This anthology from Manchester-based Comma Press, edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave, features 28 pieces, one from a woman from each of the 28 EU member states, who were all tasked with writing on the future of Europe. It includes essays, fiction and plays. It is a loose theme and the results are as diverse as the contributors and Europe itself.
The book, in a way, represents a European ideal: it is democratic, hopeful, mobile, multicultural. It feels like the voice of the Erasmus generation and I could not help but feel nostalgia for the years I spent studying in Portugal and working in Spain, mingling with my peers from across Europe and the globe. Perhaps this is intensified by the thought that in the near future it may become much harder for UK citizens to move around Europe and be a part of these international communities.
Many of the contributors’ pieces are not set – or not entirely set – in their “home” countries, so anyone misguidedly hoping for each chapter to homogenously represent and explain an entire country and its thoughts will be disappointed. No one can speak for a nation, but we can speak from a nation and we can, and should, listen to more voices from more nations. We might just find more parallels than we expected.
That is something to be found in this collection. There is always something to be gained from sharing experiences, noting the commonalities and using these to build something better. In the UK’s Brexit bubble, an island in more sense than one, European politics seem artificially distant. Reading this book underlines the naivety in believing we are so very different.
The timing of this book is notable and surely no coincidence. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, it is important we retain close ties – in whatever ways we can – with Europe. For the sceptics already rolling their eyes, however, this book is by no means simply an unquestioning celebration of the EU as a political achievement. No, on the contrary, some pieces are quite critical of the European Union, but the general theme, if one can be gleaned, in relation to the EU, is that it is something which must be collectively, collaboratively improved and constantly reinvented. It is sad that the UK has absented itself from these important intellectual conversations which will shape the future of the continent.
While the book’s focus is Europe, the scope is global. Many of the pieces deal with perhaps the two biggest issues facing Europe and the planet right now: climate change and the refugee crisis. ‘The future of our continent will be decided in terms of our capacity to welcome and also to think about the Other,’ writes Leïla Slimani (France). These, again, are challenges that must be overcome collaboratively and, even more importantly, thinking about the collective and working in the interests of the many. As Julya Rabinowich (Austria) notes, ‘the ability for empathy is what might help humankind survive’.
Another recurring theme is the rise of populist and nationalist politics in an era where truth is becoming if not subjective then worryingly irrelevant. As Annelies Beck (Belgium) so excellently puts it, ‘politics has become a spectacle, a theatrical event with effect trumping essence’. Meanwhile Apolena Rychlíková (Czech Republic) mentions that research into growing xenophobia and far-right views has shown that cuts to public services is one of the biggest factors. Right-wing policies fuelling right-wing views, almost as if it was the plan all along.
Ruminating on Europe’s future, of course, also means reflecting on its past. Silvia Bencivelli (Italy) believes answers can be found there: ‘my proposal for restoring hope in a more optimistic Europe is, for the meantime, to go back to the past’. Some writers, particularly from the East, such as Kapka Kassabova (Bulgaria/UK) and Ioana Nicolaie (Romania), noted how Europe had provided a route to the future, one that was more inclusive and open, removing senseless borders. Renata Salecl (Slovenia), however, warns that ‘trust in the EU today can neither rely on nostalgia for what was nor on the idea that there is no alternative’. She argues for trust based on a collaborative reimagining of the EU and the notion of doing the right thing instead of assuming someone else will. Edurne Portela (Spain), meanwhile, reminds us that remembering the past is one thing but learning from it is another.
Indeed, while recognising past successes is important – and we should remember why the EU exists and what it has achieved in terms of European peace – Europe also needs to confront its own history in a very different way. Gloria Wekker (Netherlands) is excellent on this point, tackling racism and the colonial sense of superiority that still persists. Across Europe, and perhaps nowhere more so than here in the UK, to move towards a more inclusive future we must have honest conversations about our colonial past and its enduring legacies.
A number of the pieces touch on the issue of what we can do to bring about the Europe and the world we want to see. The value and limitations of social media activism are discussed by Tereza Nvotová (Slovakia), Žydrūnė Vitaitė (Lithuania) and others. In an era when we have never been more connected, we can often feel isolated – ‘loneliness was the biggest epidemic of the 21st century’, writes Ana Pessoa (Portugal) – and this book is a reminder that the revolution will not be televised.
Other themes in the book include the need to address rising inequality, the continued necessity of feminism and the current state of democracy. I am conscious that I have not mentioned all the writers (or any of the translators) that have contributed to this book, but there is not space here to do them all justice. I was pleased to see, though, that as well as the writers, all the translators have a biography at the end of the book. Translation, after all, facilitates these important bridge-building discussions.
Every piece in Europa28 offers something to think about. Naturally, as with any such anthology, each of us will engage more with some than others. I am struggling, however, to pick my personal favourites amid such fierce competition. I cannot commit to a definitive top five, but I will say that I particularly enjoyed the pieces by Gloria Wekker, Leïla Slimani, Caroline Muscat (Malta), Tereza Nvotová, Renata Salecl, Silvia Bencivelli, Ioana Nicolaie, Žydrūnė Vitaitė… I know, that’s eight and I could go on.
Europa28 will be released on 12 March. You can pre-order it here.