Francisco de Zurbarán: Hercules Fighting with the Lernaean Hydra

Once she is becoming vivid in your mind, it is impossible to get rid of her. She's following me. A being without a body, but the Hydra as a concept — if you try to decapitate her by definition, she grows two new heads. Europe. A concept, a word, a designation. But the question remains what for. Her essence comprises many layers of semantic meanings, from which you want to carefully strip her until your own fingertips realise that they are interwoven. Europe is geographically a subcontinent; Europe is the European Union and, as a confederation of states, a web of economic, legal and ethical threads; Europe is the mythological woman who was abducted by Zeus and whose name was given to the ground on which the ancient god planted her.

Europe can be described in concrete terms by analysing EU trade agreements and by retracing their socio-economic impact. But for me it's not a concrete, bureaucratic matter. It is a private one.

I am European. It says so on my passport, my Austrian citizenship links me to a larger fabric of belonging, to a collective to which I am bound beyond geography and economics. It's this Europe that has been playing hide-and-seek with me in the dark corners of my mind over the last few weeks, a by-product of what has been specifically formulated, or rather of the previous basic condition of it. In its abstraction, Europe interests me not as an administrative organ, but as an attitude organ. It's the concept of Europe, it's the idea of Europe, it's the European values and the European attitude. These are difficult to capture in concrete terms — they are more abstract than a trade agreement or a legal text. There are pronounced and concealed, explicit and implicit attributes that cling to "European". And it's those values that make my eyebrows rise skeptically. For many, "European" is as natural as the ground beneath their feet, a fact that needs no description. But it's this supposed self-evidence, this non-questioning, that makes me pause.

As a child I used to dismantle my shiny plastic, bright-coloured toys, in search of their connections to understand the artificial materialisation of a reproduced reality. Now I put concepts into my mental hands and start to palpate them. Just as my childlike ego was suspicious of artificial reality, today I find naturalised concepts that one should consume without question just as suspicious. I’ve always been a picky eater. And as such, everything begins with the skeptical question: what’s there on my plate? According to the dictionary, an "attitude" is an "inner fundamental mindset that shapes one's thinking and acting". In flowery terms, attitude would be the compass of every human being, but it wouldn’t exist without opposite poles pointing in the right direction. One cannot start out without knowing where North is. Our attitude is the product of our mindsets and these are the product of our values. The soil from which these sprout is fertilised by our relationships, our social environment. It’s based on our values that identity can be forged.

In our language-bound world, we often give names to values derived from our group-names — christian, liberal, conservative — and these affiliations shape our identity until they become our identity. This approach to identity is most accessible to the otherwise isolated subject. Even before I could speak, I already was someone. Someone's daughter, someone's sister, throwing ink on the blank page of my identity — and through the acceptance or rejection of whom I have become something. The human identity, separable into a box of drawers, which are hierarchically arranged. The less contestable the self-description of one's own identity is, the faster it can be put into words, as Mike Pence has been demonstrating for years: "I'm a Christian, a Conservative, and a Republican — in that order."

Identity, values and attitude are interwoven and mutually dependent, the European attitude is based on the values of the same name, which in turn puts its hands deep into the clay of identity and shapes it. What remains is the question of the meaning of the adjective "European". For there is something in me that is reluctant to put "European" as a concept into words. If something wants to be sold politically as an attitude, it always loses its ambivalence. I know this version well enough. It's the glossy version, the Photoshopped Selfie of Europe on Instagram. This European attitude is a hybrid of Enlightenment thinking, social market economy (but with kind regards from capitalism), already achieved equality, and cultural and moral superiority. 

These "European" values are suspect to me because I have rooted parts of them in myself, which are themselves fragments of my identity. It's the attitude of Enlightenment, secularisation, humanism, the rule of law, and democracy. They’re values of freedom, equality, humanity and modernity. I have never been able to merge with the identity of the Austrian woman. Hypocritical tendencies and racist demarcations were too close. But I wanted to be a European with European values — notice the Tempus choice of past tense. For these values are a mythologised form of actual reality, the soft washing, and drawing of boundaries separating  what’s inside and what’s outside. Values never arise out of their self-explanatory nature, but their naming only emerges from opposition. The Occident, the West — Europe — always emerged from its reflection. The supposedly inherent reveals itself as a construct.

Edward Saïd would probably not pat me on the back at this point, since he described this mechanism of self-creation through the demarcation from the so-called "other" and its use for political rule as early as 1978. Europe could only attribute a positive narrative of progress to itself by having someone else act as the negative twin. Once the "East" served this purpose, then the "Middle East" became the twin (/Constitutive "Other"), and with a growing awareness of politically-correct language and the racist geographical subdivisions of everything that is not Europe, the focus shifted from geography to religion.

