Narratives for Europe: Voices - Next Generation Please

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 fourth topic is Next Generation Please:

The EU apparatchik is often seen as an administrative monster happily gorging on all of our hard-earned national budgets. Is it time for Brussels to get a make-over?

Europe=EU remains common math. Europe=EU is also often equated with the regulating of banana angles and current theoretical equations around the Euro Crisis. Currently many are fixating on ‘us’ having to pay those astronomic debts of certain countries – inept, southern countries!

Europe can offer many opportunities. We travel,work, live, study easily in a global world. Compared to many other political systems in the world, we still retain a sense of social security solidarity and justice. There is (relative) peace. And freedom of speech and thought. But these advantages are often either unrecognised or taken for granted. Meanwhile no one has arisen above the grey suits of Brussels to embody some kind of vision – someone who could convince media and public while inspiring a younger generation to action or engaged citizenship. Where’s our B. Hussein Obama?

Rodaan Al Galidi

When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?

Two hours ago. Someone asked me why I didn’t have much contact with other Iraqis in the Netherlands. I said they were all exaggerators and complainers who enjoyed being victims and were busy with things that did not interest me – such as freedom, fatherland, etc. Later I realised I was absolutely wrong because I do have a couple of Iraqi friends who I enjoy seeing very much.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

Yes, just like a lawnmower that first makes the grass look uglier for a day or two before it starts to look better than ever. Stereotypes make society look better. They may be harsh but they shed light on those dark bad corners of society. Stereotypes are the lawnmowers of society.

Who is your European icon and why?

I have two European icons. One’s Berlusconi because he falls for beautiful women even though he’s a politician and should therefore be with an ugly one. I find him the greatest European of the 21st Century. He’s a macho, a Casanova, a Zorro, a Don Juan. He’s everything that Europe has made of its men. In an interview I read that a Russian woman said that he does match his age because he enjoys his life so much. He is my bodily icon. My spiritual icon is Voltaire when it comes to thought, philosophy and literature. Voltaire lit Europe’s lantern and it’s still burning. He cleaned the thoughts of Europe of all sorts of garbage. Just think: one man against all what is bad with the continent. I read his work again and again and think: wow, Europe’s great.

You are a communications/PR advisor and are free to remake the EU’s image. What would you do first?

I see Europe as a big cage wherein everyone is strapped down with a belt. They all look at the cage and think: it’s no use to free myself of this belt because then I’ll just be free in a big cage. That’s my image of Europe when I’m negative.

If I was a PR advisor, I would make sure people saw how amazing it is that all the streets, squares and neighbourhoods have no tanks, cannons or soldiers with automatic weapons. Life is allowed to flow by itself. Without military control. You can’t appreciate this unless you are from another country where the street bites, stabs, explodes and swallows. This is Europe’s best image. And I would want to bring this image across via the media. I would ignore the grumpy, hurrying, aggressive, hopeless, and drained faces, and focus on an image of trees that grow free, along with grass, ponds, canals, alleys and parks. I would make no images of lost cats, rats or dogs. Neither of a dead mule surrounded by flies that no one has bothered to take off the street and you have to pinch your nose to pass. When I first arrived in Europe I did not dare to make photos outside of the asylum centre to send back to my family because everything here looks so posh and beautiful. If I sent such pictures, my family wouldn’t believe how painful and heavy it actually is to stay in an asylum centre. That is the power of Europe.

Lina Ben Mhenni

Who is your European icon and why?

It is always hard to answer such a question as: “who is your European icon?” Indeed, it is hard to have just one icon. My answer might be the marvelous and great Stephane Hessel[1] for all what he did, he is doing and he will be doing for humanity; for his tenacity, the sincerity of his indignation and the strength of his commitment, his relentless advocacy for democracy, freedom and human rights as well as the ease with which he communicates with young people and children. It might also be the “Indignés” of Spain and elsewhere as they have started to draw the contours of a better and fairer world. Their indignation rapidly spread to different cities all around the world. They are continuing to resist and to carry out direct actions despite the violence and the raids of the police. They are just allowing us to dream and to have hope.

