A Continent in Motion What Conchita Wurst Tells Us About EU Identity

Europe has struggled for decades to forge a common identity -- and now the Continent's response to Putin, its battle against Google and the victory of drag queen Conchita Wurst at the Eurovision Song Contest all suggest that shared values are finally emerging.

REUTERS/ Scanpix Denmark

An Essay By

In the new "Muppets" film, Europe is portrayed as a hodgepodge of clichés, including the snobbish French Interpol agent who, despite having plenty of work to do, goes on an eight-week summer vacation. Or the sexy Siberian bride who wants to lock Kermit the Frog up in a gulag forever.

Is Europe a place caught between decadence and totalitarianism the way it is portrayed in the new Disney film?

Or is this a tolerant Europe, one in which an Austrian drag queen can win the Eurovision Song Contest. Boundaries between countries and genders are relative, and it seems as if all the wars and killing of the last 2,500 years have led to Europeans taking a more relaxed view life and its abysses than people in other parts of the world.

One thing is true: Somewhere along the line, between Plato, Medici and colonialism, 1914, 1933 and 1989, the beautiful and the gruesome, Europe's identity has become an ongoing question.

What is Europe capable of doing, what does it want to be, what are its values and how does it defend those values? These questions will be raised, at least theoretically, during the European election on May 25. But these questions are also being addressed in a more hands-on fashion, with clubs and guns, in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa.

Keeping Out of History

There is an odd discrepancy to the current situation. On the one hand, there is a dubious sense of calm, a paralyzing passivity. The European election campaign is unfolding in precisely the way Europeans have come to expect, in the wake of world history. In fact, it is practically the European Union's raison d'être, to keep out history, with all of its unpleasant side effects, and it is one of the reasons the EU was founded after World War II, a product of the individual nations' fears of one another.

On the other hand, reality is poking its head, once again, in this darkened room with Brussels-blue walls. Governments have managed to somewhat effectively gloss over the public protests, youth unemployment and growing inequality as a consequence of European policy. But with his aggressive approach in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the vaguely Muppet-like supreme villain, is drawing attention to the fact that the EU is relatively clueless when it comes to defining which values, other than the euro, it represents.

So does Europe need a bogeyman like Disney-Putin to understand itself? Does Europe need a figure like Conchita Wurst to be reminded of its ideals and strengths?

According to a study conducted for SPIEGEL by Infratest, an opinion research institute, Germans disagree over the question of whether resistance to Putin's policies will make Europe more unified. Overall, the majority is dissatisfied with the way the EU member states have behaved in the Ukraine conflict. On the other hand, respondents feel that Conchita Wurst's victory is a sign of tolerance, and that European culture is neither decadent nor in decline.

A Laboratory of the Present

The continent is certainly multicultural, if only out of necessity. It has no choice, and it was never anything but multicultural. From the Romans to the Germanic tribes, the Huguenots and the Poles, the continent has always been in motion, although it sometimes seemed to be suffering from vertigo, as historian Philipp Blom noted in his book about Europe before World War I. But his vertigo eventually led to the modern age, between psychoanalysis and Expressionism. Europe has always been a laboratory of the present.

What began then as the discovery of female desire now encounters the unholy troika of resentment: homophobia, anti-feminism and xenophobia.

So what is Europe in 2014? Is it closer to 1913 or 1938? Is it a continent that received its face in 1945 or 1989? And if the postwar era came to an end in the year in which the Berlin Wall was brought down, what began after that?

The Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago. Twenty-five years is an epoch. Were those the European years, and did we simply fail to notice? With America's decline, the attacks of 9/11, the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Obama's drones and whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations, the West, in the form of the United States, has lost some of its sparkle.

But what about China, whose rise is as rapid as it is troubling? Will the Asian century follow the American century? What are the premises on which this coming century is based? What role will Europe play? What is the value of ideals like freedom and tolerance?

We have to revise our perspective. Surprisingly, much of what was tested in the European postwar period seems very appealing, humane and still valid today.

