19 January 2018

Europe: A Common Responsibility and a Common Good – The Pécs Inaugural Address

"Europe also is, the way I would like to see it, a community of political values, among which I will always put freedom first. Not everybody accepts this hierarchy as correct. I am well aware of how alive and sometimes brutal today’s political debate can be, also here in Hungary and in my country, about the catalogue of political values. In this respect, I intend to be very stubborn indeed, some may even say anachronistic. But I cannot help the fact that for me, the most crucial European values continue to be human and civil rights, freedom of speech and conscience, the rule of law, and respect for minorities’ rights."


Some time ago I reached for a book by my favourite author Claudio Magris, called Danube. What stuck in my memory was a short chapter devoted to the town of Pécs, or more precisely, in praise of the local white wine, which according to the Italian writeris much better than the red wine of Villány. I am hoping to personally check whether Magris is as good an enologist as he is an essayist. A colleague of mine has already been given the necessary instruction and financial means to make it possible for me, on my way back, to put this to the test.

But you are correctly presuming, dear friends, that there are also other reasons why it is with such joy and satisfaction that I have accepted this extraordinary honour conferred on me by your University. Let me mention two reasons. Firstly, as a Pole what is obvious I love Hungary and Hungarians. Not only because, as they say:

 

Polak, Węgier,dwa bratanki,

I do szabli, i do szklanki

oba zuchy, oba żwawi

Niech im Pan Bóg błogosławi.

Or:

 

Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát,

Együtt harcol s issza borát,

Vitéz s bátor mindkettője,

Áldás szálljon mindkettőre.1

 

But above all because, for as far as I can remember, Hungary has always been an important cultural point of reference for many of my compatriots. To put it simply, Hungary was for us a reflection of the West, dreamed of and unreachable for decades. Hungary was the West in music, film, literature, as well as in our political aspirations. The first vinyl records at my home were the operettas by Franz Lehár, much-loved by my father. And my favourite LP was the live album “Locomotive GT in Warsaw”. Today it is hard to believe, but that record, published in the mid-1970s, was sold in Poland in the incredible number of seven hundred and fifty thousand copies. At the same time we would go to the cinema to watch anything that bore the stamp of “Hungarian New Wave”, and we would argue who was more important to us: Fellini, Antonioni, Wajda, or rather Miklós Jancsó, István Szabó and Márta Mészáros.

Even more essential are my Hungarian literary fascinations. In my childhood, András Jelky was as important to me as Robinson Crusoe, not to mention such heroes of a child’s imagination as Ernő Nemecsek, Feri Áts or János Boka from The Paul Street Boys, the most beautiful of all compulsory reading. In my adult life, the greatest discovery I made was Sándor Márai, whose Memoir I consider one of the most powerful books in the history of literature, similarly to Fatelessness by Imre Kertész. And when I say that Hungary was for us like the West in a political sense, what I have in mind is the power of the legend of October 1956, which for many years captured the minds and imagination of my generation and without which the “Solidarity” movement in Poland might not have happened at all.

The second reason. As someone born in Gdańsk, I have a great fondness for magical cities with their complex and ambiguous history, over which different banners fluttered, and whose walls were for centuries inhabited by people of different nationalities and religions. Your Pécs, my Gdańsk and the Trieste of Magris are European microcosms. Only those who learnt their histories and tried to understand them, resisting the temptation to oversimplify, and who rightly interpreted their respective symbols and metamorphoses, can move closer to understanding the mystery of Europe’s phenomenon. As Milán Kundera wrote in his famous essay, The Stolen West or the Tragedy of Central Europe:Central Europe wanted to be a condensed picture of Europe in all the richness of its diversity, a small arch-European Europe, a miniature model of the Europe of nations based on the rule of maximum diversity on a minimum of space.” Is it not this precisely that has distinguished Europe from its dangerous neighbours that built their might on quite the opposite logic: minimum diversity on a maximum of space?

I want to stress here that when I say that Pécs is a metaphor for Europe, it is to my mind the highest of compliments. Not only because I am a European by profession and holding a formal function, but because it is my deepest conviction. Indeed, I want to confess to a certain extravagance: I love Europe, I believe in the future and the purpose of the European Union, and will not reject this just because of a passing eurosceptic trend. For me, to be a European is a reason to be proud.

I know it is easy to say “to be a European”, and much more difficult to explain what this means in essence. A person from China, America or Russia will not have the same identity issues as a citizen of the European Union, even if we know that only as a whole, only as a political identity, can Europe be a match for those superpowers. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of us define our identities on lower and less abstract levels of identification than European. When I say: “I am a Pole”, I am describing myself as a member of a community specifically defined and embedded in certain emotions and history. What is also clear to me is the ethnic relation. When I say “I am a Kashuba”, I can see my grandparents, my little homeland where, among the woods and lakes, live people who still speak their strange native language and preserve customs that are specific only to them. And when I say: “I am a Gdańszczanin”, I can see the house and the playground where I grew up, my first school and the colours of my beloved football club, supported by my grandfather, my father, and now my son and grandson. These three identities: national, ethnic and urban make up a harmonious whole; I do not have to define or analyse them, as they are simply in me, they are me. Is there still space between them for a European identity?

Yes, there is. Although we do not speak a common language, although history has more often divided us than brought us together, although we are not moved to tears when we hear the Ode to Joy, (it is quite different when I sing “Poland has not yet succumbed”), although we do not have a common football team, in brief, despite all those “although”, a European identity does exist and it is something much more than other “Continental” identities. For it is not just geography that brings us together. All (or most of us) agree that Europeanness also has a cultural, political and even an axiological dimension. Let us, however, start with the map.

