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"I can't live without Europe"

What does it take to drum up enthusiasm for Europe? Maybe the absence of alternatives. By Navid Kermani

For all those French people who have lost the vote on the EU constitution, and for the political and cultural elites in Holland, Germany, Spain and Great Britain, Europe is a cultural project. They want to unite Europe, but their private and political existences do not depend on the success of this project. They can live without Europe if they must - as Dutch, Germans, Spanish, British. I think it is thanks to this relatively comfortable starting point that European unity has generated so little enthusiasm. There is no pressure of desperation, as there was at the beginning of the French-German reconciliation. For me, it's different. For me, Europe is a necessity and a promise. I can't live without Europe.

My parents came to Germany 50 years ago from Iran to study. They are well integrated, interested in toleration and understanding, socially active and speak good German – pious Muslims in a European model. They are happy to live in Germany. They are thankful. But even after 50 years, they would never say that they are German. I don't think that just has to do with my parents. It might also have to do with Germany.

I would never say that I am German. I was born here, I have both an Iranian and a German passport, the language in which and from which I live is German. And yet I can't imagine uttering the sentence: I am German. At best, I'd say it double-barrelled, almost apologetically: German-Iranian. My cousin who has been living in the United States for six years already says that he's an American. One doesn't become German. As a migrant, one remains an Iranian, Turk or Arab, even in the second and third generation.

But: one can become a European. One can avow oneself to Europe because it's a community based on will and not on one's religious or ethnic background. Europe is not a country. Its borders cannot be closed the way a country's borders can. Europe is an idea. I need this Europe because otherwise, where could I go?

Even if this may seem strange to some, for people like me it is a real question, a question of existence. What happens if Europe doesn't want us? That's not a theoretical question when politicians who quite possibly will soon be in power in Germany are pronouncing far and wide that Islam does not belong in Europe. We Muslims do not belong in Europe. That's what they're saying; or should I understand it differently? Should we hope for toleration? Or follow the current trend and publish lampoons of my own culture in order to qualify for Europe? Or get out of here? If a politician with the status and esteem of Helmut Schmidt says that it was a mistake to bring in guest workers of another religion – then he is saying it was a mistake to recruit my parents, or should I understand that differently? It is a mistake that we are here.

I am thinking seriously about where we could go if the European promise is not fulfilled; the promise that Europe be a place where people of different origins, religions and races are treated as equals and live together on the basis of a secular constitution. At the moment I don't know of any other place that I would like to live.

The defensive attitude increasingly associated with Europe is not directed only or even primarily against Muslims. It is directed against all those who no longer or don't yet belong to the European 'we': against the countries of Eastern Europe. As the 'we' loses its openness, it also loses an important feature. Fundamental European values are not bound to a particular origin or religion; in principal they can be transferred. Moreover, unlike the values of a religious community or of the old European nation states, they are unique in their being shared by people of different ancestries and cultures. Those who respect these values apply themselves to disseminating them rather than excluding others. European institutions are not transparent enough and do not have adequate political legitimacy? Right! So it's necessary to fight for them to be democratised and better rooted in the constitution. Not for them to be weakened.

It's not only in Germany, but in all of Western Europe that politicians are gaining ground by speaking of fears rather than opportunities, and working to define the criteria of exclusion rather than to change countries which don't yet conform to EU standards. Rather than enthusing about Angela Merkel's recently discovered smile, one should pay attention to the terms she used to comment on the referendum in France. This is someone trying to win votes by conveying reservations rather than acting on them. The woman who travelled to Washington at the climax of the European debate on Iraq to salvage the friendship with George W. Bush's America, is not – even as chancellor – going to promote European self-confidence or a European Union that is strong both domestically and internationally.

Whatever one may think of Schröder, Fischer and Schily – for them, Europe is not just lip service. Of the possible ministers of tomorrow - Bosbach, Stoiber, Kauder – not one is a defender of European unity. One has only to compare them with their predecessors in their own party – Kohl, Schäuble, Rühe – to see how the tide is changing. We can no longer expect from a Christian Democratic government any impulse to overcome the insanity of the 20th century: the ideology of the nation state, based on a unity of folk, race and religion. Even the young neo-conservative intellectuals who now rattle their sabres in German newspapers and periodicals – unlike those before them, from the post war elites to the 68ers - are no longer promoting Europe.

There is a difference between the pressure of desperation and enthusiasm. It should come as no surprise that the pressure of desperation I feel has increased significantly with the announced change in government and the most recent votes on the European constitution, which will no doubt be followed by more Euro-sceptic election victories. All the more reason to hope for European enthusiasts.


This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 2 June, 2005.

Navid Kermani lives in Cologne. His book of short stories "Du sollst" was
recently published by Ammann Verlag.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european