A Machine Designed to Eliminate Politics

An economy, for example, that adheres to rules. A society oriented toward fairness and justice. Human rights that apply to everyone. "After the experiences of the years from 1914 to 1945," writes historian Tony Judt in his history of Europe, people yearned for a "functioning state."

But what else? What was Europe supposed to be? This question was postponed, partly because of the sense of guilt over half of the continent being excluded from this debate, because it was separated from the West by the Iron Curtain.

As Judt writes, the European institutions were founded out of fear and uncertainty. They were never a symbol of strength or optimism. Instead, they represent a power whose decisions are largely exempt from the influence of the people. In Europe, politics is execution and promulgation, without process or discussion. In fact, the EU is a machine designed to eliminate politics.

The economy and prosperity replaced politics as the most important goal of the community. Not even specialists were overly interested in the democratic deficits of European institutions. The consequences are evident today. Europe, attacked from the outside by Putin and from the inside by right-wing populists, is rattled and doesn't know how to react.

Perhaps we know what kinds of values we want, but we don't know what we are prepared to do for those values. Europe is a little like the shy boy in glasses, who is pushed by bullies during recess.

'Europe's Original Sin'

Judt calls it "Europe's original sin:" The inability to learn from the crimes of the past, a nostalgia that makes us forget, and the constant temptation to return to the passive policies of 1938, when Hitler was allowed to do as he pleased.

Some of this attitude still exists today. It seems that many would prefer it if Europe were an island, far away from the world's problems. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama promised this, to a certain extent, when he declared the West the winner in his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man," suggesting that the future held nothing but relaxation.

But that didn't happen. History simply continued, unwilling to go away. However, Europeans had already abandoned politics as a means of shaping policy for so long that they reacted helplessly, again and again, to the abrupt unfolding of history. The important questions of war and peace became debates of introspection and doubt in the wave-like rhythm of the decades. In the early 1990s, it was the Bosnian war and the massacre of Srebrenica, in 2003 it was the Iraq War, and today it is the conflict in Ukraine.

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mole32 05/23/2014
1. Conchita Wurst
While I admired in the extreme Conchita Citron, the famous lady matador who fought the bulls on horse back, I am afraid I am not as enthused about Ms. Wurst. Quite frankly she turns my stomach and I take it as a bad joke on the part of the European voters, rather than a display of tolerance. If "she" is the uniter of the EU than Europe has great problems indeed, in fact it does not deserve to survive.
subo_168 05/24/2014
2. wishful thinking
Another example of how Germany's craving to bury itself in an "EU" identity leads to living in a delusional world spectacularly disconnected from reality. For the record, Google paranoia is exclusively a German thing, which is not shared by the vast majority of Europeans. The EU court does not represent the views of 500 million Europeans, it represents an elite view. Second of all Conchita Wurst's victory was a protest against Putin's anti-gay policies and land grabs. Has this journalist forgotten so quickly that Russia's entry at the Eurovision contest was booed? Also If Der Spiegel's journalists were not so staggeringly ignorant of the world outside of insular Europe than they would realize that greater tolerance for drag queens can be found in countries as different as Singapore and Brazil. This does not mean Singapore and Brazil have shared values. Grasping at straws to build an "European" identity?
aquacalc 05/24/2014
"Does Europe need a figure like Conchita Wurst to be reminded of its ideals and strengths?" Perhaps in a wholly negative way! Any nation or group of nations that defines its "ideals and strengths" in terms of Conchita Wurst has forfeited the right to play any serious role on the world stage.
ivanburrows1 05/24/2014
4. Pure fiction.
I'm sorry but this article is utter fantasy. The EU cannot & does not have an "identity", it is nothing more than a political construct to convince the peoples of Europe (which itself is only a peninsula of the Eurasian continent)that they are somehow the same, they clearly are not & never will be. After reading this I can only thank all the gods that I am British & not "European".
almostvoid 05/24/2014
5. europe's zeitgeist
if eurovision becomes a cultural social indicator then europe is nothing but fluff. this holistic in that eurovision is pop music delivered with pain. what europe needs is women like nina hagen, DAF, and bands that come out of alfa matrix's stable. There is your culture, your future, your destiny
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