Europe is a common territory and a common border. It covers a smaller area than on a physical map, where we reach to the Ural Mountains, but when we think about Europe, we imagine an area much smaller, more or less the territory of the European Union, with Switzerland and Norway formally “outside” but then somehow “within”. Of course I would not want to predict today what the future borders will look like in the east (the question of Ukraine) or in the south (the Balkan question).

The migration crisis, combined with the threat coming from aggressive neighbours, has shown us with full force how much it means to Europeans today to have a common territory and a common border. Paradoxically, despite all the quarrels and conflicts around migration policy, we have realised that our territory and borders are our common responsibility, and a common good that requires protection and solidarity action from us all. I reject many arguments, often unreasonable, sometimes dangerous, that appear in the debate on the openness and tolerance of Europe. I do not accept the aggressive rhetoric present in the discussion on refugees and migrants, which evoke in our memories the worst images from our past. On the other hand, I also do not find any justification for the helplessness demonstrated sometimes to the effect that “this wave is too big to stop it”, or the kind of submission expressed in Houellebecq’s fiction. To this day I burn with shame for those who ordered the covering up of nude sculptures and paintings in one of the Italian museums, not to offend the feelings of an Iranian delegation on its first official visit to Europe in years. I want everybody to finally understand that equally evident are the need to protect our external border, and the need to protect our internal territory against racism and xenophobia.

To put it bluntly: there will not be a Europe as we know it if there are no borders and no law enforcement, and there will not be a Europe we desire if it is taken over from within by our political barbarians. The realisation that we have a common border and territory must bring us together again, instead of definitively dividing us. We should try to reconcile the need for security with freedom, and the need for control with openness. Only a wise synthesis will be our victory. The fear of others and aversion to diversity might overcome us completely. This is what King Saint Stephen of Hungary said to his son Emeric: “A kingdom of one tongue, or of one custom, is weak and fragile. Wherefore I bid you, my son, support those persons with a good will, and treat them fairly, that they may prefer to continue with you in greater freedom rather than to live elsewhere.”

Europe is also a cultural phenomenon. Stefan Chwin, my good friend and writer from Gdańsk, was at odds with Milán Kundera, who I mentioned a while ago, when he wrote: “I seek Europe’s unity in the spatial structure of European towns. Because anyone who has seen many towns in the world at some point notices that European towns unlike for example Asian or African ones have a similarly organised space, without which they would not be European. The symbolic centres of European towns are the Town Halls and Cathedrals. The towns of great Russia, built around a fortress of the Knyaz, the walls of the “kremlin”, the Governor’s palace or Party Committee do not have town halls as a rule. This difference certainly has a deeper significance. The Town Hall and the Market Square are a trademark of Europe, just like Cathedral towers over towns seen from many kilometres away, used to be a trademark of Europe in the past.” What I would add to this landscape is the University. Now you will understand why I said with such conviction at the beginning of our meeting that Pécs is a metaphor for Europe. Because if we agree that the main landmarks of a European town are the Market Square, the Town Hall, the University and the Cathedral, this town with the oldest Hungarian University, with five churches in its name,2 is worthy of being a metaphor for Europe many times over.

A European will easily identify what is common for a Portuguese and a Lithuanian, for a Swede and a Croat – common in the spatial order and architecture, music, painting and in metaphysical experience. As different and colourful as we are, as ambiguous and complicated as we are, we all understand the Bible, Homer, Cicero, Cervantes, Dante and Shakespeare. We find ourselves in the music of Bach, Chopin and Liszt, in the paintings by Piero della Francesca and Vermeer. And we all feel good in towns where we can easily find the Market Square, directing ourselves towards the distant towers of the Cathedral and the Town Hall. If we want to protect our territory, it is precisely because it is defined not only by borders, but also by the symbols of our culture. Let us remember about this in the year 2018, which will be the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

Europe also is, the way I would like to see it, a community of political values, among which I will always put freedom first. Not everybody accepts this hierarchy as correct. I am well aware of how alive and sometimes brutal today’s political debate can be, also here in Hungary and in my country, about the catalogue of political values.

In this respect, I intend to be very stubborn indeed, some may even say anachronistic. But I cannot help the fact that for me, the most crucial European values continue to be human and civil rights, freedom of speech and conscience, the rule of law, and respect for minorities’ rights. I believe that the only guarantee for the survival of these values is liberal democracy, questioned in so many corners of the world. Imperfect, fragile, in need of constant effort and care. Underappreciated and violated, defenceless at times, but – if you, like me, put freedom first – alternativeless.

Europe is, and has the chance also in the future, to be the best place on Earth. A special and unique territory of freedom and culture. A condition for it to endure is our solidarity that goes beyond divisions and natural conflicts of interests. The University in Pécs is the best place to proclaim the European creed with confidence.

(Inaugural Address at the Ceremonial Senate meeting on awarding Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Pécs, Hungary, 9 December 2017. By courtesy of the University of Pécs.)

 

 

Notes:


1  In literal translation: Pole, Magyar, two good friends, Fighting together, drinking together, Both stout-hearted and valiant, May God's blessing descend upon them.

2  The medieval Latin name of the city was Quinque Ecclesiae (“five churches”). (The Editors)




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