Never Getting Back To Normal
A Dispatch from the Land of Young Eurocrats

Carter Vance

© Copyright 2018 by Carter Vance

Photo of a British protester.

To live anywhere in the EU at the moment and to be even mildly interested in or involved with politics is to be in a state of constant pre-occupation. Crises, both internal and external, seem to crawl out of the collective woodwork with a deliberate, martial frequency. Just as one problem is “solved”, usually through a series of ethically questionable rug-sweeping half-measures, another introduces itself as an uninvited house guest, pounding at the door, bearing some ancient grievance or throwing about the inheritance of the late 20th century’s bad decisions. Charting the actions of both the EU itself and its various member states since the financial crisis of 2008 is to find not so much an evolution or a coherent pattern, but rather a series of data points that never seem to cohere to a narrative of anything other than dysfunction. Rules for members are solemnly made, said to be eternally binding, and then broken when it becomes too inconvenient to actually apply them. Investments and reforms are promised to give the whole affair greater legitimacy, and then vanish into smoke. All the while, with scarce national exceptions, a drumbeat of economic stagnation and social exhaustion serves as background to the particular flashpoints. Though, via the magic of institutional inertia, there is little reason to believe that the EU is going anywhere any time soon (and, indeed, despite all its problems, countries such as Serbia and Macedonia do persist in seeing future membership as a socioeconomic North Star), its seeming failure to deal with rather basic governance problems, has led to a well-documented backlash. This has taken the form of far right so-called “populist” political movements on the continent (particularly in its eastward states) and, most clearly, the decision by the voters of the United Kingdom to leave the EU altogether. These movements draw on a variety of sources for their political power, most notably anti-immigration and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, but their narratives have only gained greater trenchancy in a context of an increasingly remote and bewildered-seeming governing elite both in national capitals and in Brussels. The sentiment amongst these elites themselves forms a mirror to the rabble, one of equal shock and bewilderment, albeit backed with significantly more force and state power. To charge them of a lack of self-reflection of the degree of blame they bare for the rise of movements they insist to deplore is a fine question, but it seems to bounce off rather consistently, dismissed in a flurry of statistical obfuscation and bad-faith.

Europe’s young have fared significantly worse than their parents, both in terms of the management of the 2008 crisis itself and in terms of diminished life prospects over the long term. Government austerity policies, regardless of the party implementing them, tended concentrate their heaviest cuts on youth services and education, with the idea that this would have less of a political consequence potential than, for instance, focusing on old age pensions (though in many cases these were cut as well). Furthermore, the broader structural issue of youth unemployment in the EU, perennially a concern, has only become worse post-crisis, leading all sorts of migration flows, both inside and out of the Union, in search of work. If such a structure, ironically a retread of Europe’s emigration patterns through the late 1800s, becomes the permanent solution for particularly hard-hit countries such as Greece and Spain, it would be something of a death knell for the idea that the EU was any sort of house of progress. At the same time, many still cling to the EU dream, the mobility and the cosmopolitan chaleur of it all. Young people, those who did vote, in the Brexit referendum, backed remaining by a large margin, and the nationalist parties of anti-EU backlash draw most of their support from those who can remember a pre-Euro, pre-Schengen era. Go to any European city, and you will still find crowds of young people taking advantage of the principles of free movement, as well as the attendant explosion of youth hostels and cut-rate air travel. The apotheosis of this sentiment are the post-graduates and interns who pack into Brussels to work for, or with, or in close-quartered opposition to, the EU itself. They form a motley workforce of over-ambitious and underpaid political actors, perhaps most notable in an economic sense for making the operation of a bar offering Happy Hour drink specials near the European Quarter a can’t-lose business proposition. If there is one essential thing, though, about these people, it is that they have a sense of “going somewhere”, regardless of their political ideology, and that Brussels is the vehicle to get them home. Their possible conceptions of what politics is and means have been structured in a reality where Europe, both concretely and in terms of social meaning, is not possible without the changes the EU brought. Connection across country lines is to be prized, and seen as nigh-inevitable, with, however oddly, a chorus of variously-accented English serving as the universal social adhesive.

