Peru Erroteta, 26 December 2021
Interview with Silvana Boccanfuso
“It’s one thing to be different, and another to distance oneself”
An unorthodox historian, she describes herself as a “communicator of history”. She works mainly with young people, especially in the field of tourism. As a historian, she studies the role of European federalist women, and in this context, she has just published Ursula Hirschmann, una mujer por y para Europa (Icaria Editorial).
For a long time, in Europe there were no passports, no borders, as Stefan Zweig explains so well…
Ursula Hirschmann was naturally cosmopolitan. She was part of a movement, heir to the Enlightenment and even earlier, that shared a European sense of belonging, beyond the great diversity that characterises Europe. Intellectuals moved around Vienna, Paris, Berlin… as if they were at home. I bonded with Ursula in such a spontaneous and profound way (something that those who have read my book point out), that there is, shall we say, an emotional transposition. Because Ursula’s cosmopolitanism is very instinctive. It is a way of absolutely overcoming the distances between different people, because it is one thing to be different, and another to distance oneself. The fact that we are different does not mean that we are distant. We, the Danes – I say this in the book, quoting Brecht – who have changed borders more times than we have changed shoes, have nothing to lose, except our chains, in a united Europe.
When and how did Europe become compartmentalised into nations, homelands, states… divorced and even pitted against each other in the trenches?
With the First World War this world, Europe, and with it the perception of being part of its own, identified, unitary space…, went to pieces. At that time, nationalisms re-emerged in a more imperious, violent way, with no possibility of overcoming the confrontations, but, on the contrary, deepening them. After the First World War, Europe consolidated itself in a very negative way. In the 19th century, states were formed on the basis of nationality, and in the 20th century this went to the extreme. In the inter-war period it was exacerbated, leading to the Second World War.
Does European federalism emerge from a directly Europeanist vision, or is it influenced by, shall we say, national federalisms?
I don’t think that federalisms at the internal level of countries were very significant in Europe. In any case, they did not have a decisive influence on European federalist thinking. The clashes in the world wars were not the result of internal conflicts, but of confrontation between states. The division had a distinctly European character, and that is where European federalism came from: from the need to overcome the deep division and confrontation between nations. The Second World War was a consequence of the first, with similar actors. In reality, there was only one war, with twenty years without battles, without blood.
In Spain, federalism is still a pending issue. Is something similar happening in Italy?
In Italy we have some people who claim to be internal federalists, who are mainly right-wing. This is a movement that has been going on for 20 or 25 years, induced by the Lega Nord (now La Lega), a regionalist party led by Umberto Bossi, which initially proposed the secession of Padania (the Po valley) from the rest of Italy. This is clearly a negative way of understanding federalism, creating barriers instead of trying to overcome them. In reality, this is nothing more than a disguised form of nationalism, which has been labelled “federalist” in order to camouflage it. Now, when I speak of European federalism in Italy, I have to explain it, because they confuse it with this other federalism, which is its opposite. What is clear is that European federalism facilitates the development of local autonomies. The principle of subsidiarity between the different levels of power is something innate to federalism. This is not talked about much, because politicians are not interested in it.
Couldn’t saying “Europe, Europe” so much be contributing to generate a European patriotism that is not very desirable, if at all, in a globalised world?
I have reflected on this issue of European nationalism, especially in the wake of the covid pandemic. We are talking about Europe, just as we were talking about Germany, Italy, Spain… Attention! We need to think more about how we can open up, generate more flexibility, create links with the outside world. I think that in this area the challenge is above all cultural. We have to generate thinking, change our vision of the world and our place in it. I have a lot of relationships with teenagers, and I perceive that in a generalised way they are still alienated or against the different. They don’t find any satisfaction in the relationship with the other.
This is not a political problem, but a cultural one. There is something atavistic in this perception that we have not yet overcome. School, family, etc., continue to transmit an endogenous, closed vision of people. How is it possible not to feel close to those who are different? Why do we emphasise what separates us, instead of emphasising what unites us? I love differences, because I am curious, because I like to discover something new in this wonder of the different.
As Umberto Eco said, are we witnessing new attempts to “construct the enemy”?
We still cling to the idea that what is different is an attack on one’s own identity. Something that the extreme right, populist nationalism, stubbornly instils. We are getting worse. I was 20 years old in the 1980s, and my generation was naturally Europeanist. We were on a path that didn’t seem to allow any turning back. Europe was a normal, positive thing. Why are we now talking about borders again, perhaps because the youngest people were born having it all made? Is it just rhetoric? I recently met some young people from one of the Baltic republics, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, who spoke very negatively about the European Union. They were very nationalistic… How come their parents didn’t explain to them where we come from? What are we?
For years, anti-Europeanism was not only the preserve of the extreme right and nationalism. A part of the left, with the idea that a “Europe of merchants” was being built, opposed…
Altiero Spinelli, one of the so-called “founding fathers of the European Union”, was very critical of what he called the “corporatism of the left”. He questioned the so-called “autonomy of the class struggle”, understood as being waged within the framework of states. Acknowledging, of course, that sphere, he proposed an overcoming of corporatism, which shared a, shall we say, nationalist vision of the interests and struggles of the working class. That discourse is now quite outdated. Even the extreme right, more xenophobic and nationalist, has taken a step back in its criticism of Europe. Le Pen, Salvini… are changing their strategy. While apparently continuing to extol “national values”, they are now trying to take positions on a European scale. They are trying to survive. They needed votes and to get them they turned to fearful people, who projected their fears onto foreigners, migrants. They designed their programmes on this basis, and now they are beginning to realise that this is not realistic. Europe has come too far. It is now impossible to turn back. Globalisation itself forces us to be a conscious, active and functioning part of it.
And what does Brexit have to do with all this?
Brexit, what a pain! A serious setback, decided by a handful of votes, and with a large part of the citizenry in despair. I have an English friend, a journalist, who has lived in Italy for more than twenty years. Because he was resident and taxed in Italy, he did not have the right to vote in Brexit. This happened to many English people. They could not vote, even if they went to England. They were simply prevented by law. So, the more backward, fearful, nostalgic, decadent England… ended up winning out over the more innovative, open, pragmatic side. I am a great believer in study, knowledge, culture, intellectual progress. In Brexit, this is also where the shoe has ended up being on the other foot.
Poland, Hungary, Vox, Salvini, Meloni, Zemmour now in France… Is the extreme right surfing and is it still a danger for Europe?
They change, no doubt. Even Salvini has a more moderate position, with things, of course, that he doesn’t go over. Above all, emigration. A mantra. When he was in power, he didn’t sign the Dublin agreements on migration, and now he wants Europe to take up the issue. Italy is in crisis. An endemic social crisis. Overcoming it requires advanced, humane approaches that go beyond fears.