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Šamorín-Somorja, Forum Minority Research Institute, 2019, 240 p.

Does what we call Europe have a “soul”? Also, is there any fitting and legitimate heritage, any rational identity, where manifestations of backwardness and partnership, acceptance and compromise are in quest of their own completion amidst major temptations and compromises between nation-states…? What has filled it? And, what is it that ought to be replaced in order to fill what we could consider a more complex condition of identity?

László Öllös’s European Identity is an attempt, as admitted by the author in his pre face to the book. Or, if one prefers to put it that way, he analyses the contradictions as well as the opportunities of the period(s) of the nation-state, and not just from any old perspective, but in the form of entities determined by the ways of functioning, ways which originate from the opportunities, the realizations and the contradictions of the organization of the state. However, the basis of his approach is not the assumption that this model of state organization should be defined by unfair fighting; instead, by a mutual process of importing and following each other’s examples which regards joined forces rather than disagreement, as well as new goals of innovative solutions in the sphere of cultural heritage, as the determining factors. Yet, this cultural “choice range” also requires that European nations contribute to the common cause from their own resources, considering the prospects of progress as part of their cultural heritage in a new era when what matters is yet another turn of progress in efficiency rather than the growth in size of one’s own nation-state. Because what “Europe’s soul” is, defining its opportunities, is the culture of that area, Europe; and its essential, “national cultural”, contexts generate the cultural condition which is increasingly forming the perspectives of “rational heritage” as feeling the lack of something, a symptom of crisis, enhancing or hindering the European Union’s chances concerning decision-making, legitimacy, constitutionality and competitiveness. In sum, Öllös “attempts to put together the elements and methodological points which may promote the development of a new European identity, one upon which European civic society and political community can be constructed”. That is, the “People of Europe” may be born.

The author’s venture is an enormous one. The eight chapters of the volume virtually cover the defining elements of key importance, including constitutional heritage, systems errors, national ideologies and conflicts, aggression, fear, ideological full speed, regio nal manifestations of a wish to show off, medieval tradition and political nation, common fate and legitimacy crisis, human life, progress, economic and political order, the brute force of the market, systems of values regarded as law, and issues of progress concerning political challenges. These are, on the one hand, the topics of separate chapters; on the other hand, the semantic elements, built upon each other, encourage a renewal in the direction of avoiding symptoms of crisis. The reason why this is necessary is that Europe itself stays behind in global competition while the refreshment of outdated administration and planning are becoming conditions for success or survival. If Europe fails in these aspects, “its backwardness will continue, it will be overtaken by others in more and more areas, which will be accompanied by economic, political and wholesale social consequences. The book aims at avoiding another fault of the Enlightenment by not wishing to create people’s image of Europe linked to a single stream of ideas, considering Europe to be a complex of a variety of values. That is why the conception must contain the values of political pluralism. Our work does not aim at obliterating the distinctions between individual political ideological trends; neither does it aim at relativizing their values. At the same time, however, it does not intend to call any one of them the sole repository of Europe’s future, either. These views have been forming Europe’s political history, and they will continue to form its future, too. We must avoid committing the mistake of Enlightenment whereby ideologies have mutually attempted one another from the circle of those which are deemed acceptable according to their values, co-operating only due to sheer necessity. At the same time, it is not sufficient to accommodate their compromises and their combinations within the boundaries of the new identity, but more of their differing basic values as well.”

Öllös considers the effect of Renais sance scepticism on our modern image of humanity to be the basis of improvement, but his fundamental suggestion is to create a complex identity which “is rooted in today’s world, yet its goal is to replace its internal weaknesses and contradictions by applying a number of new solutions and components.” His project aims at connecting “Europeans, who have been greatly separated from each other in a cultural sense, mobilizing the creative spiritual capacity which has been latently present in their culture for centuries, and which can now be brought to life.” In his plan he emphasizes the decrease of the population in the range of Europe’s problems, since he considers “regaining its leading position in global competition illusory”, while that is the real potential for success, even through failures and crises. That is why the creation of complex forms of identity is needed, founded on the preservation of balance that we can see today in its disrupted version. In order for it to change, “the aim is to form a constitutional harmony which is simultaneously rooted in rational thought and sentiment, the will to modernize and the respect of tradition, European unity and national features. The concept also examines the cultural sources of European competitiveness, based on the characteristics of the new identity. The concept does not wish to transgress, abandon, or dissolve national identities; instead, its goal is to connect them, that is, it relies on them, furthering their development. And its aim is not merely to integrate the most respected elements of individual national cultures (elements which can be called rational): instead, it suggests that their emotional components be connected as well. Europeans need to be connected not merely via their ideological beliefs and calculated interests, but in their hearts, too. This is made possible for them, according to the book, by a new view on, and experience of, their cultural heritage.”

