We, the People! – Wir sind das Volk…

Opening statement Forum on European Culture 2020

This is the opening statement of
Yoeri Albrecht

What do Sicilians and the inhabitants of northern Norway have in common? Or the residents of Warsaw and Parisians? Who are the Europeans? What unites them? Is there even such a thing as a European? This is the question investigated by artists, thinkers, makers and practitioners during this third edition of the Forum on European Culture, from 17 to 20 September at several venues throughout Amsterdam.

Can we conceive of something like a European people? Can such a thing even exist? Or, should such a thing exist? And why should artists have something to say about it?

From yellow jackets to populist leaders and prime ministers: everyone claims to speak on behalf of the people nowadays. I recently heard the Dutch politician Thierry Baudet make precisely that claim in national parliament.

The dialogue on Europe appears to be conducted mainly between civil servants and politicians on the one hand, and the private sector and economists on the other. We rarely if ever hear an artist’s view. While artists are above all the people capable of imagining a different future, and fleshing it out in theory and practice. They can make things visible that we were unable to see before.

Artists can help us think about the question whether we do have something in common.  About who or what the people of Europe are, or once were, or ought to become. Who are the carriers of European culture?

It is an important question, and especially today. For there are people who claim that there is no such thing as a European people. I have heard Marina Le Pen claim that there is no European demos, which her epigones are eager to repeat – and that, therefore, there cannot be a European democracy. Without a European demos, no European democracy. It sounds logical – but is it true?

More or less since the start of this year, people throughout Europe have been encouraged, advised and ordered to remain indoors, in more or less authoritarian fashion. Many may have forgotten it over the course of recent decades, but the State can still exercise strong and direct power over us, the people, if it wants to.

Right now, the possibility of having a well-functioning European democracy is perhaps a more urgent question than ever before.

Nationalists claim that a people can only consist of likeminded individuals with a shared background, a common descent. 

Nationalists also claim that the national states that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries are the only ones to contain such populations, and should therefore be preserved for eternity.

They furthermore claim that you cannot have something like a voluntarist people: a communality resulting from a social contract or created by people who jointly declare that they wish to share a culture and to share a future.

A nation, or a people, collectively believe in what Benedict Anderson has referred to as ‘the myth of a common descent’. But this need not consist of shared biology, of common blood. It can just as well consist of a shared culture, or history, or history of law.

Virtually all peoples in Europe emerged historically from diversity, divisions and plurality.

What would later become the French people was a highly diverse patchwork of peoples in the Middle Ages. In 1500, the differences between an inhabitant of Paris and one of Bretagne or the Provence were much bigger than the differences between an Amsterdammer and a Berliner today.

The history of the European culture and hence of the European people furthermore extends much further back than the nationalistic histories that were draped over Europe in the 19th century. European culture in any case stretches back to ancient Athens and Rome. The European peoples also share a common history of law, starting with Roman law and continuing via Justinian’s Body of Civil Law and the Napoleonic Code, until today.

Such a shared legal history is one of the essential features of what makes up a people, of a myth or common descent. The Swiss make up one nation but speak four different languages; yet they share the same legal history. That’s what makes Switzerland a unified nation. It is very odd, therefore, to claim that our identity as a people should be rooted in a shared biological background.

It can also be argued that Europe had a shared culture and in that sense constituted a single people, before national states brutally chopped up the continent and divided the population. Erasmus of Rotterdam was not a Dutchman, because the Netherlands did not exist at that time. He was a Rotterdammer. Johan Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach below Wartburg Castle, was not a German because Germany did not exist at the time. And one of the most famous Europeans of all, Leonardo da Vinci, was not an Italian because there was no Italy at the time. As his name indicates, he was born in Vinci  and could be considered a Florentine – although he died as a subject of the French king. But what these three had in common is that they were artists, and they were European.

Europe’s cultural history and shared legal history are much older than the national identities. The national narratives are but a thin coat of varnish applied over Europe’s older and deeper tale of unity in diversity.

It is nothing more than a rhetorical trick on the part of nationalists to say that there can be no such thing as a European people. And it’s a bad trick.

It is important to think about the possibility, the desirability and the reality of a European people, for in any democracy, the people must possess sovereignty and the power to decide. That is why we must talk about what exactly makes up the European people.

By engaging each other in a dialogue on whether or not a European people exists, we are taking a first step towards a democratically shaped Europe. This effort is doomed to failure if we allow the dialogue to be hijacked by nationalists claiming to speak on behalf of the people.

As we have seen previously in the 20th century, it is a dangerous thing to claim. Then, too, nationalists seized on the discontent among large swathes of the population regarding the distribution of wealth, power and knowledge, to argue for the elimination of all ‘foreign’ elements. Apparently, this rhetorical trick remains effective today.

The discontent among large groups of the European population due to the consequences of globalisation, the unequal distribution of income, the neglect of rural areas and the indifference of a wealthy, urbane and highly educated elite is visible throughout Europe. This is the new class conflict occurring among Europe’s people today. If Europe can address this conflict and discontent, rather than leaving it to the nationalists to tap into, then Europe as a people, as an experiment and as a culture, has a bright future.

That is why we must engage each other in a conversation about “We, the People/Wir sind das Volk” – who exactly is ‘das Volk’?

A poisonous cocktail of an increasingly skewed wealth distribution and increased migration forces us to talk about who belongs to ‘us’. Shall we decide the question based on a declaration of will, or do we let someone else decide the matter on the basis of descent?

The history of a continent consists of the history of the people who live there. It makes a difference whether they define themselves as a people, as a group bound together by fate, a social contract or a culture. Because Europe is a democracy, and democracy means the rule of the people, we must conduct this dialogue.

The theme of “We, the People” is associated with the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution of 1776. The slogan “Wir Sind Das Volk!”, chanted by East Germans in 1989 as they wrestled East Germany from the grip of the Soviet Union, is just as evocative. It is exactly the same sentence, in another language and with literally the same meaning, but with an entirely different connotation. It represents something typically European: here, differences matter, differences create a richer and more diverse picture, a layered culture, a more colourful pallet, and a nuanced reality. And, it tells us that we all are the people.

Yoeri Albrecht, curator Forum on European Culture, director of De Balie

We would not have managed to organise this 4-day festival in this fantastic and hybrid manner without the tireless efforts of the incredibly professional Forum on European Culture  team, and the founding partners DutchCulture and De Balie. 

We would also like to express our gratitude to all funding partners, with a specific mention for Gieskes Strijbes, who believed in the concept from its very first edition in 2016, and for the European Cultural Foundation. 

Further, we feel that all the festival venues, and all the organisations that share in our beautiful programmes, and of course, above all, the more than 100 guests and speakers of this edition, all deserve a warm round of applause.

Enjoy Forum on European Culture 2020 – We, the People!