A Conference on ‘European Angst’ in Brussels

In the past two days, the Goethe Institut in Brussels, together with the Czech Centre, Alliance française, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Polish Institute, organised European Angst, a conference on Populism, Extremism and Euroscepticism in contemporary European societies. Luc Devoldere has attended this conference, initiated by BOZAR, and reports here.

A spectre is haunting Europe. It is composed of worries, anxieties, fears, anger and resentment. “Populism” is the key word and the mantra to describe it, and it is spreading. We know that it has to do with the wide gap between the “people”, perceived as “one” and “pure” (and those who pretend to speak on behalf of it), and the “elite”, the “establishment”, perceived as arrogantly looking down on the “people”.

I attended the conversations on ambitious topics as “scapegoating: why racism could gain so much ground, conspiracy theories and polarized rhetorics in social media and narratives to face extremism and the disintegration of Europe”, on 7 December in the splendid Henri le Boeuf Hall of BOZAR in Brussels. I missed the keynote speech by Nobel Prize Winner in Literature Herta Müller and a debate on the analysis of how it all came to happen on the eve of 6 December.

Responsibility is collective

I have no ambition to summarize the conversations and interventions. They tend to go in all directions. A Turkish student said that Turkey was no longer interested in joining the European Union, because Europe was disintegrating. A Kurdish student reminded Slavoj Žižek of the simple fact that Saddam Hussein, praised by Žižek as a secular leader, had murdered ten thousands of Kurds. An American student attacked the speakers and their entire generation: he deemed them responsible for everything that had gone wrong in Europe. An Albanian student who had fled from Albania to Greece with her parents in 1991 said that poverty and hunger are a form of violence;  therefore the difference between economic migrants and refugees is non existent. An Austrian student said that Norbert Hofer, who lost the presidential elections in her country, was not a fascist, deploring the use of that word as a category that ends a debate instead of starting one. Etcetera.

But let me turn to the conversations.

Dutch sociologist Paul Scheffer made it clear that fear is no good compass to tackle the European crisis. It is no use to nourish guilt, he said. Guilt is individual. Responsibility, on the contrary, is collective. We should  take up responsibility. We have to find a moral middle ground between the belief in open and closed borders. Both parties (the incomers: immigrants and refugees, and the autochthonous population) should adopt an attitude of self-criticism.

In the second debate, German journalist Sonia Seymour Mikich clashed with the Polish journalist Lukasz Warzecha. Sonia said all the right things about slow journalism and decent fact checking but a certain German political correctness annoyed her Polish colleague, who didn’t accept any censorship in the freedom of expression. The more he was challenged, the more he provoked. The debate, poorly moderated by an Italian journalist who forgot his neutral position, ended painfully with a “what you say, is disgusting” from Sonia and a “Reality bites. Dream on” from Lukasz. A perfect illustration of the simple fact that freedom of expression becomes edgy if our opponents say things we deeply resent.


The third conversation turned out to be the most incisive. The Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak made an impressive plea for a new humanism, based on empathy. She made a revealing distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom. There is too much information, scarce knowledge and little wisdom.

The self declared and announcedly flamboyant Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek then took the floor. Populism is only a symptom of a serious disease, he said. The real cause of the moral and political crises in European democracies is the fiasco of the liberal centre-left block. We need more of Bernie Sanders and less of Hillary Clinton.

Žižek ended by saying that he and his fellow speakers at the conference didn’t have any solutions. At that point, fourty students who had taken part in the conversations, still had to deliver their manifest.

One of those students had intervened, saying that she missed an inspiring appeal to bravery in the conversations. We had to be “brave” nowadays, she believed firmly. I left BOZAR, thinking about that.

Luc Devoldere, editor-in-chief

Photo Elif Shafak © Zeynel Abidin

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