This train of thought in the Preface (in a somewhat shortened form in terms of content, too) rests on the professed concept, or should I say idea, that what is being discussed here is not a search for harmony within the hierarchy of primarily Europeans – secondarily nationally oriented ones, neither downright the other way round (primarily nationally oriented, secondarily European): “one can be simultaneously a European and a member of their own nation” (p. 15).

It is obviously useful to remark that highlighting some (albeit crucial) conceptual key sentences of a volume of 240 pages, even though they may be the author’s own summarizing ones, can hardly serve as a basis of a polemical essay. In order to do that, one would need to proceed chapter by chapter, formulating key sentences and critical arguments right on the spot. Lacking this, I can only rely on what the author’s concept is constructed upon. In a word, a detailed overview of the components of identity.

Now, I (from Budapest) do not claim that I am more familiar with this topic than Öllös himself is with his own environmental-cultural minority identity. The book, composed “around” Europe and the diversity of identities, successfully fulfils its role. It describes, characterizes, identifies a critical basis, and constructs an innovative product of its contents from incidental and connected motifs. It elaborates, refines, compares, constructs, plans, counterpoints, overwrites, provides alternatives, and draws bold conclusions. And it is all done well. But, having read the book, it also turns out to lack a thick bibliography: the sources he relies upon are the same as his references (Giddens, Habermas, Wallerstein, Balibar, Jan Keller, Bernard Yack, etc.). Otherwise he builds a train of thought upon another or other ones, “running” them sensitively, moving in circles, in accordance with the rules of classical European essay writing, as it were. It is, thus, an essay: bold, thought-provoking, stimulating. At the same time, his references as well as the quality and quantity of the literature of his choice (scarce but essential) indicate that he has indeed chosen a range of topics, almost archaic, by now (or, as yet) prophetic ones, too. However, he does not seem to be open to further distinctions other than his own.

Let me give but one example. He says, “Insofar as the immigrants adopt present-day Europe’s concept of the family, they, too, will gradually disappear. Thus, further waves of immigration would become necessary. Meanwhile, of course, one would need to accept (based on historical evidence) that European culture in its current form is a culture of decline and extinction. Should others adopt it, they will also decrease in number. In order to accept this, even today’s Europe must be able to offer something fundamental: the best way of life in the world; and, with it, an unshakeable force and power. If, however, Europe is unable to become a world leader, or, indeed, to stop its decline, no one will even consider that offer sincere. And, if the real choice is between the two ways of backwardness, with one of them resulting in the disappearance of national culture, it can be assumed that many, very many, will decide on returning to old national values” (p. 196).

Now, the assumption originating from the hypothesis might be pure and noble, but it might also be false. What immigrants, where, for what reason or purpose would (if they would) adopt the European concept of the family? Is there a “European” (southern, eastern, northern, western?) concept of the family at all? And, should one include an African or a migrant Russian-Ukrainian-Turkish-Polish one, will that still count as (a different) concept of the family? Can it be unitary, or differing culture by culture, depending on the given minority? Also, why would they adopt it? In a desire to assimilate? Or, because it is fairer, or planned, or “more modern”? Do we then regard Macedonians, Greeks, Poles, Lithuanians, Romungro1 Gypsies, or assimilated Jews as belonging to European culture? Could they be a part of the culture of extinction? And, if “Europe must be able to offer something fundamental: the best way of life in the world…” — but it would be unable to offer it to all, would that mean the end of “Europeanness”, something he assumes, by the way, to be there, to exist practically “as an indivisible entity”? Yet, interpretations throughout centuries and millennia have shown, too, that there is no indivisible entity; indeed, does Europe, as an idealized image of itself, not consist of a mixture of ideas, practice, heritage, inheritance, dying or refreshing interactions of other cultures?

