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A Tale of Two Metaphors: Writing the EU in Symbols

What happens when you ask writers to come up with a metaphor for the EU? World-building and metaphors are their work, after all.

by Boyko Vassilev 20 December 2018

Few events can be more revealing about the cleavages in today's Europe than a dispute between two writers. They work with metaphors – and metaphors can explain almost everything.


Writers Robert Menasse and Alek Popov met for a public discussion at Sofia's International Book Fair, on 15 December. As moderator, I chose the title: “Europe as a literary subject” – and let them loose.


It was actually their writing that suggested the idea to me. In his much-acclaimed new novel, The Capital, Menasse – an Austrian – describes the inner world of the EU, its institutions, and the people working in them.


Seventeen years ago, the Bulgarian, Popov, wrote a satire about diplomacy. Mission London – later made into a film – has become one of the most popular examples of contemporary Bulgarian literature.


The discussion proceeded with the usual delicacy of two professionals conscious of their own status, yet who also know and respect each other. But when I asked them to describe Brussels through metaphors, they promptly made their differences clear.


Menasse chose “laboratory.” His outright affection for the EU as a post-national structure – and his fear that nationalists may kill it, like one of its predecessors, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 100 years ago – has inspired in him a vision of Brussels as a laboratory for the future. Even Brussels as a city displays an anarchist culture of constant experimentation and change, claimed Menasse, giving the example of citizens growing vegetables on the street without authorization.


Vegetables on the street? This made Popov smile, for Bulgarians’ habit of preparing food outdoors in the city is all too familiar. “Many of these experiments have already been tried out in the Balkans. Communism gave us enough laboratory experience – we are tired of it!”


Instead, the Bulgarian writer offered the alternative to experimentation: “To live well.” Accordingly, his preferred metaphor for Brussels was “the Vatican” – something stable and durable, its life measured in a span as long as centuries.


Yet Menasse quibbled about living well – and the dispute carried on, much to the delight of the sophisticated audience.


This tale of two metaphors shows how fans of the EU, on either side of the former Iron Curtain, can differ. In the West, intellectuals such as Menasse see the union as a deliverance not only from nationalism, but from the nation-state altogether; a giant 3D printer for a future society, which is at once global and just. But can we scrap the nation? I asked the novelist whether a better organization of human society had been invented, and he replied dismissively: “If you were right, we would have had nations since Neolithic times.”  


The East has another perspective. Former Eastern bloc countries still rejoice in the independence that their nations dreamed of and fought for during Soviet control. Communism had destroyed and then parodied sovereign national institutions. And now, people are eager to strengthen them, not abandon them.


Hungarians say they are defending Europe by building a fence against immigrants. Poles deem popular will a European value, even if Brussels objects. Bulgarians see in the EU a guarantee that no neighbor will claim their national territory. Macedonia wants to join, explicitly in order to preserve its fragile national integrity.


The extreme example concerns the Romanian EU presidency, which is about to start. This is the country whose former president, Traian Basescu, has spoken warmly about bringing Romania and Moldova under one roof within the EU – after all, isn’t “ever closer union” one of the formulations of the European project? He even tried to run in Moldova’s parliamentary elections – but his citizenship was revoked.


It would be an understatement to say that these incidents only raised eyebrows in Brussels, but all of this is just political gossip. Romania’s six-month presidency of the EU – starting in January 2019 – will be just another EU ritual. Look at the Bulgarian presidency, in the first half of 2018. Both the European Commission and the Bulgarian government declared it a success – for the EU, for the western Balkans, and for Bulgaria itself.


In fact, the Bulgarian attitude toward the EU illustrates a paradoxical ambivalence. Yes, Bulgarians perceive the union as a guarantee of its national sovereignty. Yet their best allies inside the EU are not other nations, but federal institutions, such as the European Commission. If the EU were only about nations, the small would suffer at the mercy of the great. Luckily for countries like Bulgaria, Brussels functions in a much more complex way.


Metaphors are something writers do well. However, it is worth being cautious, because life is more colorful than any metaphor.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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