Opinion / 19 August 2017

Open Letter To Europe

Narratives of strangers who knock on one’s door seeking shelter are at least as old as Europa's tragic story

Dearest Europa,

Recently I came across you again.

This time it was in Medellin, a vibrant, subtropical city in Colombia in South America, polluted by modern traffic. You were seated on your bull, looking pontifical, even a bit coquettish, with your right hand behind your head as though you were seated at a dressing table and admiring yourself in an invisible mirror. Your left hand was resting on the round rump of the animal; it was as if you were stroking an obedient domestic animal. Sitting there, cast in bronze in front of the museum, amid the raucous street vendors and the children playing, you were the image of a dominant matron.

This was of course first of all because you were the subject of a sculpture by Medellin’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Botero is well-known for his figures – let’s admit it – that are quite rotund and well-fed. Even a sparrow takes on elephantine proportions in his work.

But I don’t remember you looking so mighty and pompous in the Greek myth where your story begins. There you are presented as a beautiful young girl who is carried off by the supreme Hellenic deity Zeus in the guise of a bull. All European children used to be taught these stories, but today the schools give less priority to this sort of knowledge. This is a real shame, as one can learn a great deal from the founding narratives of one’s own civilization.

You were a Phoenician princess, from Phoenicia, which is situated on the borders of the present-day Middle East. This means that you actually came from Lebanon. So a bull from Greece carried off an Oriental princess to the island of Crete, situated in the west, where he proceeded to rape her – after which the Minoan civilization sprung from her womb. By way of northern Greece, your name then spread throughout our continent. An Oriental princess therefore gave her name to the continent that is today seen as synonymous with the West.

Dearest Europa, this story gives plenty of food for thought, especially today when so many people are coming to our borders from the east or south, begging for shelter, for aid and for asylum, and when some European countries bluntly refuse you entry. Worse still, they imprison you behind barbed wire or allow you to drown in the sea that united us. At this moment, your long-suffering country of origin, Lebanon, offers asylum to more refugees than any country in Europe.

Today exotic-looking young women are no longer brought to the West on the back of a white bull, but by ramshackle craft and overcrowded leaky rubber dinghies; they are no longer the victims of a perfidious Greek god, but of people smugglers who fancy themselves as gods.


Nonetheless, narratives of strangers who knock on one’s door seeking shelter are at least as old as your tragic story. In European folk tales, the stranger is frequently a figure who comes unannounced. She or he appears suddenly at nightfall between two linden trees before a small and remote dwelling, visibly exhausted and asking for lodging in the barn, a hunk of bread and a cup of water. It is because his arrival is so unexpected that it causes a stir; the peasants in the farmyard and those dwelling in the house flock round the strange fellow; first they are suspicious but, once it becomes clear that he is no threat, they always offer him bread, water and shelter, because hospitality is an age-old duty; and the stories that are told with the help of a glass of wine often show that the stranger has led an exceptional life, or has escaped a tragic destiny. In short, he comes with a tale that gives the local inhabitants food for thought.

But once we picture not a single positively-inclined stranger, but a whole horde showing up all at once under the linden trees, which, it should be mentioned, were a symbol for hospitality as long ago as Teutonic times, then the situation changes drastically. The natives of that place fear that the group of foreigners will take their land over. A heated exchange occurs and the immigrants are required to sleep in the barn or even in the field, although it is raining cats and dogs, and the following day the farmer goes in fear of his life. An entirely different situation from Greek mythology arises now – that of the suitors in Ulysses’ palace, who have taken advantage of his absence to court and molest his wife Penelope. On his return, he lops off their heads, one after another, before lovingly embracing his wife. Apparently, there have always been limits to hospitality.