But let me say that particularly in light in the latest developments in my country and in the Arab world, my European icons are all those people I had the opportunity to meet while travelling around Europe to take part in conferences, forums and festivals, those people with whom I had the opportunity to communicate in several European cities, towns and villages. Indeed thanks to our exchanges I am more and more convinced that despite its diversity humanity is but one. They have convinced me that it is possible to act as a global citizen.

Each time I have been invited to talk about my country, about our revolution and the Arab Spring, the conference room had been overcrowded with generous people eager to understand what is going on in Tunisia and in other Arab countries, eager to be part of the change and ready to help.

I will never forget the tears I saw down the cheeks of many of the people who were carefully listening to my speeches. I will never forget the sweet words I have heard and that will always resonate in my mind. Those people who feel the sufferings of the oppressed and who are ready to do whatever they can do to make the difference.  In very dark times, be sure that those people will be present to help humanity.

You are a communications/PR advisor and are free to remake the EU’s image. What would you do first?

If I were a Communications/PR advisor I would focus on three major issues to remake the EU’s image.

I will start by the improvement of the image of Europe as actor for peace. There are very dangerous developments in the international arena and Europe is a major player. International conflicts and disagreements should be settled peacefully. Indeed, Europe has to avoid engagement in international wars. Europe should be a support to freedom, democracy and the protection of the environment.

Then, I will bring into line the issue of illegal immigration. Sorting out the illegal immigrants should be one of the priorities of the EU. The 13th article of the Universal Human Rights Declaration: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” should be put into practice. It is unfair to see that Europeans move freely without any constraints or restrictions all over the world while they are depriving some people from entering their territories.

Finally, I will focus on the importance of new technologies and the necessity of providing computers and Internet connection to all those people who don’t have access to them in Europe as well as outside its frontiers. Nowadays facilitating communication and the circulation of the flow of information is very crucial to help improving the world and changing it to the best. What happened in the Arab world, the series of revolution that started in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East to reach Europe and other parts of the world are but a proof to the importance of IT in our life. The Access to information and the access to Internet should be listed as fundamental human rights.

[1] This article was published before Stephane Hessel passed away in February 2013

Chrissie Faniadis

Who is your European icon and why?

The term “icon” is problematic for me. I don’t tend towards idololatry or raising people to the skies, as they lose their multi-dimensional nature and become more like caricatures of themselves. I like to see each individual for his or her uniqueness. But I guess it is a fundamental part of human nature to elevate some people higher than others in order to set a standard, or to create a common reference point or symbol of respect, sometimes worship. In fashion the word icon is used liberally, as it is in music and other art forms. But can it be used outside of the creative sphere? 

While trying to warm up my Scandinavia- chilled bones in the Greek sun, I was pondering over what makes an icon? What qualities or characteristics does one need to have in order to warrant the title? I came up with a couple of things:

Icons seem to have an impact on people around them, so a certain level of fame is required. There also seems to be a time factor involved, as longevity is a sign of lasting influence, making icons insensitive to trends and changes in preference and taste. Furthermore there needs to be a large enough number of people who all agree that this particular individual is important enough to deserve the title “icon”. Added to all this, icons tend to have vibrant, colourful personalities and do not fear to stand out from the crowd.

The above I find quite easily applicable to the worlds of fashion, film, music and so on. But I had trouble finding a European icon. First of all, what does this mean? Is it an icon that is a European? Or is it an icon that somehow embodies Europe, the European project, the idea of a united Europe? If it is the former, then we could find a number of individuals that are Europeans and are considered icons within their field. But if it is the latter then I have no straight answer. One might mention one of the founding fathers of the EU, perhaps. Or influential politicians such as Jacques Delors or Melina Merkouri. They certainly had many if not all of the above mentioned qualities. But I am personally opposed to making politicians into icons, precisely because they lose their multi-dimensional nature and we forget that politics is about opinions and agendas, the political game. 

