Transeuropean Picnic: Reflecting on the EU enlargement

Posted to nettime, May 3, 2004, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License.

Historic events are odd things, mostly disappointing. They feel either like empty routines of calendarial arbitrariness (200 years French Revolution, the millennium) or utterly imposed (9/11, war in Iraq). Either way, they usually render one passive, through boredom or powerlessness. History, it seems, is always made by others. The EU enlargement, somehow, doesn't really fit this pattern, eventhough it had plenty of both in it.

Yet, it is also, or perhaps primarily, an unfinished event, one whose actual meaning goes far beyond the "overcoming the divisions of the cold war" or any other of the standard themes trotted out by celebratory speakers on market squares across the continent. Its meaning, really, will only slowly emerge, through the accumulation of everyday practice. The EU, after all, famously lacks a vision.

How could such a practice look like from the point-of-view of open media cultures? To think about this,, together with v2, issued an invitation to gather in Novi Sad, Serbia for a transeuropean picnic on the weekend of the enlargement [1].

Of course, being in Serbia, one cannot help but be reminded that this great process of unification is also a process of creating new boundaries, of establishing new visa regimes, border controls and barriers to mobilities (which my spell checker insists to render as 'nobilities'). Yet, bringing together a hundred people from some 20 countries between the Netherland and Georgia on a shoe-string budget and have them picnic on the porch of Tito's hunting cabin in the midst of a pristine national park, one felt equally that new possibilities were opening up, in the cracks of the major narrative.

This, as became more clear to me during the discussions, has to do with the particular character of this thing, the EU, that is growing before our eyes. Most importantly, the EU is not a state. It doesn't raise taxes, doesn't have a military or a police force, doesn't create laws (only directives to be made into laws at the national level), or issue passports.  It doesn't even have a sports team. Yet, it is also not a meaningless exercise of an out-of-control bureaucracy issuing 'symbols' and creating well-intentioned but freefloating 'discourses'. Rather, the best way to think of the EU, it seems to me, is as a gigantic coordination mechanism. It has a relatively small hub ('Brussels'), trying to get others nodes in a network -- some bigger, others smaller than itself -- to behave in a way that things can flow between them more easily. The enlargement just added a lot of nodes to this network. The coordinating hub's main function is to issue pointers that help to direct these massive material and immaterial flows.

The strange thing about these pointers is their consistency. They are hard and soft at the same time. By directing flows, they create new pools of opportunities, while draining others off their resources. For example, many educational institutions in Europe are going through painfull restructuring processes at the moment, not just because of funding problems, but because of attempts to reorient themselves according to EU pointers ('Bologna reform') hoping to then profit from the new opportunities created by the flows of people, projects and money being pumped through a somewhat more standardized European educational landscape. Of course, no institution is forced to do that -- that's the soft part. However, not doing it will amount to a self-marginalization virtually nobody is willing to accept -- that's the hard part.

The EU, then, is a myriad of such circulation systems whose main power rests on its ability to include or exclude nodes. The main difference between inside and outside of a network is that opportunities are created exclusively inside the network (through the circulation of flows of all kinds) whereas outside, marginality is structurally re-enforced all the time (by being bypassed).

The important thing is that the EU is not one but a myriad of circulation systems. Many overlap and reinforce one another -- the enlargement is also a process of accelerating such consolidation -- but the degree of overlap is much smaller than in a traditional nation state (say, the US). And this, it seems to me, is where independent cultural practices come in. They can contribute that this consolidation of the patterns of inclusion / exclusion do not become absolute. They can extend the networks to include nodes other than the officially sanctioned ones, thus making sure that not only opportunities flows beyond the borders (if there is one aspect of the EU that is state-like, then it's the Schengen Treaty), but that new opportunities are created precisely because the cultural micro-networks are different from the official ones.

This is not an 'Anti-EU' strategy, which, as was made clear by many picnickers, is a luxury that only those inside the EU can afford. Rather, it's a question of creatively redirecting flows, something one can only do if one is connected to them. The definition of what Europe is is up for grabs, like it hasn't been in a long time. This strikes me as the true meaning of the EU enlargement. And if this 'new Europe' continues to include picnics in the villas of former autocrats or plutocrats, there's definitively something to look forward to.