Clubbing With Politics

Dr. Andrea Despot
Dr. Andrea Despot

When the opening meeting of the ECLA Politics Club was announced, it did not take long before someone came up to me and suspiciously inquired whether the Politics Club was a cheesy debate club. I found this pretty funny and guaranteed the person in question that this was not the case. “Good,” she said, “then I’ll be there.”

Fair enough I thought, for who would possibly want to join a club devoted to banal platitudes and pretentious rhetoric? There is an annoying superabundance of that stuff anyway. To be perfectly honest, I also think that Politics Club is a rather poor label. The almost snotty implications of the word club are enough to lead anyone slightly astray.

What, then, is the ECLA Politics Club all about? Well, the real question is not what the politics club is, but what one makes of it. The Politics Club is very much in its genesis.

The idea of a political forum outside the classroom has been nurtured by several ECLA generations. Yet the transition from idea to practice happened only last year, fueled by a keen group of students and faculty.

At this time, substantial groundwork was carried out as the founders of the Politics Club searched for possible ways of running a forum that would satisfy ECLA students’ eagerness to more seriously engage in contemporary politics. The Club had to work out how to confront the myriad opportunities for learning and contribution presented in news, local political circles of Berlin, and its members’ own individual experiences.

In this process, sketches of both purpose and realization were conceived. Eventually, a few trips to lectures and talks in the city were organized and a few guest speakers were invited to host sessions on campus. A few, yet determined first steps.

As such, the Club is definitely still just warming up. What the present protagonists of the Politics Club have inherited from previous years is not so much a set of fixed patterns of organization and activity as a zeal accompanied by a possible design. It was on the grounds of this modest history that a few handfuls of curious ECLA-dwellers gathered in early November to negotiate the heritage and set out new paths for the Politics Club under the guidance of Faculty member Katalin Makkai.

“We want the Politics Club to be a student-run forum in which, for example, outside speakers are invited to come discuss with the community current and pressing political matters, and in general to be a place where members of the ECLA community can discuss together matters of politics in theory and practice,” Makkai said as people made their way out of the lecture hall.

This is, I think, a fair articulation of the prevailing feeling of the crowd: the Club will exist only if and when the need for it is felt and for as long as there are student forces to keep it running.

Yet the real question that stared us in the face was that of where to direct our efforts. What are we interested in? Now we know that democracy can be time-consuming and therefore amusingly nerve-wracking, even at its best. Indeed, we would have managed to be far more efficient had we asked ourselves what we were not interested in.

Poor Katalin had a rather hard time taking note of all of the suggestions that flung all over the place. Eventually, we had before us an eclectic spectrum ranging from civil disobedience to urban gentrification. After a vote however, we singled out Politics and Media and Immigration to be our leading motifs for the present academic year.

To prevent our enthusiastic minds from falling prey to that obnoxious heedlessness that occasionally hits even the best of us, we decided to act rapidly and keep up the work. We invited Dr. Andrea Despot, deputy director of the European Academy in Berlin, to think through issues of Europeanization and European Identity together with us on the first evening of December 2010. After the session, I caught Andrea as she was snacking on grapes and cheese, chatting with a handful of students. I asked her why Europe is important to her in the first place.

“Speaking on behalf of the European community,” Dr. Despot said. “Europe is everywhere. Whether we recognize it or not, it has an effect on all of us . . . what we eat, the air we breathe. Our age is not one of nation states, but of more complex political organization. The decisions which shape our every-day life are no longer made on a national level only, but are most often negotiated in Brussels. It is, I think, worthwhile to raise public awareness of this connection in order to enable and encourage participation in the political project of Europe.”

Given her response, I asked her to give me a clearer sense of what the European Academy of Berlin is all about.

“As an independent organization providing political guidance in European affairs,”she said, “we provide information and training for multipliers such as teachers and other pedagogues. We are not out there to declare,‘Europe is great!’ but to offer a chance for the interested public to engage in European matters. We work with creating open spaces where people can take part in dialogue, such as seminars, workshops, and simulation-games.”

Certainly, had she entered the ECLA lecture hall only to declare the illustriousness of Europe, Dr. Despot would have been in trouble. Her audience harbored some serious skepticism about the European project and its present undertakings. Enthusiasm alone would not be enough to respond to this skepticism.

ECLA students and faculty questioned even the existence of that which, in common language and political discourse, is referred to as “Europeanization.” What exactly is meant by Europeanization?  In response to these confusions, Dr. Despot offered a model in which “Europeanization” involves processes of uploading and downloading.  The result of these two distinct processes is a Europe which serves as a melting pot for certain ideas, norms and values.

However, Europeanization could and should also be considered an identity issue. We might not be willing to claim that there exists, in the minds of the citizens of the European continent, a common European identity. Still, we need to take note of the fact that there are strivings towards the creation of such a thing – even if we refuse to acknowledge it as something real.

Thus understood, Europeanization is no trouble-free business. How, for example, are these processes to be managed without harming the restoration of post-conflict societies? How are socialist experiences and various experiences of democracy to be accounted for in the building of a European identity?

These are questions, Dr. Despot argued, which need to be considered within yet a broader framework: How are ideas, norms, and values generated by the Europeanization processes to be translated into domestic contexts marked by unique cultural and historical parameters? In light of these questions, Dr. Despot made the case that successful Europeanization must consist in adoption, appropriation, and re-interpretation.

Still, there remained voices in the crowd who expressed concerns about the articulation and validation of the project of Europe being in some sense hollow, or lacking in content. If, as we are asked to believe, there really is substance to Europeanization, why do we have a hard time seeing it? Revolving around this question, much was said about whether or not European citizens and governments actually feel and act as if they do, so to speak, sit in the same boat. If so, the value-structure seems nevertheless to be constituent of values that are not necessarily unique to the EU. What then is the difference between the European Union and, say, the US?

Dr. Despot, while inviting us to think of the EU within the framework of global processes of alliance building, willingly granted that there is indeed a need to find a new raison d’être, specifically for the European project as such. Offering a personal opinion on this matter, she made the claim that at present Europe needs to isolate and address the issue of securing social peace. These thoughts were accompanied with a request for patience of behalf of those who doubt the actual contents of Europeanization.  Europeanization is happening, but slowly.

As much as we are entitled to demand evidence for the existence of a process that closely knits together ideas, norms, and values within Europe, we need to remember that these things are not always immediately evident or tangible. With these words, which are in no way unfamiliar to us, we still felt it was time to round off and re-direct the focus of our analytical minds to the contemplation of the food and drink waiting for us outside the lecture hall.

Christmas Break came and went, and so did most of the students. To the delight of many of us, the Politics Club stubbornly squeezed itself onto the agenda of the very first week of classes with a screening of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. I am not going to report on this particular film screening – not because this event was wholly undramatic (it was not), but because I feel that reporting on it would ridicule the very value of news-reporting itself.  You will surely understand what I mean here if you are familiar with the documentary in question.

Be that as it may, it still remains for us to see where our Club is heading and how. All I know is that my Club colleagues from last year would be happy to see their brain child being so well taken care of.

by Emma Hovi (2nd year BA, Finland)

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