So I ended up here: European icons to me are the people who work every day to make Europe a better place, who believe in making a difference and solving the problems that Europe faces through dialogue, compassion and an open mind. In which case there are thousands and thousands of people who deserve the title. I therefore reserve it for them.

You are a communications/PR advisor and are free to remake the EU’s image. What would you do first?

I currently work as communications strategist for a governmental body, trying to build up a brand and an image that conveys, in an honest and clear way, what it is that this body stands for and what can be expected of it. The image of this body will determine how people relate to it, what associations they have with it and how it is perceived by the masses. In my experience it is easier to build up something new than to change already established associations and perceptions. Herein lies the biggest challenge for the EU.

The European Union in its early days spent very little time and resources on communication and PR. It was more concerned with establishing the machinery that we have today, and that is a navigation nightmare even to the most seasoned EU officials. It wasn’t actually until the beginning of the new millennium, with the Swedish Commissioner Margot Wallström at the helm, that the EU started appreciating the importance of communication. Up until then it was a one-way street, with the EU pumping out information through leaflets that quickly went out of date, gathering dust in info points all over Europe. But it had become apparent that the distance between the EU, also referred to as “Brussels”, and Europe’s citizens, was so big that people had trouble even understanding what the EU was, or more importantly, WHY it was. 

Since then the Commission, and other institutions, have done their best to create a positive, all-inclusive image of the EU, where the citizen is never too far away from the decision-maker, and where ordinary folk can influence what happens in the corridors of the Berlaymont. Progress has been made, new initiatives taken and change was on its way.

And then the crisis hit. To many people, including myself, who have dedicated years and years to the European project, it became painfully apparent that we have a much longer way to go before the EU can live up to its democratic promises. Discontent is spreading, people are rebelling and many European citizens wonder what it’s all for. And in the midst of all this the fundamental reasons for why the European Union exists in the first place have got lost. 

Image, in order to be credible and solid, must be based on reality. It needs to reflect what is real. My first action if I were to remake the image of the EU is to reform the EU itself, make it correspond to its values and core purpose. Utopian? Unrealistic? Of course! But hey, you asked!

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

As EU President I would make it clear that breaking EU law and going against the fundamental principles of the commonly agreed Treaties is not acceptable. I would fight for the Treaties to be improved for the benefit of the people of Europe. I would not shy away from confronting unruly and undemocratic actions taken by the Member States. I would make myself known to the citizens of Europe and make sure that they know I exist, not just see me as a bleak figure in the machinery, but as a leader, someone whose interest is in the well-being of the citizens of Europe. I would show that I take my role seriously, that my number one concern is to raise the difficult topics and argue for continued cooperation, increased dialogue and closer contact with the electorate. I would aim for my own position to be that of an elected official, not an appointed one by the lowest common denominator.

The EU today suffers from too many grey suits, too many anonymous faces, too many of the older technocratic generation whose heart is probably in the right place, but who do not have the strength, will or perhaps courage to fight the tough battles. By tough battles I mean national interests and big business influence. I would spit things out, dare to be controversial, dare to take up the challenge of making people feel they belong. I would be honest about the weaknesses of the structure I am the President of, and I would be clear about what has to be done to improve it.

It has long been my personal opinion that the EU is the way it is because of two things: national interests and half-measures. These go hand-in-hand. Of course, I do have understanding for the fact that the EU is a new type of organisation, a new construction without precedence, and that things take time, “baby steps”. But I am always amazed at the “almost there, but no cigar” nature of what we do. I always have the feeling that we are prepared to go some distance, but not all the way. For instance, we establish a Eurozone that makes banks go delirious, but have no regulations in place in case things go badly. Which they now have. And now we are scrambling, trying to get rules in place that will be acceptable to everyone, in the middle of a crisis where everyone has their own crosses to bear. Instead of doing it right from the start.