I would wish to wreathe Öllös’s words, his hypothesis and entire construction with my questions. But, should I claim that his essay-like approach with its well-shaped statements, mildly put questions, and the options aiming at an ideal would serve as an urge towards a better Europeanness, would my own approach, apparently a kind of disagreement, not be equally overgeneralizing with a spell of complexity? Or, worse still, downright anti-European reviling? Indeed, it is hard to ima gine anything better than what we have without ideals; but does this constructed version help Europe to define itself, or would it, instead, strengthen the hardly firm identity of today with further components? Öllös appears to regard dividedness as surpassable; he seems to think that the creation of new images of humanity, following the Enlightenment, is a requirement, just as the controllability of modernization’s machinery, or the entire complex system of mutual dependencies are required. He appears to deliberately contrast East with West, politics with tradition, backwardness with the interests of market development, modernization with the multi-polar world replacing the desired mono-polar world. While all of these are present in a mixed form at any one place, having a multi-national entity in a given “national” culture, with their diversity being subordinated to a variety of dependency relations, Öllös seems to conceptualize the way of surpassing Europe’s dividedness by replacing the sinking concept of Europeanness with another, harmonizable, European identity of understanding and compromise, agreement and accordance… Yet, why should future harmony be stronger in character than it once was? Why should we expect humans to be more peaceful than what was possibly required in the past by their inherent solidarity? Or a state less nation-oriented, which would be required by Europe before painting the network of connections single-coloured, the network that has been shown to be divided and without hope by international politics and interests as well as for other reasons?

“In the meantime, there appears the publicity campaign about being highly deve loped to conceal backwardness. This will probably be more significant in Western Europe than in the central parts of the continent, where the experience of the most highly deve loped area is an essential part of political and cultural tradition. It is against this that the factors causing backwardness must be concealed and made accepted. The ideological trends built upon the concept of modernization would be subject to a grave crisis of values. That is because the conditions advocated nowadays are those of gradual lagging behind. It is high time for the West, in its current position of neglect and disinterest, to thoroughly familiarize itself with what has traditionally been called Central-Europeanness, with the combination of repeated attempts to catch up as well as the subsequent falls, and the success or failure of learning and cultural adaptation” (p. 234).

Backwardness, and questions about development, interpreting them from “outside and upside” are by no means that recent. There existed no concept of Europe when “games of distinguishing ourselves from others” divided what may have seemed unified as seen from Africa or the steppes of Russia. The “condition of gradual backwardness” has been used as a tool by the current victorious power — anytime and anywhere, right against those living under the spell of “lagging behind”. Moreover, even if we “demand”, or expect, a more flexible attitude concerning the disinterest of the western part of Europe and the enforcement of the policy of openness, — whom would we favour then? Also, to get acquainted with “Central-Europeanness” is not a task to be tackled by “the West”, but by Central or Eastern European entities as well, to the same degree. Let us face the question, “Do we actually know ourselves, or, each other?” Then, which part of that is the “West” supposed to come to know and respect? Furthermore, which “West”? London, where the Polish immigrants could fill a major city? Or Paris, with its countyful of East European Gypsies? Or Madrid, with its provinceful of Romanian immigrants? Berlin, perhaps, with its former Jewish Quarter re-inhabited by Russian immigrants? Do all of these, then, constitute a mere interpretational piece of the puzzle called “the migration issue”? Finally, what about Malta, where rich Russians outnumber locals — in that case, who must familiarize themselves with whom?

Öllös’s book is an attempt, an experiment, to focus on a new form of identity, while our existing identities are being lost or transformed. This bit, just like the book in its entirety, is “part of a fundamental debate about the future of Europe, hoping to contribute to solving a range of issues concerning the current crisis” (pp. 13–16), written the Preface to his book, outlining the whole volume. While he says nothing about whether debates about EU Identity are part of the new identity, one thing is undeniable: without debates, it would certainly be impossible for us to get that far — not

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even as far as practising the well-established principles of tolerance, partnership, acceptance and respect.

My questions are, of course, fake ones. They present the wide range of multi-layered problematic issues raised by Öllös’s book — and by European identity. Despite this, since we are talking about identity, mutual idealizing, and never-ceasing interactions, this range of issues abound, and will continue to do so, in what could be called the seduction of answerability and the rationale of a new start. At least, we will — being loyal to new theories of ever newer enlightenments — have something to write about.

András A.Gergely