'Europe projects coldness'
Over recent days Berlin has been filled with artists and writers discussing how culture can counter the rise of populism and euroscepticism in Europe.
On Monday (3 March), EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and three of the lead candidates trying to succeed him - Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz and Guy Verhofstadt - debated with movie directors, art festival organisers and writers on how to find "a soul for Europe."
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Two days earlier, Barroso and German Chancellor Merkel were presented with a "new narrative" for Europe, accompanied by unusual art shows.
There was scepticism about both endeavours.
The EU narrative is a pet project of Barroso, complete with a "steering committee" of artists who were tasked with drafting the four-page long text calling for 'cosmopolitanism' and a 'new renaissance' in EU politics to counter populism.
Merkel wondered "if citizens really wish for a new bigger story about Europe or rather the opportunity to talk about their experiences and be listened to by politicians."
As for the "A soul for Europe" conference, Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad said a sense of self-irony was needed when participating to that event. Europe has many souls, many stories. "Giving or finding just one soul is a chimera," he said.
Europe's image problem is that it no longer inspires people to dream big, said German movie director Wim Wenders. "Europe projects coldness, projects administration, not my childhood dream of a united Europe," he said.
"The EU started as a financial union, which had its justified reasons. But it stayed that way and culture was always just the icing on the cake, never part of the cake or the cake itself. You need to change that recipe," Wenders said.
Sziget music festival director Fruzsina Szep said that for her, the EU is "like a fish tank where people can watch only from the outside what is happening."
Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right's likely top candidate in the EU elections, who chaired the meetings of finance ministers at the hight of the euro-crisis, said the main problem was that Europeans don't know enough about each other. "What does Berlin know about Lapland?" he quipped.
But he claimed that culture played a role and that even in the wee hours of Eurogroup meetings, the ministers always "thought about the people" in Greece or other bailed-out countries.
Wenders was unimpressed. "That's just a drop in the ocean."
As for Schulz, who has just been elected as lead candidate for the Social-Democrats, he said all criticism was justified.
"We cannot save the banks, declare that they are 'systemically relevant' and leave half the population in unemployment. Of course then even the most pro-European turns sceptical."
"What is a soul for Europe? I cannot give a single coherent answer. And I am also sceptical about a new EU narrative. What people want is the idea of taking down borders, be they political, cultural or related to language," Schulz said.
Like Barroso and Merkel before him, Schulz noted that people in Ukraine have died with the EU flag in their hand.
Europe remains an inspiration, but more to people outside the club than its own citizens.