“Yes, but we didn’t know then, did we?” is an argument I hear often. Pardon my French, but that is a load of old bollocks. We are not acting in a vacuum. We have analysts, people trained to spot future consequences. We have history that we can learn from. We cannot prepare for everything, that’s true. But we can prepare for some of it. If we are willing to go the distance, to make the tough decisions.

As President of the EU I would push home the notion that national interests which are dominated by Big Business and banks are not in the best interests of the people of Europe. I would become the champion for Europe’s citizens, the defender of their rights, the fighter against the anti-democratic forces that are turning Europeans against each other, and against others. I would make sure they knew who I was and what my purpose is. I mean, why else am I President?

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

This has been the hardest question to answer. I think the reason it has troubled me is because I am feeling desperately despondent about many things I see, and the direction we are taking, as a continent but also as world citizens. So my first inclination would be to paint a rather bleak vision of the future, one that is, in my mind realistic and fact-based. But at the same time I feel that such a vision would serve no purpose, other than bring whoever is reading my words into my little pit of despair. And what is the point of that? We don’t need more negativity, we need more optimism, followed by positive action. In fact, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons why the European Union just got the Nobel peace prize.

Actually, that prize got me thinking. My first reaction was that of cynical awe at the audacity of the Nobel committee to award the EU such a prize. An EU further away from its citizens today than ever before. An EU that is working through the worst crisis of confidence in its history. An EU that has come to symbolise the playground for big business and banks, whilst its disadvantaged citizens turn on each other in resentment and hatred. Why award the EU such a prize? Is it a reward? Is it a reminder of all that the EU stands, or is supposed to stand, for? Or is it an expression of hope for better things to come?

Suddenly the clouds lifted from my troubled mind. Suddenly I felt that there is another way to look at this. Suddenly I was indeed reminded of why I ever started dedicating time and energy into this EU reality. For me, this Prize is a combination of all three. It is a reward for the work that has been done, imperfect as it may have been, but nevertheless ground-breaking. It is a reminder that democracy and the fight for peace is not a stagnant project that you can close the door on, it is ongoing until the end of our days. And it is an expression of hope, of encouragement to not let adversity lead us down the wrong path. What is more, it reminded me that the EU is us, it’s not “them”. And if we don’t like where we’re headed WE have to change course, not THEM.

Once these thoughts replaced the initial dark ones I felt that my mental map was a little easier to get to, because I am free to dream up whatever scenario I want. I don’t have to be realistic, or pragmatic, or cynical, because it’s in the future, noone really knows what will happen for sure. So who is to say that my scenario might not become a reality?

You see, in my Europe of 2100 we have surpassed the limitations of national interests and borders. There will have been a conflict or two, perhaps, but they will have resulted in a new-found desire to focus on peace, prosperity and citizenship. My Europe of 2100 is a place where being European is defined by one’s citizenship, not one’s colour, ethnicity or social background. While we’re at it, in my Europe of 2100 religion is no longer a question about suppressive power, it is a question of individual faith, so all those profiting from other people’s faith and trust can find another job. The geographical boundaries will have blurred and Europe will be a place of regions and localities, with mixed populations and glocal perspectives, diversity and acceptance of all. In my Europe of 2100 there is the rule of law, for everybody, including dirty bosses, shady bankers, corrupt politicians and criminals of all specialities. Because in my Europe of 2100 we will have learnt from our mistakes. We will have focused once again on what is important: democracy, freedom, defense of the weak, support of the strong, justice, prosperity and peace. And in that Europe of 2100 there is only the physical boundaries leftto fight, because the boundaries in the minds of us Europeans will be gone, or at the very least, be wide open. This is the Europe I want to fight for, even if I don’t get to live in it.

So, who’s with me?

