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Tuesday 12 September 2017

Der Europäische Landbote (the European Courier) by Robert Menasse

With his publication of  Der Europäische Landbote, Robert Menasse became the unlikely poster-boy in German speaking Europe of ever closer European Union, as envisaged by founding fathers Jean Monnet and Walter Hallstein. To educated continental Europeans, there is an undeniable emotional appeal in Menasse's radical European idealism; but embarking on such a project in reality maybe a dangerous endeavour to throw out the baby of the nation state with the bathwater of nationalism.  

After Brexit, I have had to give some thought to my European (Union) identity, which is one of a few that I ascribe to myself. Among the continental European authors who have helped me in this endeavour by providing a challenging perspective different from my own is Robert Menasse, who published his almost lyrical, political essay Der Europäische Landbote (The European Courier) in German. It is an emotional plea for a United States of Europe that is post-national and post-capitalist. Contrary to Menasse's novels, there is not much irony and humour in his essay, which he wrote while researching a European novel. This novel, Die Hauptstadt (The Capital), whose title refers to Brussels, is now available in German and apparently not short of irony and humour. But the subject of this blog entry is is Der Europäische Landbote for which the author received the prestigious Heinrich Mann Prize. At the end of the blog you will find links to expressions of Menasse's European political idealism in English translation.

In 2012 the Austrian writer Robert Menasse goes to Brussels to research a novel he plans to write on that will play in Brussels and whose protagonists will be international civil servants working in the institutions of the European Union. As he sets out on his journey, Menasse has a critical attitude to the reality of the European Union and its civil servants. Once in Brussels, he finds that the civil servants are intelligent, idealistic culturally literate. Indeed, he is so impressed that he publishes an essay about his stay in Brussels, which is call to return to the original ideas by Jean Monnet and Walter Hallstein, namely the creation of a United States of Europe. 

The argument Menasse makes runs as follows: the problem of Europe is Nationalism, which has led to two terrible World Wars and a Holocaust. Recently Nationalism has been raising its ugly head again. Like Monet and Hallstein, Menasse believes that Nationalism can be overcome by replacing European nation states with a European state based around regions rather nations as its building blocks. Such a European state would have as one of its task to reform the free market capitalism that the EU as it exists today has been espousing. Moreover, in 2012, at one of the peaks of the Greek financial crisis, it was European Nations that had taking over the running of the EU and were holding the power rather than the European Commission and the European Parliament. 

In Menasse’s view this pragmatic nation-state-dominated approach to the European Union is a betrayal of its founding fathers' main goal of doing away with nationalism which ultimately means doing away with nations. Adding to that recent members of the EU such as Poland and Hungary bring openly nationalistic ideas which threaten the progress that Menasse and his ilk would like to see.

Inspired by Georg Büchner’s 19th century polemic the Hessian Courier (Der Hessiche Landbote), Menasse writes a passionate defence of Brussels, its institutions and its civil servants; a polemic against the national member governments which criticise, blame and use them for their own purposes of nationalistic one-upmanship. 

Menasse’s 2012 essay is beautifully written, almost lyrical and has the feel of a Bach piano sonata. It has also had an unlikely career as a widely noticed and discussed political essay in Austria and Germany. Since then the rather thoughtful and often ironic Menasse has become the unlikely poster-boy for European Union back-to-the-roots idealism in German speaking countries and is a frequently invited discussant and speaker on the subject. 

The background to Menasse’s writing is his Viennese perspective: Austrian Nationalism today is being represented by the Austrian Freedom Party most of whose ideologues believe that Austria should not exist as a separate country but be part of Germany. So, if you grow up in a country where even the nationalists wish for their country's demise, it is easy to imagine the demise of other countries in favour of a Europe of regions rather than a Europe of nation states. There is also a kind of nostalgic view on the multi-ethnic Austro Hungarian empire improbably combined with a hankering after the various Marxist inspired ideals espoused in the academia of the 1960s. 

Of course, for Monnet and Hallstein, the United States of Europe would have encompassed Germany France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg: culturally speaking a sort of slightly enlarged version of Switzerland, with representative rather than direct democracy at its heart. Not as much of a leap of the imagination as 27 very different nations with wildly different histories.

From their history, Poles and Hungarians for instance have a very different outlook on projects that are designed to suppress their existence as a nation than Germany or France. They also have historically a different relationship with Islam in general and Turkey in particular. To them the idea of a Europe without nations sounds a lot more threatening than desirable. 

Also, to a European pragmatist, like myself, Robert Menasse’s political vision of a Europe of the 27 to a Europe without nations appears unlikely, although more likely after Brexit than before. It may even be a dangerous endeavour to try and throw out the bathwater of nationalism with the baby of the nation state. Nevertheless, to educated continental Europeans, there is an undeniable emotional appeal in Menasse's radical European idealism; but embarking on such a project in reality maybe a dangerous endeavour to throw out the baby of the nation state with the bathwater of nationalism.   

In September 2017, five years on from the European Courier, Robert Menasse has finally written his novel. Die Hauptstadt (The Capital), is about Brussels, the European Union institutions and the people who work in them. It was published this week and has been put on the longlist for this year’s Austrian Book Prize. It is Menasse’s first novel in 10 years and, like me many of his fans are looking forward to reading it. 

Below a link to the English Translation of an essay by Robert Menasse in Eurozine, which repeats many of the ideas from the European Courier, which appears not to have been translated into English. The second link shows excerpts from Menasse's address to the European Parliament (with English subtitles).

Robert Menasse

Jean Monnet Plaque in Paris 16

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