A Pan-european Picnic for a Democratic Uprising

October 6th 2018

On August 19th 1989, just outside the small Hungarian city of Sopron, on a meadow only metres from the barbed wire and armed guards at the border with Austria, civil society representatives from East and West held a “Pan European Picnic”, a day in the country which aimed to put an end, through small symbolic steps, to cold war division. In a small though surprising gesture of openness, this “déjeuner sur l’herbe” was authorised by Budapest’s communist government. Nobody expected, however, that thousands of people, many of them East German citizens on vacation in their “brother nation”, would decide to join the gathering and head towards the line of demarcation, intent on peacefully bringing down the iron curtain.

Heedless of all risk to their safety, they decided to cross the border by foot. Taken by surprise, the communist regime’s police didn’t fire a shot, giving rise to a popular movement which, a few months later, brought down the Berlin Wall. It marked the beginning of Europe’s reunification, brought to fruition in the following years with the construction of a common democratic space which would include (albeit controversially) a large portion of countries which, after 1945, had been abandoned to Soviet oppression.

On the 29th anniversary of that event, as dark clouds thicken once more above the continent, the time has come for all citizens of good will to mobilise, as they did at Sopron in the summer of 1989, and resist any return to division, xenophobia, exclusion, discrimination and barriers. In short, to prevent any return to a past of pain and oppression.

Democracy itself, and the European Union – the most formidable political construction in modern history – are today under attack. Donald Trump’s America and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are agreed in their intention to dismantle the political Union, and work daily to that end with the support of local extremist political parties.
The time has come for sincere European democrats to react to this deadly threat. It is time to wake up and resist the extremist forces who mask their intentions under assurances that they do not want to resort to violence and the destruction of the constitutional and democratic equilibrium. In reality, however, wherever they have taken power, these forces call into question liberal principles, stigmatise minorities, the opposition, outsiders who are either migrants or nomadic peoples, antagonise civil society organisations and dissident voices, reignite old ethno-nationalisms, fuel fake news and foment hatred in their constant search for scapegoats.

Back in the 1930s, extremist parties systematically resorted to terror and violence. Now, in the early 21st century, they rely on disinformation, defamation and intimidation. But beware of underestimating the tragic end-game of these policies. Who would have imagined even a few years ago the demonisation of non-governmental organisations, the violent rejection and homicide of refugees, the persecution of foreigners, the conspicuous increase in xenophobic acts or, as seen recently in the USA, the separation, segregation and incarceration of children, guilty only of having tried to cross the border? All this while dictatorship, illiberal democracy or bloody conflict run wild in nearly all the countries surrounding the European Union.

Peaceful coexistence is under serious threat, as much as the European Union which embodies it. The crisis we face is no longer one of legitimacy and the evident dysfunctioning of Brussels, as illustrated by the recent migration challenge. It is the very existence of the post-war democratic and social pact which is, little by little, being called into question.

Everywhere, democratic and progressive forces are distressed by the reemergence of ghosts thought to belong to the past, and they wonder how to combat the tendencies and assertions of parties who exploit the confusion of populations faced with economic crisis, changes produced by globalisation and loss of traditional reference points. A democratic uprising should inevitably begin with the convergence of forces, associations, groups and individual citizens who were until now divided by misunderstandings, old grievances, different sensitivities.

Now is the time for genuine democrats to find their feet, and unite against a common nemesis which could displace them and bury liberal democracy for good. We cannot remain unarmed against projects such as that planned by the far-right American Steve Bannon to build an international alliance of European sovereignists. As in August 1989, the time has come to call on citizens to organise, gather together, and change the course of history.

“Where there is danger, there also rises that which saves”, wrote the poet Hölderlin. All of us who are conscious of the dangers currently threatening Europe, Italy especially, and who feel we are facing a turning point in our lives and those of our children, cannot wait any longer for this threat to just fade away. The alarm has sounded once again for action.

All those who believe that the old national reference points are not sufficient to address the new geopolitical, economic, social, migratory, technological, cultural and environmental challenges, who believe in a more united Europe, all those convinced that the United States of Europe is the only serious and concrete hope for the reaffirmation of the spirit of liberty, justice, solidarity and fraternity, should now make their voices, their cries, their determination, heard.

On the Pan-european picnic memorial erected after the events of 19 August 1989, a statement serves as a reminder: “the coming era cannot be an era of blows and hostilities. This is the responsibility to which the future obliges us”. It is up to all democratic Europeans, especially the young people of the Erasmus generation, to show that they still hear the echo of liberty from Sopron, that they’re ready to take to their feet for a united and fraternal Europe.

This is why a few months ago we founded “EuropaNow!”, a civil society organisation aimed at fostering a sense of European patriotism and promoting the United States of Europe. It’s also why we’ve launched a call for people to gather in Ferrara, Italy, during the city’s annual festival organised by the Italian weekly Internazionale, to take part in a first and renewed “Pan-European Picnic”, on 6 October 2018.