This example shows us the archetypal difference between two situations: on the one hand, there is the single individual who is offered hospitality, and on the other the horde, the group that is seen as a threat. Their shouting and singing that keeps local residents awake at night is reason enough to implore them next morning to leave the property or premises. Before you know it, violence breaks out. The individual stranger has the dignity of a lion, whereas a horde has the infuriating effect of noxious insects. And when a few of them behave badly, the whole group has to be eliminated at once or transported elsewhere. The bad behaviour of the few is therefore an excuse for allowing masses of victims to die in mud and cold. This subversion of the archetypal folk myth about hospitality conceals a painful disabusement. In Carl Schmitt’s well-known words, the enemy is the emergence of a question in the form of a human being.

Globalization and the enormous migrations that have accompanied it – largely resulting from the arrogant and cynical geopolitical activities of the United States, especially in the Middle East – have led to a crisis in the mode of relationships and hospitality, more specifically in Europe. Our continent has not only become the direct victim of American cultural and political gaffes, but is also confronted with a crisis around the issue of universal human rights, which was the great achievement of the European Enlightenment. No right-thinking person would be dismissive of the threat of terrorism, but it cannot be denied that there are demonstrable geopolitical causes behind the vindictive violence we have suffered.

It is by now clear that globalization doesn’t automatically bring universal values with it; in fact, the dissolution of borders tends to undermine the will to universalism, because relations do not progress symmetrically. This is a paradox that the ‘old’ Europe had not anticipated any more than did the rulers of the European Union, who were not exactly free of postcolonial reflexes. Because Europe has played no decisive role in the post-war geopolitical poker games conducted by the USA and has generally been allocated a subservient part, it has also not come up with any scenario for dealing with what is happening in the barbed-wire enclosed gardens of its territories. Its citizens have become involved in a tug-of-war of values, and moral ground rules have become painfully unclear. Europa has been knocking on the doors of the house that bears her name and has been shut up in camps instead. The abduction of Europa has turned into its opposite, namely her deportation.


After the Second World War, the populations of both the social democratic welfare states of Western Europe and the Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe were confronted with forms of governmental control that systematically made them feel that the state decided all the most important issues for them – Communist Europe experienced this in a paranoid, dictatorial form, while in the West it took that of a seemingly democratic free-market philosophy, which repudiated the individual just as much. In the former, the populace was gagged, while in the West they were pampered to death. The citizens of Central and Eastern Europe became hostages, who could only get the sense of being fully-fledged individuals capable of deciding what they thought by way of samizdat and underground resistance; after May ’68, westerners became spoiled consumerist children who had their opinions served up to them by way of pre-packaged information from the increasingly powerful media concerns. In both systems, ordinary citizens were given the feeling that every structural problem would be solved by the state, and that they would comply with its decisions forcibly on the one hand or of their own free will on the other.

Today, dear Europa, the continent that bears your name has landed in a deep crisis and a high price is being paid for this erosion of the class of self-reliant, critically thinking individuals. The type of adult, well-informed citizen, as represented by people from Thomas Mann up to and including politicians such as Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand, seems to have virtually vanished from the European political arena – with a few exceptions, such as Angela Merkel. The typical European citizen of today is a discontented cantankerous mass individual. He feels the pressure of a global conscience-free capitalist system and is irate because the politicians he has elected appear incapable of living up to their own stated standards. The result is passivity, and this situation of passively waiting is the harbinger of depression. The alert, articulate citizen once formed the foundation of democratic societies – she or he who took the initiative when the situation required, or as Immanuel Kant put it, was capable of thinking independently.

There are even plenty of individuals who would refuse you any access to these lands – who, when you arrive shivering from the waves, would opt for pushing your head back under again or driving you back to the inflatable rubber craft. But there are others too, often treated with contempt by their cynical fellow citizens and politicians, who speak from the heart and do what they can to alleviate the suffering they are witnessing.

Sometimes, dear Europa, I think that the true division in your continent is that between two sorts of people: those who want to help you when you arrive washed up on their shores out of a heartfelt sense of the cultural values of their continent, and the others who want to treat you as belonging to what the Greek god Zeus would have called “barbaroi” – those who can only babble bar bar bar, who cannot speak their language and who are therefore not seen as fully-fledged individuals. The consequence is exclusion and a denial of the rights of one’s fellow human beings.

