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Alexandre Mirlesse: "European identity is based on contradiction"

Actualité 03.02.2010

It was during a one-year journey around the European continent that Alexandre Mirlesse wrote his first work, En attendant l’Europe (Waiting for Europe). By alternating interviews with intellectuals from all countries with the author’s reflections, this little book brings a breath of fresh air to the debate on Europe. East-West relations, culture and politics, European identities and even the importance of cafés as meeting places were among the issues discussed by Alexandre Mirlesse in his book and also in the following interview.


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 En attendant l’Europe is the product of a one-year journey across the continent of Europe.  Where did you get the idea to write the book?

Alexandre Mirlesse was born in Geneva and lives in Paris. He came first in the entrance exam to the ENS (a prestigious graduate school) in Paris where he studied comparative literature and European history.  In summer 2006, he joined Notre Europe, a research group founded by Jacques Delors, and he then went on a one-year journey across Europe. During this voyage, he did a series of interviews on the European identity. One of these interviews was with the Romanian philosopher, Andrei Plesu, and it became the subject of a column by T. Ferenczi in the newspaper, Le Monde, on August 17th 2007. En attendant l’Europe is his first book. Alexandre Mirlesse : There are, I think, three reasons. Firstly, I myself come from quite a European family as my four grandparents came from different countries: Russia, America, Italy and France. I was fortunate to be able to learn several languages during my childhood which led me to want to discover cultures other than the French culture I was born into. 

This quest for personal roots was joined by an intellectual quest on European identity when, in 2006, I became an intern at the think tank, Notre Europe. After the rejection of the European constitution, we decided to regularly interview people who were interested in Europe but who did not participate in the debate: writers, editors, artists, politicians and even chefs. Obviously, I also wanted to travel in Europe – a fascinating continent that one can freely travel through and which has massive contrasts in terms of culture, wealth etc. It was worthy of what in the 18th century was called a ‘grand tour’ – taking a year of my life to go from town to town meeting certain people and, as the federalists would say, studying Europe at human level. How did you choose the people to interview for your book?

A.M. : The method was, at the beginning, somewhat empirical! I looked for people whose biography seemed to be ‘European’ – the Serb, Bogdan Bogdanovic, for example. Serbia is not in the European Union so it is interesting to study the relationship Serbs have with Europe, between integration and rejection (after the events in Yugoslavia). As an official architect in Yugoslavia under Tito, Bogdan Bogdanovic built monuments to the victims of the six Yugoslav populations who fought against each other during World War II, in an attempt to reconcile them in shared memory.

What’s more, these ‘Yugoslav’ questions can be asked on a European scale – is there a shared European memory? Can people who consider themselves traditional enemies be reconciled? The work of Bogdan Bogdanovic, in a way, answers this question. So, we have someone who is unknown in France but who has as much to say about Europe as a civil servant in Brussels! : Is it fair to say the intellectuals that you met are, in fact, not very well known in Western Europe?


A.M. : And yet they should be! Language barriers limit their fame but my greatest joy in publishing this book is that, for half of the people interviewed (Adam Globus, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Ilmar Raag, Nilüfer Göle etc.), our interview was the first text in French where we can learn about their vision of Europe. It was exactly this freshness of ideas that I was looking for!

While the debate on Europe can sometimes get lively (particularly during elections), it is dominated by a small number of experts in a certain subject and speciality, for example, economics, law etc. Their perspectives are perhaps not rooted in experience.  To see people who have lived Europe (whether positively or negatively) and to get to know their opinion beyond their national public space – this was my method, as adapted to my modest means of actions. The aim was to nourish the European debate from a unique, personal and stimulating perspective and to bring the debate to life in this way. : The question of ‘European identity’ is ever present in your series of interviews. Has this journey given you a better definition of this identity?

The people interviewed in the book are:
Martine AUBRY (mayor of Lille and secretary of the Socialist Party),
Lluis PASQUAL (Catalan director, founder of the Odeon, Theatre of Europe),
Ken LOACH (British film director)
Adam GLOBUS (Belarusian poet)
Père Pierre RICHES (Catholic theologian),
Andreï PLESU (philosopher and former Minister for Foreign Affairs in Romania),
Bogdan BOGDANOVIC (Serbian architect and former mayor of Belgrade),
Adolf MUSCHG (Swiss essayist, honorary president of the Academy of the Arts, Berlin),
Ilmar RAAG (Estonian director and former director of television in Estonia),
Claudio MAGRIS (Italian writer and scholar of German studies),
Nilüfer GOLE (Turkish anthropologist),
Jacques DELORS (former president of the European Commission).
A.M.: This is not really a question for me but rather for the twelve people I interviewed! Yes, I think this book gives an answer but it is a negative answer: I started with the idea of finding a European identity, a base of common values, a cultural foundation, but I returned with the belief that identity is a kind of intellectual fiction.