Claude Grunitzky

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

I keep thinking about an article I read recently on the Project Syndicate website. The headline was “Migration is Development” and the author, Peter Sutherland, an Irishman who also happens to be a chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the former director general of the WTO, argued that “there is no greater symbol of the world’s growing interdependence than the movement of people. If we can make meaningful economic progress in the coming generations, one of the pivotal reasons will be that people are allowed to move more freely. Advanced countries, with their adverse demographic trends, need migrants, as do developing countries – not only for migrants’ economic contributions, but also for the social and cultural diversity that they bring.”

Sutherland is well known for advocating liberal immigration policies and mass immigration into the European Union. As a result of his many far-out opinion pieces, some of the most prominent European policymakers and pundits now consider him a foolish contrarian. In these times of economic crisis, the political instinct has been about capping immigration and keeping foreigners at bay. Several right-wing nationalist parties have flourished in Europe since the start of the financial crisis, because globalization and offshore outsourcing, coupled with record unemployment, have resulted in the anti-immigrant rhetoric making sense to a lot more people. These days, is anyone even surprised that Marine Le Pen emerged from the 2012 French presidential elections with 17.9% of the vote? Or that Geert Wilders’ PVV party has become such a force in the Dutch House of Representatives? 

Xenophobia is defined as “an unreasonable fear of foreigners or strangers, or of that which is foreign or strange.” And so many of the xenophobic parties are doing well in Europe precisely because they have succeeded in defining foreigners (especially non-white foreigners) as strange. The stereotypical depiction, often by elected officials and government ministers, of foreigners as strange people looking for asylum and handouts has exacerbated social tensions and led to the ostracizing of many hard-working, law-abiding foreigners who chose Europe as their adopted homeland. As a French citizen myself, I feel it every time I am in Europe, I hear it when I walk the European streets, and obviously I read about it all over the European news media.

In February of 2012, Business Insider (another website I have become obsessed with) published a list of the 20 cities that may be the most xenophobic in Europe. Using data from the EU’s “Perception Survey on Quality of Life in European Cities,” the results were based on interviews with 500 randomly selected citizens in 75 cities across Europe. In total, more than 37,500 interviews were conducted. The main question was whether the presence of foreigners was good for the city. Lo and behold, the denizens of Nicosia and Athens were the ones who most strongly disagreed with the presence of foreigners!

So what is my point here? I write about these transcultural issues all the time, but my point is that instead of understanding, as Sutherland has, that immigration is both inevitable and desirable in our globalized economies, many European citizens and companies continue to cling to the false notion that strange, foreign-born immigrants are the ones who are taking their jobs and eating their lunch. Fear is the driver, and I was not surprised, when I first analyzed the Business Insider list of cities, that those Cypriots and Greeks who admit to fearing foreigners are often the very ones who are underperforming on various economic levels and relying on the IMF and foreign nations in the European Union for bailout money.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

There are more children born in Nigeria every year than in the entire European Union. The exact demographic math might be fuzzy down in the paper-stacking registries of the West African republic, but that much we know. So what does that say about those six or seven million Nigerian children who are born in Africa’s most populous country each year? When they grow up, are they destined to rot in decaying academic institutions before getting involved in 419-type organized financial crime schemes? Or will they, like the main character in the Nollywood comedy “Usuofia in London,” choose to swap village life for the bright lights of London and the glamour of modern European lifestyles?

Although the main character in Kingsley Ogoro’s Nigerian blockbuster is obviously fictional, many African immigrants can relate to the ways in which Nigerian villager Usuofia manages to navigate – and sometimes circumvent – the mazes and contradictions in metropolitan European life. Usuofia is visiting London for the first time because he is attempting to gain his share of an inheritance from a recently deceased relative who was able to marry a white British woman. His trial and tribulations – not to mention his epic battles with British bureaucracy – say a lot about the minor apprehensions and dashed expectations that come with that kind of immediate culture clash.

