Shylock and the European Constitution
In The Merchant of Venice, one of the most painful and intriguing Shakespeare plays, Shylock, the Jewish usurer takes to court Antonio, the rich Gentile nobleman. In a moment of ultimate arrogance and disdain, Antonio had signed a bond according to which he would pay with his own flesh, if he can't reimburse the money borrowed from Shylock. He does not meet the deadline and the usurer, confident in his case, seeks justice at the court of the Duke. At the end of the trial, however, it is Shylock who is dispossessed, publicly humiliated and sentenced to death. His life is saved at the price of renouncing his faith, which means losing his community, the last pillar of his existence.
Although Shakespeare's piece was written 400 years ago, it seems to address the key issues that are in the heart of the present debates concerning Europe's future; transparency, integration and basic values. Shylock knew and trusted his city's laws and acted according to them. However, as it turned out, he was only acquainted with a section of the laws. He didn’t suspect that during the process new clauses and paragraphs would be revealed, which would destroy him. I have the feeling that most people who rejected the European Constitution Treaty this Summer, were moved by the same panic Shylock must have felt; the extreme vulnerability vis-à-vis our institutions and laws. Europe's political elites elaborated a Treaty, carefully measuring every word, without bothering to consult the citizens who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the process. When at the end the people were presented with the result and asked to vote for it, their first gut-reaction was fear: fear of the unknown falling upon them from above. They ignored what exactly the regulations contain, on behalf of what interests and values they were created, how they were to be implemented. Independent of its content, the very process of the Constitution's creation was a key to its refusal.
The next subject in Shakespeare's "comedy" is integration that is taught through presenting the brutalizing effects of exclusion. In the public trial of Shylock and Antonio the erudite Master of Law, - who, at the request of the Duke, arrived from neighboring Padua, - calls Shylock an "alien". Shylock belongs to the despised Jewish community, but he is sure that the town's laws would protect him as any other citizen of Venice. Suddenly, probably due to his origins, he is labeled an outsider and is judged more severely than the Venetians. First, he was defeated by the skillful manipulation of the laws, next he became a stranger in his own town, whose rights and duties are defined by those who stand against him. We are not supposed to feel sympathy for a usurer, but we follow his agony with increasing unease. Our daily experience shows that the same can happen to us any time if we suddenly loose our job, savings, dwelling or references.
Shylock is a grumpy, unhappy old man, but not a nasty character, like Harpagon, another famous miser of world literature is. He becomes aggressive and inhuman reacting to the permanent insults he suffers in liberal, fun-loving Venice. Antonio and his friends are generous and emotional towards each other, but become extremely brutal and spiteful, when it comes to those outside their social and ethnic group. In the circle of insiders there is solidarity, though it can easily be overwritten by temporary interests; support among the excluded ones cracks at the first sign of threat. In two powerful, enraged monologues Shylock reveals the hypocrisy and injustice of this world, but his words are the ravings of a demented outsider - nobody pays attention to them. Double standards, different behavior patterns concerning "us and them" have been part of our reality since the swan of Avon stopped singing. We only have to recall how carefully the tree planted by Goethe was looked after in the middle of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Antonio hates Shylock because he is a Jew and keeps humiliating him, even when he uses his services. Shylock receives the insults as his lot, but his accumulated anger bursts out at the trial. At the beginning there is just distant animosity between the two men; by the end of the play, they want to destroy each other. Another unpleasant lesson for our Europe of poorly digested integrations. Within the history of our continent, we can detect a story of softening exclusion. At the beginnings, in ancient Athens, the fruits of democracy and wellbeing were reserved for those inside the gates; male, proprietor, able-bodied citizens of the town. The outsiders were barbarians, (who tend to commit barbarous acts) even if the Persians, for example, had a cultural history going back some millennia further than that of the Greeks. Europe needed to extend its borders to assure its opulence. For centuries this extension was hidden. Europeans could pretend that their fabulous wealth fell upon them from the skies; as if gold, café, sugar, silk, spices, oil came here on their own, seduced by the extreme beauty of our blessed lands, very much like cheap manpower that was attracted by our outstanding values, not hunger. By the 20th century the extension of Europe's borders became visible; what is more: an economic and political goal. What originally emerged as a sheer economic need eventually was presented as one of the basic values of our continent. A key aspect that will determine the future nature of Europe is whether the softening geographical exclusion will be followed by decreasing social exclusion; whether those - ethnic minorities, long-term poor, long-term jobless, illegal immigrants - who are excluded from the benefits of European democracy and wellbeing, will be at all considered for inclusion.
At present, however, openness is blamed for the increasing existential insecurity in our destabilized continent. The French voters are afraid of the Chinese sweatshop worker, the Germans feel the need to cut more into their welfare system, the Dutch are anxious about their Muslim minority. The score is not better when we look at our latest great achievement, the enlargement of the European Union. As far as politics goes, Western Europe keeps looking at Eastern Europe with slightly scornful paternalism, as if we were infant nations that were unable to develop normally under the Soviet tutelage. As if belonging to the Eastern bloc were a deliberate option taken by the people of Budapest, Prague or Warsaw and not decided in the comfortable armchairs of Yalta, and confirmed silently each time those in Budapest, Prague or Warsaw resisted and tried to change it. In economic terms for the time being our role seems to oscillate between lucrative (and grateful) hunting fields for capital investments and the threat of the Polish plumber.
