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Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here today in the European Capital of Culture for the opening of this symposium.
Switzerland is one of the three guest countries being honoured by this Extra Europa festival. I would like to thank the organizers for this excellent opportunity for our artists to display the proofs of their creativity.
“Extra Europa”: I have to admit, that I was a little astonished, by the title of the event. It certainly is thought-provoking and it leads us to ask a number of questions about our own European identity.
What is Europe? What does it mean to be European?
One of my preferred definitions of the notion of Europe is the following saying: Europe is the tradition which is not satisfied with tradition.
What do I mean by that?
Indeed, the continent shares a common history of at least three millennia. Nevertheless, it is difficult to grasp its defining characteristics and moments - the hard core of the European spirit, so to speak.
To illustrate this, one may want to recall the lively debate on the preamble of the European constitution, which tried to pin down the common cultural heritage of Europeans.
Should God or the Christian tradition be referred to? Should the century of Enlightment be mentioned?
Of course, it would have been possible to mention both, while acknowledging also the strong presence of other religious beliefs - Muslim and Jewish - across many parts of Europe and throughout the centuries.
But then, our continent is also the continent of agnostic sciences and secularity. So, eventually the text of the preamble just settled on a mention of the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”, which of course is a way to avoid the essence of the issue.
Europeans were able in the past to adopt the sparkles and sometimes even the spirit of those to whom they succeeded. Remember the phrase by the Roman poet Horace: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio (“Captive Greece captured her fierce captor and brought the arts into uncultured Latium”)
But Europeans were also able to integrate new currents, to adopt novel ideas and methods and to recognize the importance of other cultures. In short, they highly appreciated the value of innovation.
One of the modern authors whose reflections on Europe I found among the most inspiring, is Claudio Magris (in particular his essay on the Danube). Being from Trieste, an ancient Roman city, where the Alps meet the Adriatic, Magris is of course well placed to discuss issues of European identity.
I believe that it was him, who described the European culture by three - at first sight anecdotic – elements. Once we start to think about them, however, we realize that they are actually quite profound:
1. Europe is where people meet in Cafés to read the newspapers and discuss politics.
To illustrate this, let me recall the famous anecdote regarding Trotsky – Bronstein by real name - when he was living in Vienna just before the Revolution.
An Austrian minister - when informed by his secret service about the imminent danger of revolution in Russia - is said to have replied ironically to the agents: “And who do you think is going to carry out that Revolution?! Maybe the Mr. Bronstein who spends his days at the Café Central?”
History proved the importance of this particular Coffee House. Nevertheless, the interesting thing in the context of today’s symposium is that the Coffeehouse tradition actually goes back to the Turks and their siege of Vienna in 1683.
2. In Europe people walk. Europeans do not only walk in order to get from point A to point B. For centuries walking was a means to get to a higher level of knowledge or even spiritual consciousness.
We can think of the pilgrimages to Rome or to Santiago de Compostela; also of the humanist tradition to go from university to university to teach and to learn; or the apprenticeship years of some of the craftsmen guilds such as the carpenters.
3. In Europe, one has to learn to think in terms of more than one community or nation.
Here in Austria people are of course very familiar with that idea. The Austro-Hungarian “Mitteleuropa” was the very heart of the multinational Europe in the 19th century.
Naturally the importance of the cultural diversity is a result of the polycentric History which produced it. There is virtually not one single country in Europe which didn’t have its moment of glory and “grandeur”.
Of course these elements do not conclusively define the European identity. They do show nevertheless, that being European is more than just a matter of geographical or political boundaries. Being European is a mixture of feelings, a vague sense of belonging to a common, but evolving tradition and inheritance.
It is true that nowadays, when people speak of Europe, many of them have in mind the European Union. The Union, of course, has been an extraordinary political and economic success.
Over the 50 years of its existence, it has managed to bring lasting peace to the continent; to unite former friends, rivals and enemies under a common roof, and to share economic wealth and growth. This is a major - indeed an historic - achievement.
The European Union was also capable of integrating the former socialist countries after 1989. This enlargement process in itself has been an engine for the establishment of democracy and the rule of law.
For different reasons, the three countries which are represented here today are not members of the EU. Are they to be considered Extra Europa - “Outside of Europe”? – Obviously not!
Is Switzerland “Extra Europa”?
Switzerland - for example - always stood at the geographic and cultural crossroads of Europe.
Two of the most famous European rivers – the Rhine and the Rhone - have their sources here. They link our country to the North Sea as well as the Mediterranean. Not to forget the Danube! Flowing from West to East, it draws its waters so close to the Swiss border, that we are inclined to consider it as a natural extension of our own watershed.
The humanist tradition was rooted in cities such as Basel that were at the very center of European learning and science at the time. And the Reformation drew its sources from Calvin or Zwingli as it did from Luther.
However, Switzerland and the EU do not only share close cultural ties. Politically and economically, we have been good neighbours and allies for a long time. The last two decades have seen a further strengthening of these bonds.
Nowadays, a close-knit network of bilateral agreements links Switzerland to the EU. Free movement of knowledge and labour, of goods and services ensure an extraordinary level of economic integration even without a full membership.
400 000 Swiss citizens live and work in the EU, while almost 1 million European citizens do so in Switzerland.
I dare say that in practice people in their everyday lives can hardly tell whether Switzerland actually is a member of the EU or not.
Nevertheless, on an emotional level this issue bears of course an immense importance. Many people in Switzerland, as well as in other countries, are afraid that EU-membership and further political integration will entail a loss of sovereignty and independence.
The economic crisis tends to increase those fears. I am all the happier, therefore, that the outcome of the latest popular referendum in Switzerland - last February - turned out a very solid and stable majority in favour of our chosen bilateral path.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today the EU, as well as the rest of Europe and the world, is confronted to a deep economic crisis. But Europe in the past has been able to address crises which were even worse than the current one.
In order to do so, it is important to remember and to keep alive our common cultural roots of diversity, dialogue and innovation. The Extra-Europa festival is one way of pursuing this common objective on an intellectual and artistic level. I hope it will generate all the enthusiasm that it deserves.
Thank you very much for your attention, and I wish everybody an interesting and successful symposium.