The Nigerian commoner comes to Europe because Europe is where the money is supposed to be, but once he gets there he realizes that freedom comes at a price, that the simple life and traditional African values are not so bad after all, and that when transposed into certain European contexts the spirit of African improvisation can be turned into a powerful tool for creative problem-solving. The Nigerians I know are some of the most resourceful people in the world, and the stunning economic progress they are making as a nation attests to their resilience and incredible un-European creativity in these troubled times.

Kirsten van den Hul

When did you last use a stereotype what was it? And can stereotypes serve a function?

The last time I used a stereotype? Last week. I was in Alexandria, Egypt, where I was introduced to a young lady called Selma. She and I started talking about hairstyles (quite an interesting conversation, since hers was invisible under her head scarf) and before I knew it we were discussing relationships. “How come a beautiful girl like you is not married?”she asked me. I explained that marriage was not necessarily my ultimate goal in life, that I was perfectly happy without a ring on my finger, and that we would see what the future might have in store. Then, of course, I asked her about her marital state. She told me she just got married two months ago. “That's great, congratulations!” I said. “So how did you guys meet?” She told me she and her family thought it was time for her to get married. After all, she wasn't getting any younger. A cousin knew a distant relative who was looking for a wife. To cut a long stort short: they went on a blind date (with a chaperone, of course) and before Selma knew it, she was married.

My first reaction was “poor girl!”. The stereotype that pushed its way into my head was that of the oppressed, helpless, arranged bride, who was forced into a marriage she did not really want, with a guy she did not really know. A distant relative, for crying out loud!

But Selma set me straight, right then and there. Apparently, the stereotype had made its way to my facial expression. “You look at me like I deserve your pity. But have you considered the possibility that I am perfectly happy with this arrangement? I have a lovely husband, we have a lovely appartment, his family is happy and so is mine. As if dating is such great fun. Endless waiting for him or her to call back. Endless doubts about whether or not he or she wants the same thing, and whether you are exclusive or not. Endless drama when he or she breaks it off. We at least knew what we were going after from the very first date. No doubts, no drama. Just a simple understanding that this is what we both wanted. So please, spare me your pity. Maybe I should pity you, poor European feminist!”

Wow. Caught in the act, without a word to say for myself. So much for the poor, oppressed, helpless arranged bride scenario. Selma was no stereotype. Selma was three-dimensionally happy.

So should we just get rid of all stereotypes? Or can stereotypes serve a function? Sure they can. Take Selma's husband, Samir. After my enlightening conversation about their marriage, I was very much looking forward to meet Selma's other half, so when she invited me over for dinner I didn't think twice. And there we were, Selma and I, in her crispy clean kitchen. She asked me to help her dice some tomatoes, while she was stirring the soup. “Does Samir ever give you a hand?” I asked. Selma laughed. “What do you think?”she said. Frankly, I did not dare to think anything, after my last stereotypical error. “He is not used to do anything around the house. His mother treated him like a little prince. I'd love for him to help out, just like my father used to help my mom in the kitchen. But hey, what can I do? That's just who he is.” To prove her point, Samir shouted from the living room: “Selmaaaaa! Where is dinner? I am starving!”

“That's what I mean!” said Selma. So Samir was in fact a three-dimensional stereotype, when it came to the division of tasks. I told Selma I thought she should bring it up, ask him to help her out, tell him she was unhappy with how the tasks were split between them. “Oh, trust me, I tried. And I will keep trying. But Samir is Samir, and there is nothing I can do about that.”

Just when I finished dicing the tomatoes, Samir stuck his head around the kitchen door. “Ladies, what's keeping you so long? I need food!”

I looked at Selma, who was solemnly stirring the soup. “Samir, why don't you give us a hand, if you are so hungry?” I said. He started laughing. “Wow, Kirsten. I had heard about feminists but never thought that they really existed. But you, you truly live up to the stereotype, don't you! No wonder you are still single!”

