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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

European understanding

The Guardian has this week started a special series to throw more light for its readers on some European countries. This week it has various journalists in Germany – looking at everything from writing to football; next week France; then Spain and Poland. And they have also set up a subsite dedicated to Europe whose aims are expressed in the following terms
“As well as drilling down into different nations, we are also keen for the site to reflect – and inspire – more wide-ranging pan-European debates about the future of Europe as an idea and as a project, something that feels particularly urgent in this time of economic, political and social flux”.
And they ask for suggestions on writers to use; on themes to focus on; and on journals to link up with – in addition to some such as Der Spiegel and le Monde with which they are already linked.
Certainly their initial focus on particular countries is long overdue – it's actually easier for a Brit to find about what the Chinese are feeling and discussing than people in the various countries of Europe! If you don’t believe that have a look at the reading list in section 6 of my recent briefing paper on administrative reform in China. The Chinese-American migration and intellectual exchange has been a powerful mechanism for that. There seems very little equivalent for Europe. Ralf Dahrendorf ,Tony Judt and Perry Anderson are some of a very small group who have had the ability to focus intellectually on European themes and discussions and communicate them to us clearly. Perry Anderson’s papers on the ongoing debates in various European countries which he brought together in his 2009 book The New Old World are exceptional.

But please no more Euro-turgidity!
But the sub-site’s aim of encouraging “a wide-ranging pan-European debate about the future of Europe as an idea and as a project” seems to me to be getting things upside-down. We’ve had so many of these discussions about “europe as a project”– and it’s just the great and good talking past the public to one another. The great thing about the Guardian’s current series on Germany and the other 3 countries is that it is going into social and individual depth we don’t normally get (from British newspapers – the French and Germans are better at this!). Spending a day with a young Hamburg family was perhaps rather too easy a task . A more challenging and useful task would be to shadow a town politician for a day or so and write it up. If they chose the right (open) people we would get a very good sense of national concerns. The site should build on that – and help us see the commonalities in our everyday concerns. And to do so without the distortion of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen (who all have their own powerful pan-European networks – which would, by the way, make an interesting theme for the site).

The anglo-saxon Bias
The Anglo-Saxon adversarial system of politics affects the way Brits talk and think about public issues. And our linguistic laziness means that, when we look for new ideas, it’s the US literature and practice we turn to (even when, like me, you’ve been out of the country for 20 years). For example, the literature review I started yesterday is almost exclusively American and British. I would like to plug into the thoughts of greens, left and other groups in the heartland of Europe – and learn what they are doing in practical actions (social enterprise), policies and discussions to help shape a shared vision and agenda for social change. Where do I go to find this out? Newspapers and journals are too general – and books so specialised and numerous that it needs a specialist to help. How do I find such people – who want and are able to communicate with me? I know that the discussion groups on the internet are supposed to help – but do not seem to be used by the people I want to get to.
A few years ago, Paul Kingsnorth did a great job in his book “One No; many Yeses” of giving us vignettes of the work going on around the world to deal with the downside of globalisation. We need more of that. And what about the threats faced by local government everywhere?
So that’s three possible themes for the new site. If something coherent can emerge from that, it will begin to make a reality of “Europe as a project”. It has to focus on shared concerns at a local level – not on elevated abstractions.
Certainly I get very frustrated with the anglo-saxon bias of what's on the net. Despite my nomadic existence in central Europe and central Asia, the internet and Amazon have kept me mentally in the anglo-saxon world with its profoundly adversarial systems. And it’s only recently that I have realised how imprisoning that has been for my field of public management reform and interest in social transformation. Scandinavia has always had a more open and consensual approach to social decisions – and Norway in particular retains its distinctive approach. Take the Norwegian Power and Democracy Project of 1998–2003 as an example. In 1997, the Norwegian Parliament (Storting) decided to launch a power and democracy study to analyse Norwegian democracy at the dawn of the twenty-first century (following up on an earlier study in the 1970s). An independent steering committee consisting of five researchers was assigned and 40 books and more than 100 articles/reports were produced as part of the project. That followed the Nordic Free Commune experiment of the 1980s and 1990s. We just don't get to know about such things from British journals and newspapers.

Gated communities
The barrier to our understanding of development in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically.

Whose perspective - and voice?
The potentially exciting thing about this venture (as I understand the proposal, it will be a blog site)is that we would hear from than the voices of politicians and journalists. Several of the (ex-pat) respondents on the discussion thread offered to write. Others suggested big names (eg Umberto Eco; Julian Barnes; Claudio Magris; Hans Magnus Enzensburger. I mentioned Geert Mak and Jan Morris). On reflection it would be good to have the contributors to this site being those who know their subject without necessarily being a professional specialist and who can write elegantly (without necessarily being a journalist).
Spiegel and le Monde are easy partners since they already have English versions. But there are a few European level ventures worth plugging into the venture eg Sign and Sight which translates outstanding articles by non-English language authors and Eurozine which is a network of 75 European highbrow journals and translates interesting articles into at least one major European language. I've added these two to the Links on the right-hand column on this blogsite.

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