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A place of hope: What Europe means to us

True colour satellite image of Europe and the UK at night. This image in Lambert Conformal Conic projection was compiled from data acquired by LANDSAT 5 & 7 satellites. - Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty

Nine writers from across the continent tell us what ‘Europe’ means to them…

Ana Pessoa, Portuguese author
Europe is about multilingualism and multiculturalism. We might not speak the same language, we might not share the same cultural background. Perhaps we don’t laugh at the same jokes even and we live very different lives. But we share common interests and common goals. We believe in democracy and diversity. We live in freedom and peace. We want a green and sustainable future. We talk, we cooperate, we compromise. Perhaps your area needs a better transport system. The small businesses in my hometown need more opportunities. Europe is about closing gaps and connecting people. It is about cooperation and compromises.

Nora Nadjarian, Cypriot poet and writer
Völkerwanderung. The restless movement of tribes, the currents and maelstroms. How identities were made and lost and redefined. The wars, the barely outlived holocausts and genocides. Conciliation with the past, belief in the future.

The towering Babel of language, written and rewritten on wax or on steel. The ancient Greek stylus to the stylographe. That immense labour of thought, the invention of philosophies, the ideal city. Rinascimento. The outpouring of energy and poetry, written and rewritten, translated, printed and passed from one to another. Gutenberg, the inextinguishable flame. Europe… the continent that wrote the history of the world.

Zsofia Ban, Hungarian critic and scholar
A long-long time ago, in the mid-1990s, my partner and I were travelling in the south of the US. We were looking for a place to have a drink. We stopped in a small town in West Virginia, found a diner and ordered two beers.  The waitress looked at us in amazement, and in her wonderful southern drawl told us: “This is dry county, girls, no alcohol!” Seeing our amazement, she asked: “Where you from, girls?” Since our experience was that nobody knew where on Earth Hungary was, we simply said: “Europe”. She let that information sink in, took our order, and when she returned she said: “But Europe is as big as Texas – where exactly in Europe?”

I still love that comparison. But an ideal Europe is one that’s actually able to change perspective, it’s one that’s able to reflect on itself and practice critical thinking. That’s the Europe I’d like to live in and in its best moments, that’s what it is. 

Annelies Beck, Belgian writer and journalist 
Europe is a never-ending story we tell ourselves and each other, an enormous feat of the imagination. A story about people, our best version, in a shared space trying to live and work together in spite of being all very different. It is a story full of drama and conflict, of the drudgery and danger of everyday politics, of misunderstandings and ill will, of richness and rags, but also of heroism and ideals. It is about us and them, in and out, good and bad, and about who gets to decide. Some tell this story better than others.

Some lose their way in the nitty-gritty of the mundane, the slow pace and disappointing setbacks. But time and again new and more inspiring versions will be thought up and fought for. Europe is where we recognise ourselves in the unknowable other and find ways to communicate and cooperate against all odds.

Yvonne Hofstetter, German jurist and essayist
Europe is telling me a breathtaking tale. It all begins with the philosophers of antiquity. An empire stands for both military force and peaceful trade among peoples. Great migration brings down powerful Rome. It also fails because of its decadence, which is challenged by a new religion: Christianity, the refuge of the blessed of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Middle Ages Christianity shapes Europe’s people and their worldview, creating culture and beautiful arts. But heaven and hell become too narrow for the people of the Renaissance. They start for new horizons, for natural sciences and Enlightenment. Finally, the 20th century is a breakthrough for Europe’s democracies and brings unique peace, under the bloodiest throes with tens of millions of deaths. This Pax Europaea shaped my life. I am deeply grateful for my European neighbours, for their beloved cultural differences and charming peculiarities. This means Europe to me: peaceful pluralism, respect of others, international friendships and the power of complementarity. Let us ensure that no one separates us.

Carine Krecké, Luxembourgish artist
It is without doubt the biggest chance we Europeans have to overcome nationalism, protectionism and conflicts of all kinds on our continent. Since 1945, Europe stands for peace and unity, freedom and democracy. But the past 10 years have shown us that Europe is a fragile equilibrium that should not be taken for granted.

Since 2008, Europe lurched from one ‘systemic’ crisis to another, be they economic, financial, migratory or, most recently, health-related. In 2012, for example, the sovereign debt crisis nearly destroyed the eurozone and its still young common currency; a few years later, Brexit posed another threat to the integrity of the union; shortly afterwards, Italexit was lurking and euroscepticism was gaining ground.

Meanwhile, it is as if the state of emergency had become a permanent feature of today’s European Union, which responds to each new challenge with greater bureaucracy, regulation and intervention. So far, the bloc has done rather well in its crisis management. But hopefully the well-intended, safety-promoting (and all-encompassing) paternalism of the next generation EU will not end up undermining Europe’s fundamental spirit of individual liberty.

Silvia Bencivelli, Italian science journalist
Europe, to me, means home. And home to me means a place to grow up, to build the future, to feel safe and, possibly, happy. Therefore also a place to protect.

Saara Turunen, Finish playwright and director 
Thinking about Europe raises contradictory feelings. I cannot avoid thinking about those countries that have negative opinions about abortion or freedom of speech. I feel disappointment with the EU not penalising those governments harder. Human rights and freedom of expression shouldn’t be negotiable.

Yet I’m grateful to be able to say I’m European and feel I’m part of a community that goes further than my country’s borders. Geographically Finland is far away from everything, and mentally it’s a bit self-complacent and introverted place, and it comforts me to think that there is something else, that we are part of the bigger entity. 

Maarja Kangro, Estonian poet and translator
I would exaggerate if I said that Europe is to my mind what the sexual act between my mother and father some decades ago was to my body, but there’s something to it. The awareness of Europe and its history, its cultural overlappings and diversity provided context to so many things in my early childhood already. Yes, yes, in the Soviet Estonia of the 1980s: I was a bloody Eurocentrist at the age of 7, learning all the capitals of the European countries and being sure that this area was mine.


These writers are all taking part in Hay Festival Europa28, which brings together 28 women writers, journalists, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs – one from each EU country, plus the UK – to share their visions for the future in a free digital festival.

It runs until October 9. For more information, and to get involved, click here 

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