It is possible to speak of the identity of a person – where I come from, my beliefs, what defines my personality. We can also speak of the European identity of a person – whether a person does or does not feel European. However, to use identity to create a set of ‘values’ written in stone seems to me rather dangerous, as culture in Europe is beset with contradictory principles.

In the book’s sixth interview, the Romanian philosopher Andrei Plesu states on the subject of European identity that, “the time has come to take a rest”. He also describes this idea as “the rococo of political discourse”: we discuss it in an elegant and elaborate way without really knowing what it is about! It is also true, as Claudio Magris states in my book, that European identity is for us what time was to Saint Augustine: we think we know what we are talking about but as soon as somebody asks us about it, we do not know anymore...While in countries where this identity is threatened or uncertain because of the political situation (Belarus, Serbia etc), people identify more easily with the values and teach us more. This is what Nilüfer Göle meant when he said that "the notion of identity is only legitimate where identities are in turmoil: Kurds, Bretons or feminists for example. But (...) European identity is an admission of weakness which shows the incapacity of Europeans to think of themselves as diverse."

I therefore returned from my journey with a new question: “What does the term European identity define?" How is it that Europe, and particularly France, works itself up discussing these values when we do not really know what they mean? Why do we obsess about these matters so much in France and in Europe? : And do you have answers to this new question?

A.M.: The rise of identity angst is exactly what Nilüfer Göle was talking about in this interview: this betrays a kind of discomfort and a lack of confidence that recurred in many of my interviews which often points to a feeling of Europe being threatened or decline. What comes out of this book is rather pessimistic: Pierre Riches and Bogdan Bogdanovic, for example, state that the European era is over and that its ambition must now be to imitate the Roman Empire in organising its death.

Not as pessimistic were the words of Jacques Delors who said, on his entry to the European Commission, that Europe was at a junction where either survival or decline lay ahead. In effect, Europe can no longer be as conquering as before because its place in the world is reduced by the expansion of other powers but it can organise its survival and refuse to accept decline and a regression to nationalism.

As demonstrated by the confrontation between Andrei Plesu (“the East can bring a little melancholy and analytical silence to the West”) and Claudio Magris (“Melancholy is not a political strategy for Europe”), this book is also a reflection on how to move towards action in European politics.  Of course, we must be aware of this ‘decline’ of Europe but we must also develop this nostalgic feeling so that we can build a policy of survival.

This is why I wanted to create a dialogue with intellectuals and politicians in this book. The ‘melancholic’ intellectual knows, as the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka said, that the problem of history is not solvable.  The intellectual, through his work, can spread the virus of uncertainty and inspire modesty in politicians who think that their actions can change everything. Likewise, the politician can help the intellectual to keep a sense of reality by always asking the question “how can it be done?” The problem is that they do not talk enough. : Does the European political project not lack a cultural dimension?

A.M.: Certainly, but the EU is not to blame. In my opinion, European administration should not play a major role in cultural matters. Culture belongs to artists, writers and creators. As I said in the book, I am quite shocked by the use of a false quote attributed to Jean Monnet that is commonly used in European circles, “If we had to do it again, I would start with culture.” Surprisingly, this quote has been taken up by some artists who urge the European powers-that-be to engage artists (or to subsidise them as the cynics would say) and make them "advocates for the European cause".

We must be very watchful of this collusion between politics and culture. Jean Monnet started with coal and steel because he was supported by a cultural movement but this movement had been developed autonomously by intellectuals (with for example, the international meetings in Geneva and The Hague). It is also because the world of culture was too divided in the Cold War era to form an alliance around the idea of a united Europe.

It is but a short step from cultural policy to a policy encouraging pro-European art. I believe that Europe has a magnificent mission regarding culture: opening borders, encouraging as many exchanges as possible, enabling artists to meet one another and books to circulate and be translated. That is what is important.  On the other hand, I am distrustful of the idea of Europe financing substantial cultural programmes with the aim of subsidising the education of people and giving them a European conscience. For when culture is put to the service of political causes, however noble, I get out my gun! : Several intellectuals in your book refer to different “Europes”: Mediterranean Europe “where people speak to each other on the streets” according to Lluis Pasqual, Northern Europe which is alleged to be “boring” and Eastern Europe which is influenced by orthodoxy and communism. Do these not form distinctive identities?

A.M. : Identities are multiple: We have a local, national and European identity but there is also a level between the national and the European. Between continental Europe and the nation, which can be too narrow a category, there is this magnificent idea of a “European region” such as the Baltic, the Mediterranean. These regions allow us to identify with a group that is bigger than the nation but is still small enough and close enough that we do not feel lost in it.