And yet, dear princess from Lebanon, there is hope. In many of the countries of the European Union, a generation has arisen that has wholeheartedly reclaimed the initiative. In ecological, social and political matters, as well as economic ones, there is a growing awareness that we cannot wait passively until they get a chance to choose the umpteenth generation of impotent politicians in the next election.

Increasingly people are prepared to take things into their own hands. Citizens’ initiatives are springing up like mushrooms; responding to the appeal made at the end of the last century by thinkers like Salman Rushdie, Jacques Derrida and Benjamin Barber, spaces are being opened up city-wide and in neighbourhoods to serve as centres to help those in greatest need. They take responsibility on their own shoulders and are demonstrating every day that ordinary people can make a genuine difference. Individuals such as these appreciate that nation states have become weary like aged aunts, reluctant and squabbling, concerned only with the state of their old furniture and fittings. It appears that it is no longer governments that take action, but ordinary people from the various sections of society. This is a hopeful sign, even if they get categorized as naive Gutmenschen – a vulgar insult with a whiff of death and ashes about it, recalling a hideous past. But history has a memory of its own. Future generations will call us to account for our ethical conduct, just as we today judge those in power during the crisis years of the 1930s.

Every day, Princess Europa, we realize more clearly that nation states no longer take the lead in times of crisis; nationalist politicians have no answers whatsoever to what is happening in Europe today; instead they withdraw like frightened farmers barricading themselves in their own premises with their ancient carbines at the ready and cursing from behind their closed shutters the beggars that pass their gate. It seems that nationalist politicians are incapable of thinking in practical, contemporary terms. They reject reality without offering any solutions. They even spit on their own shared European home – except when they see a chance to go to Brussels to beg for a few euros, after which they return home where they proceed to spit on the hand that feeds them. They lock up their front gates and say with a grin; we’ve fooled our own European home once again. The way that they pollute their own nest testifies to their lack of any understanding of the future of their continent.

All we can do, my Oriental princess on your Colombian bull, is to put our hope in a renaissance of the cultural memory and self-respect of the continent that bears your name. I am determined to maintain my possibly naive hope, in the face of this cynicism, together with the increasing number of individuals who feel that putting your house under lock and key means that we can effectively have no future. Perhaps this is the real watershed of our time – there are people who want to remain open to the stranger and others whose hearts and minds are closed. But wasn’t it one of the traditional maxims of this continent: to do as you would be done by? Won’t those who want to exclude you also be excluding themselves from the world of tomorrow, which, no matter what they suppose, can only become ever more open? The West has provided the whole world with the technology for global mobility, but apparently it never occurred to them that this could never be a one-way street. The future belongs to political realism and not to worn-out rhetoric.

I know where your heart lies, you who were kidnapped by a bull but who triumphed over him because he fell for your charms. In the tropical, difficult country of Colombia I have seen with what self-confidence you are taming the creature. I have seen people, who are many times poorer than us spoiled Europeans, sharing what they have with a smile. I have also seen the scars of former violence and atrocities – it is a profoundly divided society that is now looking forward to peace and reconciliation. No matter where you are riding on that old bull of yours, there will be people who will be pondering their fate and thinking about the sort of world they want: one that hides fearfully and armed to the teeth behind fences and barbed wire, condemned to repeat the catastrophes of former times, or a strong, future-oriented one that meets in public spaces where music is sounding and people are dancing. I know where I would want to find you.

© Stefan Hertmans, translated by Donald Gardiner

The letter also appears in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), the W Magazin (Spain), the London Review of Books (UK).


Stefan Hertmans

is a Flemish Belgian writer. He was head of a study centre at University College Ghent and affiliated researcher of the Ghent University. He won the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs in 2002 for the novel Als op de eerste dag.