And since for centuries we have interiorized the reflexes of submission, we "entered" Europe with awe and high expectations. Due to our historic backwardness and the relative isolation of the post WW2 period, Europe remained for us an unreachable land of ideals - as if the image of our continent would shine brighter for those who long for it, than for those who live in it. Soon after the fall of the Wall this romantic longing was quickly transformed into a political target in the form of NATO and EU membership. This goal was highly symbolic - membership meant the international legitimization of the new political systems, but also had material motivations: Eastern European countries hoped for some sort of a post-Cold War Marshall aid as a reward for their democratic achievements. Once we accomplished our goal, we looked around in our new home and quickly understood that the "really existing Europe" is quite different of the Europe of our dreams, of generous welfare states, unlimited freedom and prosperity. This fast return to reality created a fair amount of Euroscepticism, but on the long run it might help us to realize what an unprecedented opportunity we have to reconstruct Europe along its best traditions.
It will take some time to erase the marks of the former Iron Curtain from our collective consciousness on both sides of the continent and get used to the idea that we are equal partners in a new European Union. Eastern Europe forms the borders, and borders define an entity as much as its core. The nature of this border; whether it will be like a wall or a membrane filtering through inputs and outputs, will depend on the development and cooperation potential of the new EU members and the "old" Europe's efforts to integrate them. And we are still a long way from realizing that Europe does not end at the Bosporus or the outskirts of Kiev.
The Merchant of Venice talks at length about reality and appearances. Vows are broken, words are fallacious, friends betray friends and children cheat their parents; nobody is what she/he appears to be at the first sight. The erudite external consultant in law is indeed beautiful Portia, very much interested in Antonio's rescue. Nothing should be taken at face value. At the end of the play, we are relieved that murder was avoided and the lovers found each other, but our relief is mixed with bitterness and an overwhelming feeling of fragility. The confusion of values was very evident in the issue of the European Constitution. The Treaty displayed an eclectic mix of values, between solidarity and competitiveness, democracy and bureaucracy, intervention and laissez faire, realism and wishful thinking, mirroring faithfully the state of confusion in our European heads. In the heated discussions opponents and partisans could use the same pieces of the text, to prove their arguments. They kept referring to genuine European values and identity, a notion hardly anybody could define.
Europe is often identified with humanism, tolerance, democracy and social responsibility. European history, however, has been a series of magnificent declarations of freedom and devoted freedom struggles and the cynical destruction of the same. We simply forget about the dark face of our continent, with two world wars, the dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, Salazar or Ceausescu. We also omit the periods of compromise between freedom and tyranny; those humiliating, but to a certain extent constructive years that take place after revolutions are crushed, terror has run out of steam and time comes to adjust the irreconcilable differences that tore societies apart for the sake of survival. The Spanish civil war ended with bloody repression that was followed by a "consolidated" Francoism, which lasted until the dictator's peaceful death. The same happened in Hungary, where the leaden times of reprisals after 1956 eventually led to Kádár's "gulyas communism". Revolution, dictatorship and compromise, the three typical phases of European history come in different forms and shapes, are dressed in different ideologies, last for some years or some decades, but they are all parts of our common heritage.
Similarly, when we cast a glance at Europe's role outside her boundaries, the ambiguous role of our continent, - with the devastating impact of colonialism, fight for control over resources and imperial power games – is confirmed even more. Our actions abroad were most often guided by the destructive logic of "us and them", allowing European nations to neglect the values they were supposed to represent back home. Europe nevertheless keeps appearing as the land of freedom, tolerance, humanism, etcetera, and this is not only self-deception. It was here where these values were first formulated and elevated to the height of political goals. Besides the really existing Europe there is a Europe of ideals. And this idealist Europe was indeed able to give mankind a handful of beautiful moments; when ideals and reality have approached each other.
Interestingly though, the periods when the Europe of ideals was publicly vindicated, usually followed a major crisis; as if the inhabitants of our continent always needed a shock to realize the depths of destruction their social structures and impulses carry and seek alternatives; as if these values could only be defined ex-post and against something. The European Constitution Treaty emerged from the latest of Europe's identity crises, which germinated during the 1991-1995 Balkan wars, manifested itself violently in the Kosovo crisis and reached its nadir with the public split over the Iraq war. The very fundaments of post-war Europe were shaken. The continent's governments were unable to reach consensus and act on behalf of their declared values, European institutions were paralyzed and an increasing unilateralism in US foreign policy became apparent. The European political class prepared an answer to the crisis, which was doomed. If Europe were able to learn from its own mistakes, it would greet the apparent shipwreck of the Constitution Treaty with relief and use the opportunity to create feasible and attractive future proposals for its people with its people.
European identity is multifaceted, evasive and permanently changing, as are national identities that constitute it. Europe's values will manifest themselves "in action", in our continent's failures and achievements. The escalation of the Yugoslav crisis was a purely European product, as is the European peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reaction of each EU member state to each emerging issue will be a mixture of economic interests, historic experiences, ideals and phobias, asserted values and temporary political constellations. Policymakers should find the common points in these diverse and permanently varying cocktails, mobilize the strongest possible will to cooperate on joint agendas and make problem-solving as open and democratic as possible. And read Shakespeare.
Shylock und die Integration. (Shylock and the integration) Lettre International, No. 72. Berlin, March 2006. (Romanian version: Shylock si Constitutia Europeana; 2006. Sumar. no.58.; Hungarian version: Shylock és az integracio, 2006. nyar, No.61.); Living in diversity (English original) Living in diversity, 20 Oct 2011.