supposed to enforce rule of law but sentence the peaceful opponents of our dictator to years in prison. The “others” are the mouthpieces of the state-controlled mass media who demonize the democratic opposition as “parasites”, “criminals” and “deadbeats.” They are the rectors and professors who speak of academic freedom but expel students who show their dissent.  The “others” are those who for ideological or financial reasons, comfort, or lack of caring refuse to listen and tolerate their fellow citizens who have different opinions. When we say “the others” (“яны”, literally “them” in Belarusian), we mean this divide inside of our own society. For centuries our people were diverse but tolerant, but today we are polarized into camps of supporters of the regime, its opponents and a silent majority, which is observing what is happening but is too scared to identify either with “us” or the “others.” Our camp is growing, but at a heavy cost.  I hope that someday all Belarusians can come together, that WE can unite to build a freer and more democratic country and society.