From the 11th to the 13th November 2016, Project Forum hosted the 8th annual Central European Forum in Bratislava. This year’s edition looked at the troubling anti-democratic developments in the region and contemplated antidotes to despair, proposing progressive alternatives with which to move forwards.
In 2009, the first Central European Forum in Bratislava marked the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution by looking back at the transition to democracy which had taken place over the previous two decades. The late President Václav Havel, a key driving force behind this process, was among the first cohort of distinguished guests who accepted our invitation to debate the question “whatever happened to democracy?”.
This issue may have sounded somewhat provocative at the time, whereas, today, it leaves many cold, as people across Central Europe appear to be losing faith in democracy. It is as if people can only recall the first part of Churchill’s famous adage – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” – while ignoring the punch line. The world seems to have forgotten how much worse all the other options are.
However, the cornerstone of a democratic system can’t simply have vanished into thin air. The need for human dignity, freedom and solidarity still exists, it has only become increasingly difficult to find, masked as it is by a distorted form of desire to belong and submit to something which has been stifling calls for reason and empathy.
The French philosopher André Glucksmann dubbed this type of desire nihilist. He argued that we need to understand nihilism in order to successfully defend European civilisation from a range of nihilisms. We must stand as firm against the nihilism of terrorists, of movements full of young men cultivating hatred, as once against the nihilism of dictators and corrupt politicians. And, we must not forget to combat the nihilism of general indifference, which often emerges in the wake of these first two nihilisms.
Yet, what can do to stem these trends? The developments we have seen in Central Eastern Europe so far this year do not offer much hope. Citing the need to protect their populations from immigrants, governments in the region have isolated their countries from the rest of Europe, leaving other countries to shoulder the burden of the mass exodus of people from crisis regions. And, Central Eastern Europe has paid a fatal price for this isolation: the coarsening of public discourse, the rise of nihilism and growing popular support for parties and movements which have swept into parliaments throughout the region on a surge of fear.
Our common Europe now faces further similar surges unleashed by global upheavals of an economic, political and environmental nature. More and more people will be headed for our continent. At the same time, a barrier of alienation will keep growing between the citizens on the one hand and, on the other, institutions of liberal democracy which are no longer fit for purpose in a globally interlinked world and whose room for manoeuvre keeps shrinking.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” said the great 20th century cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Opinion polls have shown that a terrifying number of Europeans have succumbed to a fear of the future. Yet, the large numbers of susceptible people do not necessarily reflect the full picture.
When things seem at their most hopeless we often say that hope is the last thing to die. However, sometimes hope can be the first thing to die, with everything else following suit. When the majority in a democratic society no longer believes in a chance of a democratic future, that chance will undoubtedly be lost.
“Action is the antidote to despair” claims Joan Baez, still a revered icon in our part of the world. And, in order to find the antidote to despair, we have to keep our eyes open and not let our view be distorted by fear. At the Central European Forum 2016, writers, scholars, journalists, activists and – unusually – politicians from all over Europe, shared their antidotes to fear with the public and recordings of all of the weekend’s debates will soon be made available on this page.
Click on the days below to access recordings of all the public debates
The politics of hope (Opening)
Chris Keulemans (Netherlands)
The politics of interests
What type of threats do the interests of undemocratic powers pose to us? How much internal resistance can Europe, particularly Central Europe, offer?
Natalie Nougayrède (France/UK)
European citizens – between forgetting and understanding
Pavel Tychtl (European Commission, Belgium)
A clash of freedoms
Does the influx of foreigners really represent a threat to the European understanding of freedom? If so, what can Europe do about this threat?
A screening of Kornél Mundruczó’s film, followed by a discussion with the authors.
Tony Curzon Price (UK)
Why does the present-day revolt against the system draw on ideas from the past? Where does the extreme right wing electorate come from? How does frustration change into fascism? What has made fascism popular again in the West and the East?
Martin M. Šimečka (Slovakia)
Trapped by panic
If the current liberal democratic order is failing, is there something new emerging somewhere else?
Chris Keulemans (Netherlands)
Visegrád engulfed by nihilism
Please note that this recording contains the original audio and, therefore, features a variety of languages
What are the mental boundaries between Europe’s east and west? Are they gradually being erased or have they shifted elsewhere? What is the contribution from the Visegrád region?
Jana Starek (Austria)
The Central European Forum 2016 has been organised by the NGO Project Forum in partnership with / Stredoeurópske fórum 2016 organizuje občianske združenie Projekt Fórum v spolupráci s partnermi:
the NGO Česko-slovenské Mosty (Czech-Slovak Bridges) / Občianske združenie Česko-slovenské Mosty
and a team of volunteers comprised of university students in Bratislava / a tím dobrovoľníkov, študentov bratislavských vysokých škôl