I think that European construction enables these regions to organise themselves as a whole. We can see this with the volume of economic exchanges in the Baltic Sea region which brings together former soviet republics, and Scandinavian culture recreating the very old geography of the Hanseatic League.  One of the most interesting effects of European cooperation has been the revival of old spheres of cultural collaboration. Although at the same time, the opening of border and liberalising of trade also threatens these distinctive identities.

We must not however be too clear-cut in establishing the geography of these large regions of Europe. Often, this kind of map-making contains undercurrents of ideological assumptions. For example, in 2005, the German Presidency of the European Union distributed a card with the large cultural spheres of Europe which caused a minor controversy in Germany. They showed the region of “MittelEuropa” which included all the territories that had previously been under German influence from Estonia to Alsace-Lorraine! Some leftist Germans could not help but compare this map with that of the Third Reich at the height of its expansion. That might be going too far but it must be said that it was a very German-centred view of Europe. If you ask a Catalan person to describe their view of Europe, it will come from a totally different perspective. Without wanting to reinforce these geographic divisions, we must however be aware of the fact that they enable us to emerge from the national framework without getting lost in the immensity of Europe where we cannot really find our place. : Does the title of the book, En attendant l’Europe (Waiting for Europe), mean that Europe is an unfinished project?

A.M. : I am convinced that is the case. The title works on two levels: personal and programmatic.

I wrote this book while waiting in train stations and cafes.  I think that waiting and downtime are indispensable for reflection. It is impossible to reflect on the idea of Europe in the midst of action and short-term policies. It is necessary to distance oneself from immediate responsibilities.

I also think that we are still waiting for Europe and that it has not satisfied all our expectations. Europe has recently been subjected to several rejections not because people are growing tired of it but because they expect so much. They expect Europe to solve all problems, particularly because of the attitude of certain politicians who blame Brussels for their own failures. In the book, I have tried to express these expectations of Europe through the voices of intellectuals.

If Eastern Europe dominates in this book, it is also because that is where most is expected of Europe, where hope has been somewhat deflated but where they are counting on Europe. This is the reason why I am also interested in countries on the margins such as Belarus. I tried to find people who have not stopped expecting something from Europe although this did not prevent them from being critical or even eurosceptic. : In your book, Adam Globus speaks about a geopoetic approach to Europe: can a common European cultural foundation be defined through this idea?

A.M. : In defining his ‘geopoetics’, Adam Globus plotted an imaginary map: that of his own travels in Europe and of the encounters he made.  Like Globus, I think that each of us must build our own personal ‘geopoetic’ by travelling, living our own experiences, reflecting on or writing about Europe. There is a communal cultural foundation but it is not in itself ‘European’. Rather it is the best of culture of each European nation: Chateaubriand, Mickiewicz, Cervantes, the great Serbian epic novels, Elizabethan theatre whose authors, like Homer and Ovid before them, were not aware that they were writing ‘European’ works!

Even if a European cultural basis exists, people must appropriate it for themselves: There is no point in having cathedrals if people pass by without feeling any emotion and there is no point in speaking about the state, rights and civil society if citizens never consider their value. It is the role of intellectuals, like those that I interviewed, to show through their work and their discourse the values of these things and also to question them, to encourage people to discover them themselves and to build their own mental maps, their own geopoetics of Europe. : In ‘The Idea of Europe', George Steiner takes the cafes as reference points of European identity. Are cafes always places for exchanging ideas, both in the West and in the East? Where does the Internet fall in this intellectual debate?


If George Steiner had to rewrite that book today, he would add a note on Internet cafes! During my year-long journey, I went to Internet cafes every day along with migrants and young people and this network of Internet cafes describes another geography of Europe (which overlaps, for example, the Western Union network). In Moldova, a country badly hit by unemployment, young people with nothing to do and the unemployed go to Internet cafes where for 50 cent an hour, they can chat with other Europeans, escape boredom and the imprisonment they feel behind their national borders. This is not an insignificant trend. This subverts the old, slightly outdated image of 'traditional’ cafes where intellectuals meet, although this tradition still survives in Central European countries. If the majority of interviews in the book took place in cafes, it is because the intellectuals that I interviewed ‘naturally’ organised our meeting there! In Minsk, for example, cafes are one of the few places where intellectuals can escape police surveillance because their homes are under surveillance.

In my opinion, the cafe is the smallest unit of public space.  In a cafe, we are both alone and in society. At any point, one can start a conversation or a debate and everyone is guaranteed respect as long as they pay for their coffee. The further east you go, in countries where public life is restricted, the more cafes are what they once were: a place of refuge, liberation, congeniality, dissidence, celebration and exchange. In short, the cafe is one of the topos (in both senses of the word) of European culture.


To find out more:


En attendant l'Europe - Amazon

Site Internet d'En attendant l'Europe

Site Internet des éditions la contre allée

Project "European Identity" - Notre Europe