Who is my European icon, was the question I was sent. To be completely honest, this has been the toughest question I have been asked since I started writing for the Narratives for Europe project. Do I have icons? Sure I do. Nelson Mandela. Madonna. Toni Morrison. Aung San Suu Kyi. My grandmother. But are they European? Only my grandmother is, although I doubt whether she would call herself “European”, or be comfortable with the label “icon” for that matter. My guess is she would call herself Dutch, or even “Groningse”, the region she is originally from. She was born in 1919, the year in which Dutch women got the right to vote. My gran could not finish her school, since she had to look after the house after her mother passed away.
In those days, Europe was a geographical concept rather than a political let alone monetary union.

During her lifetime, she has seen the continent change. She got married and started a family in the midst of war. Raised a family in post-war austerity. Saw cars and television make their entrance. Her offspring got opportunities she never had growing up. She has seen her daughters and granddaughters graduate and travel the world with their Burgundy red passports, seen her son marry a man and universal suffrage, something her mother could only dream of, is now common in most of the world, while war is something most people only know from tv.

So maybe that is why my gran is my European icon. Because she stood tall in the winds of change. Bent like a tree, but always bounced back up, protecting her family and making sure they (we) had what she often had had to do without. Reading her life story is understanding the history of Europe. Rule of law, equal opportunities, open borders: all of this was unthinkable only two generations ago. We've come a long way indeed. And my gran? She's come a long way, too. 94, and still going strong. 

Thinking about the story of my gran, I realised how many of the advantages of being European are often either unrecognised, taken for granted, or lost in a whirlwind of austerity packages, unemployment rates and referenda. Ask a random person about Europe and chances are you get a negative reply.  “Europe is taking my tax money. Europe is in crisis. Europe should forget about the Euro. Europe is run by guys and gals in Brussels wearing grey suits.” And yet, there must be millions of grandmothers and grandfathers in this continent who have seen their offspring travel, study, work and think freely and in peace, because Europe allowed them to do so. If I would be given the task to remake the EU's image, I would set out to capture some of these family portraits accross Europe. Interview grandparents, parents and children, about their hopes, fears and dreams. Generations of Europe: a road trip. I would for example travel to Gdansk, Poland and interview grandparents who remember the German occupation and Soviet annexation of their city. I would interview their children, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the Solidarity strikes. And their children, who may live in London or The Hague, enjoying the benefits of Schengen and Erasmus. From Athens to Amsterdam, from London to Milan: I'd capture the voice of generations of Europeans, who've come a long way, just like my gran.

I'd make short video portraits and air them on tv, accross the continent, around the Eurovision Songcontest, UEFA Champions League games, European qualifiers. Subtitled, of course.

Cause let's be honest: Europe is not just some guys and gals in Brussels in grey suits. Europe is its people. It's time we hear those people speak.

Laila Soliman

When did you last use a stereotype what was it?

I often catch myself using stereotypes. The last one I think was about the “warm-heartedness and generosity “ of Arabs. Stereotypes often work better in comparison, for example “the kind-hearted, peasant-like, generous but reserved Belgian”, versus “the blunt, arrogant, stingy, but seemingly open Dutch”.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

As mentioned above stereotypes can very well serve the function of simplifying to compare but also of self-definition. Being a temporary resident in Europe I find myself using more stereotypes as part of a self-defence mechanism to justify my discomfort as an outsider and my longing to the “familiar” place I call “home”.

Who is your European icon and why?

I do not think that I have a European icon. No, I am sure I do not have a still living European icon.

Or maybe I just cannot relate to the word icon.

You are a communications/PR advisor and are free to remake the EU’s image. What would you do first?

I would get rid of the homogenous 12 star image of the EU and remake the EU’s image into a more colourful one, metaphorically and literally. I would display more the differences between the states of the EU, culturally as well as economically, as opposed to the current focus on the central and western European states. I would also increase the presence of the minorities’ faces and voices, stressing more on the strength of heterogeneity as opposed to the current “homogenous white” image for export.