Coming in as an interlocutor, one of Europe’s long-lost colonial sons returning home in time for the house to have started collapsing in, is, in certain regards, a bit of an excitable journey. The ever-humming public transportation systems and long-rolling intercity train rides conjure an old-world glamour and sleepy, shared peace that does not come easy to those of us from countries bullyingly built around the automobile. Of course, each of these train routes has its own logic and character, even as they share the fact of almost always being full and offering exceptionally overpriced French wine on board. The journey from Paris to Brussels, for example, plays out over a landscape of flowing verdancy, dotted by the occasional splotchy introduction of eggshell white clumps of housing and church steeples, and the mechanistic slicing of electric windmills. Starting from the same station but going to Barcelona, by contrast, reveals a kind of rolling, dusty grandeur, the hills seemingly still stained crimson with the blood of low-legendary martyrs and tyrants. And, even throughout all this turmoil in the newspapers, life from the window seat still goes on: on the highways, trucks still prowl with purposes, bearing processed food conglomerate logos and spiraling out to every village corner store and off-ramp Lidl in the continent. The talk, though, from the street corners to the bar stools and kitchen parties, increasingly hits this appearance of normalcy at an odd angle, and no more so when the occasion calls for drinking of the sort it’s last socially acceptable to partake in one’s mid-20s.

Attending a party with approximately fifty 20-something Eurocrats packed into a three-and-a-half-room Brussels loft is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lives, though this moment may be the most auspicious one to join in. Setting aside the miracle of how such an event miraculously does not conjure up a call to the police or three (upon inquiry, there has been a kind of mutual peace assured on this front by the fact that young people in Brussels all tend to live in the same areas, and don’t wish to set precedent for their own parties getting broken up), another kind of charge darts through the room. If asked to choose a unifying theme of conversation, it would be borders, their existence, their redrawing and the attempt to transcend and traverse them. Brexit, of course, was on the tip of every tongue it could be, some having been sworn to a seeming blood-oath silence that not even hard liquer could crack through, but there was too the half-joking, half-sincere fear of nuclear war breaking out on account of a Trump Twitter spree, interspersed with talk of travel plans and office politics. What this makes for is a scene as strange as that mélange implies: the electric charge of ambitious young people in a small room, preemptively celebrating the end of the world (at least as they knew it). Most of the people there, especially those towards the older end of the age scale, entered this line of work when it seemed to be a relatively secure one which promised, if not fame and fortune, then an opportunity for regular travel and to learn more about at least a tiny sliver of the world through mutual contact. In this sense, their dreams had come true, but they were increasingly surrounded by closing walls of those outside of the ideals that had driven them to Brussels in the first place. They kept refilling the Mexicana mixed drinks, even as their entire notions of what politics was were evaporating day-by-day.

Still, this was modernism, in its weird way, and there was a charm to letting the free beer and homemade chicken schnitzel intermingle in one’s senses with the perfectly curated selection of cheeseball 90s hits (think Spice Girls, and then think whatever the German equivalent of that would be too). Even as I sank into the ratty, tattered yard sale couch towards the end of the evening (far past a reasonable hour for someone who had come into the city early that morning and had wandered it in search of Tintin murals most of the day), my reflections had let go of themselves, for a while, and there was no place else to be but there. Sharing a windowsill cigarette with the chair of the Austrian Social Democrats’ youth wing, reflecting our shared disturbance with the rise of the far right in that country and our shared feeling that, absent Corbyn-ization, Europe’s social democratic parties were doomed to irrelevance, had an enlivening effect to that lack of normalcy. Perhaps, if this conversation were possible, then the upset of old beliefs and norms was not entirely bad, or at least the Brussels youth were not entirely unprepared for it. But even there, a hint of disbelief underlay the proposition; things were now drastic, and therefore called for unconventional approaches, but perhaps again soon they would not be, and as such the old conventional wisdom, that which favoured the social position of the people in this room, would reassert itself. Someone started in on a hearty rendition of “Bella Ciao” at this point, though, taking up the entire thirty-or-so of us left, and we took on the vocal costumes of older times in these lands, pretending at bravery we never had chance or cause to show.

Waking up in my hostel the next morning, head pounding and searching for the nearest place in the next-door open air market to get a fruit juice, there was a briskness to the air I hadn’t noticed the night before. Meeting up with a couple of my fellow party guests for a hangover coffee-tea-Coca Cola blitz, we could agree both that the night had been fantastic and that the EU needed to change, that there could be no going back to an old consensus. Alas, there was far more actualized belief in the former statement than the latter. As I hopped the train back to Paris, seeing the verdant fields again from the wooshing window seat of a TGV train, the thought rattled around: perhaps there never was a normal, perhaps it was an overrated concept to begin with and perhaps, further still, was always a cover for the people employing my previous night’s companions in squat office blocks to justify their position. Perhaps, yes, but there would be no way of getting back there in the first place, with the only thing keeping it an ambition being a fear of potential consequences for ourselves.

Carter Vance is a student and aspiring poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, currently studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. His work has appeared in such publications as The Vehicle, (parenthetical) and F(r)iction, amongst others. He received an Honourable Mention from Contemporary Verse 2's Young Buck Poetry Awards in 2015. His work also appears on his personal blog. Comment is Welcome.

Contact Carter

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher