Monday, 28 May 2012 06:27

The art of critical patriotism

Written by Damian Boeselager

It's the middle of the night and we're on our way to Warsaw. Traffic lights on the motorway slow us down every other mile. Low volume Metronomy beats won't wake up the others, but give the scene a scent of detached stillness. Warsaw will be the 16th capital on our journey, albeit distinct in one important aspect. Poland is a nation on the rise. An island of success in the blue sea with 12 yellow stars. The forecasted growth rate for 2012 is 2.5%, where Germany presents a meagre 0.6% and Greece a catastrophic -4.4%. We have seen how a stagnating or even shrinking economy can depress whole countries. Is the opposite true for a country with a constantly growing economy? Will Poland be full of happy faces beaming with pride? (This article was originally published on Euroskop, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Polityka news magazine building, second floor. People rushing by, accelerating as they do so. "Surely, we are proud. The West looked down on us for years. We have worked hard, made drastic reforms to get where we are now." Wawrzyniec Smoczynski is Foreign Editor of Polityka (which can be compared to German Spiegel or the French Nouvel Observateur) and stands for the Poland he is unravelling in front of our eyes. Proficient in English and German, he left his country to broaden his horizons and came back to support his country with his skills. "Young Poles are trying to form a new middle class. There might be a materalistic, even hedonistic aspect to their attitude, yes. But if you ask me, it is due time that our young students can enjoy walking through Paris or London without being regarded as the poor Polish plumber." On the political level weights are already shifting. "Behind closed doors the Germans are constantly asking us to join the Euro." As Smoczynski says: "The EU is blue, boring, and unelected." Similarities between the Champions League and the Eurozone? Both lost some of their charm in recent times due to foul play, though they will remain attractive for those in the second league.

A small office in a Warsaw University building, which turns out to be a former SS-Headquarters. Far too many chairs for such a small room. Lost between them sits Michał Bilewicz, who has a PhD on prejudice and identity. "Polish people always felt a very strong connection with their country and their people, not only but also due to decades of oppression. However, they are also very critical of their own kind. They are not used to thinking highly of themeselves. We call that critical patriotism." Apparently, critical patriotism renders you more open-minded towards other groups. A model for a European patriotism? At least Europeans seem to have internalised being critical of themselves and their institutions. Yet the strong connection might be missing...

Warmed by a Polish "Eintopf" [German word for "stew"], artistically prepared by our host, Karol. Hands in pockets, strolling through a rainy night alongside the former Warsaw Ghetto. Wishing for nationalistic tendencies never to come back. First thought: Moving beyond the national identity towards a European one can and should never mean losing our respective cultural memory. Bilewicz concluded earlier today that only the memory of the Weimar Republic saves Europe from falling into segregationist traps in times of economic distress. Second thought: The "Eintopf" and welcoming reception by Karol build on a long process of forgiving. If in the past the EU furthered that process, we are thankful. If it can furthermore help solve international conflicts in the times to come, its worth promoting. Right now, it's time to go to bed.

"Europe is not only about the past! Poland did not want to join the EU to become part of a retirement community."

Art nouveau staircase, leaning against the walls and catching our breath after climbing to the 6th floor. We should have taken the lift. Knock knock knock. We are here for Mr. Kucharczyk, Jacek Kucharczyk. Yes, that would be lovely: two coffees and a tea, please. "Europe is not only about the past! Poland did not want to join the EU to become part of a retirement community." Mr. Kucharczyk, head of the Institute of Public Affairs, is annoyed by the myth that enlargement was part of the problem. "Especially in France this is circulating - Central Europe is shifting, economic growth is shifting. France will have to understand that." His solution for the current crisis: more competences to Brussels and pushing European borders further eastward. "We need European peer pressure to work and Germany to lead the way."

Yes, we found a lot of optimism. But Poles don't beam with pride. They turn out to be a critical, hard-working, and ambitious lot, who sometimes have a hard time being openminded towards their eastern neighbours - quite like some other central Europeans. Some might call the youth hedonistic. We experienced them as very hospitable people, willingly sharing their good temper with everyone around them. And who generally - despite to what the elderly say - see Europe as a huge chance and a positive influence for their country and themselves: "Europe? At least it's better than Russia, isn't it?" says Karol, smiling, and waves as we head off towards Latvia.

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 May 2012 23:23

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