Europe in Search of "Big Idea"

Salzburg ought to be an uplifting place to discuss the future of Europe, with its colourful churches, snowy peaks and the sunlight dancing on the river Salzach. But on day one of 'The Sound of Europe' conference, organised by the EU's Austrian presidency, it's hard to avoid a feeling that not everyone is talking the same language -- either literally or metaphorically. There is a hint of frustration in the crisp Alpine air as minds fail to meet. The politicians, artists and intellectuals invited here are trying to explain why the EU is in crisis, and to map a way out of it, but while some want to talk about Auschwitz and spirituality, others want to talk about jobs and growth or democratic accountability. Austrian Chancellor Mr.Wolfgang Schuessel has said it is important to talk about European identity and European values -- not to just focus on the economy as the British EU presidency did, in the second half of 2005. 'Intellectual compass' Mr.Rob Riemen, of the Dutch think-tank 'Nexus', which led a similar series of debates during the Dutch presidency in 2004, put it bluntly.
'Without an intellectual compass, everything is worthless,' he said. 'This conference is more important than all the talk our British friends have had this last half year.'
There were no British politicians here to take offence, though lots of speakers have underlined the importance of delivering economic prosperity to keep voters behind the European project. But one problem of this approach to 'winning hearts and minds' in today's Europe is that European citizens now take prosperity for granted -- and peace too, for that matter. Europe needs a new 'Big Idea' to engage with voters -- after the rejection of the constitution in France and the Netherlands last year -- but what? One aim of the conference is to stimulate a public debate, and to let citizens themselves give the answer to this question. Thinkers However, the politicians in Salzburg risk appearing more out of touch than ever. Austrian opposition leader Mr.Alfred Gusenbauer has described the gathering as 'élitist' and an 'absurd theatre'. EU foreign affairs chief Mr.Javier Solana compared it to an 18th Century salon -- though he said he was 'all for it'. Most speakers have taken care to load their speeches with allusions to European thinkers, especially those with an Austrian or Central European flavour. For example, French Prime Minister Mr.Dominique de Villepin, a poet in his spare time, referred to Austrian writers Mr.Robert Musil, Mr.Hermann Broch, Mr.Thomas Bernhard, Mr.Elfriede Jelinek, Mr.Stefan Zweig and Mr.Karl Kraus within the space of a few sentences. He also found space for the father of psychoanalysis Mr.Sigmund Freud and German philosopher Mr.Edmund Husserl, Dutch theologian 'Erasmus', Czech writer Mr.Milan Kundera and 19th Century diplomats Metternich and Talleyrand, to name but a few. 'Favourite things' And one figure everyone feels obliged to mention is 'Mozart', Salzburg's most famous son, now celebrating his 250th birthday. Scenes from his operas, such as 'The Magic Flute' and 'La Clemenza di Tito' have been lovingly recalled. One thing nobody is mentioning is 'The Sound of Music', the 1960s blockbuster which was filmed near Salzburg and helped give the conference its name. The closest we have come to the film is the recitation of what the EU stands for -- freedom, economic prosperity, social cohesion, security, democracy, respect for human rights and environmental protection. Which has something in common with:
'Cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels, Doorbells and sleighbells and schnitzel with noodles, Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings, These are a few of my favourite things.'
As Ms. Julie Andrews said, when we remember these things we don't feel so bad. 'Europeans seek elusive harmony', Stephen Mulvey, BBC NEWS, 2006/01/27 16:56:11 GMT


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do what the yanks do, find an evil axis...

1/29/2006 01:03:00 am  

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