Iryna Videnava

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

Perhaps it’s the historian in me speaking, but I don’t think the ideal society has ever existed. To me it’s a question of proximity: how far from or how close to the ideal is a society. It’s also related to openness: the more closed and unfree a society is, the more it pretends to be ideal; in a really open society there is always room for and plenty of self-criticism. No wonder that many Belarusians still believe that they live on “an island of stability” (despite the shaking under their feet), while Europe talks endlessly about collapse. In reality, the latter is much more solid than the former. Today, the society in which I live – “Europe’s last dictatorship” – is almost the opposite of my ideal, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who try very hard, often at the risk of their personal freedom and well-being, to change it for the better.   

I’ve always been inspired by the idea of a democratic community. My historical studies introduced me to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a pro-democracy that existed from 1569 to 1795. In this republic, of which Belarus was a part, citizens elected the king, served in parliament, created constitutions, judged their peers, practiced religious toleration, and built a state founded on the rule of law. While the Commonwealth had many shortcomings, it was the democratic exception in a region of subjects ruled by autocrats, divine right, state religions, and military force. For many of us in Belarus’ democratic movement, the ideals of the Commonwealth are not just part of the pages of books -- we are inspired by and struggle for them today.  A number of scholars and activists have rightly pointed out how many of the ideals of the old Commonwealth are embodied in today’s EU.       

I would like to live in a community where people are not punished for thinking differently and therefore are not afraid to voice their opinions. I imagine a community where thinking, questioning and taking initiative is encouraged. I would like my compatriots to be aware of the diversity of their own past and present, as well as that of the world around them. Under the current government, we live in a black-and-white world that is broadcast 24/7 on colorful TV screens, but this Soviet-style world view is boring and out of date. My ideal community consists of creative individuals, confident with who they are and comfortable with others. It is open-minded, curious, dynamic and optimistic about the future. I believe that my small personal community will become the community of all Belarusians. I live in a society that is changing for the better, becoming closer to Europe. It may have gotten lost after 1994, but it is rediscovering itself. I know that this transformation will be long and difficult, but it is amazing to witness and inspiring to be part of this reawakening.         

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

For someone like me, who lives on the other side of the EU border, to say that European integration has failed means to dash the hopes of millions of Belarusians who see their future in Europe, rather than in Russia and Eurasia. Despite our European past, this desire to be part of a future Europe, whole and free, is quite intuitive and irrational, as the majority of Belarusians have never been to an EU country. Most people here know very little about EU politics, economics, culture or neighborhood programs. Moreover, state propaganda tries its best to show that the collapse of the EU is a question of months, if not weeks. Yet, despite the Euro crisis, pro-European moods are growing in Belarus. As bad as things are at our west, there is no more attractive eastern alternative. With all its warts, the promise of EU integration continues to promote reforms in such far-flung places as Moldova, Albania, Kosovo and Ukraine.

It took centuries for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to come together and 176 years for the United States to expand from the original 13 to current 50 states. From a historical perspective, the European Union is still an adolescent, as only 19 years have passed since the Maastricht Treaty. Coming of age is often an awkward and painful process. I don’t think that the problems facing the EU today will be solved on their own, but I do believe that there are thousands of determined, bright leaders and professionals who are trying to find the right solutions for the current challenges. Moreover, I believe that there is popular will to save the Union. This is easily seen in the New Member States from the former communist bloc. For them, joining the EU was a dream that inspired internal democratic and free market transformations. I believe that the ambition of these new members will help “Old Europe” to overcome the current crisis. The EU model may have many flaws, but it also has great potential. It continues to inspire with the ideas of a common market, open borders and multiculturalism. In comparison to Putin’s Eurasia Union, it grows because it’s attractive, not because of energy blackmail or other threats. I look forward to the day when Belarus will stand at the altar of this union and hold from that day forth, “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” to join the European family of nations.