This positive narrative isn't unusual, it's the most commonly practised form of historiography. Take your pen and write me a picture of myself that I would like to read. The problem lies in the palm of your hand, on which one euro lies — we take our idealised values and our idealised self-description at face value and forget that they are constructed in the same way as Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Just as clearly as they made moral evaluations of their character-types and actions, so clearly and unquestioningly do we attribute the Evil-Wolf-Of-Values to our alleged opposing counterparts.

It's not the values that are poor, but our learned behavior which consists in regarding them as natural and constant. We have created an idol for ourselves, at the altar of which we fall on our knees and pray. But altars demand sacrifices and a lamb must be slaughtered. The victim of Europe, which was once the East, has become Islam, which is defamed as a general threat to European values. In this negotiation of the seemingly incompatible so-called "European" and "Muslim" identity, the schizophrenic nature of one of the values making up the European attitude is revealed. On one hand, Islam stands in contrast to supposedly secularised Europe, on the other hand, secularity dies as an argument when headscarves are banned from schools as a sign of religious affiliation, but crucifixes continue to cast reproachful glances at students. Austria serves as an ideal example of the schizophrenia of European values. We have woven a cloak out of them, which we will also take off in time if their implementation becomes difficult. Europe, even if we like to pretend otherwise, has never quite completed the process of Enlightenment. We are stuck in it, in an eternal struggle against our immaturity, but this unfinished process can be marketed far less productively than the hypocrisy of ideal implementation. The European attitude remains a criticisable one, because it ignores the gap between the ideal and reality, but in contemplation of the "other" it allows only the most critical observations. It's easy to condemn discrimination against women in Iran as regressive — oh praise thee, emancipated Europe! — but we see only the splinter in the eyes of others, not the beam in ours. Of course, emancipated Europe neither has a mandatory headscarf law nor does it force "its" women to marry their rapists. But beautiful Austria in emancipated Europe has only considered rape in marriage as a punishable offense since 1989 — only six years before we officially entered the holy covenant of the European Union. And yes, I will not deny that Europe has taken many steps towards equality. Women can work, inherit, vote, study, it seems we have achieved a lot. But in the demarcation from Islam, it seems that people like to forget the sweat and blood with which the women's movements have had to fight for progress in Europe. Gender equality was not a European value. It has become one for some, but it would be presumptuous to say that it's set in stone.

The schizophrenia of European values could also be described as their ambivalence. European values are humanistic —but, to put it provocatively, we only act humanistically towards those who are similar to us, or rather who we consider similar to us. Europe pats herself on the back for her rule of law and human rights, while turning a blind eye to those to whom she does not grant humanity.

Europe's humanist ideal must be protected, which is why the refugees in the Mediterranean gasp out their last breaths before their lungs fill with water. They are sinking, along with their existence, from which Europe had to be protected. Reasonable Europe looks wistfully at the sea, but she did not force these people to cross it with traffickers. The supposedly increasing humanity in Europe only turns to the Europeans, all those located outside fall under the realm of reason, not empathy. The plight of refugees is not quantifiable and thus not validatable. Humane Europe has closed her gates. She is not alone guilty. But not being guilty alone does not wash the blood from the hands; even non-involvement is a form of violence. Good. How morally superior do European values feel right now?

Basically, this text revolves around the deconstruction of supposedly fixed, actual, "true" values. If one throws "European values" into the room as the legitimation for Fortress Europe and more restrictive migration policies, as something to be defended, one forgets to mention that Europe isn’t homogeneous. I understand politicians’ instinct to throw "European values" around and hold on to them as if they were lifejackets. Neo-liberalism, social cuts, the climate crisis and international conflicts are putting individual and collective identity in crisis. The world we were used to is changing too fast and as a result of increasing insecurity we are looking for faith to stabilise ourselves. There is a global precarisation of the working conditions of the proletariat. Fortunately we have our values, which give us a sense of superiority, we still have our superior culture. The European identity with its attitude is a concept one claws at in order to prevent oneself from crumbling to dust. The secularised, progressive and rational Europeans no longer pray to the Holy Trinity, but call upon Goddess Europe.

If we really want to continue the European attitude, we must deconstruct it critically and honestly. Goddess Europe is a biblical goddess — humanistic and empathetic like the New, but also cruel and cold like the Old Testament. Within the roots of the European attitude also lies its danger, because positively attributed values can only be formed in opposition to something outside, but out of her blindness not in opposition to herself. Only when we will recognise that the negative we see in others can be found in ourselves will we genuinely claim to be guided by a European attitude.