We have to educate people and fight the nationalistic knee-jerk reactions that make rich and poor alike believe they have something to gain by pushing others away. We can—we must—take our task seriously, but not too seriously, and more importantly, laugh at our own misfortunes.
People sometimes cross paths. They may be heading directly where their fellow travellers came from. Sometimes no one really knows where anyone else is headed. Some are convinced the others are going the wrong direction and want to turn round, grab them and lead them on the right path. We are living in a time when a constant feeling of crisis, upheaval and deep-seated change looms large, giving rise to a widespread tendency to mourn the past and fantasise about a “comforting” return to rigid values, closed borders and simplistic rhetoric. Those who know that this “crisis” is not really a crisis, that the world will never revert to what it was before (and thankfully so!), must make these people understand that we need more Europe and not less, that instead of avoiding each other we must learn to live together, that we have to be optimistic and determined.
Europe is not popular. Nowadays it is no longer enough to show that the European Union has brought peace to its founding members and those that have joined since the Second World War. Not everything has been as advertised. We were promised unrealistic economic growth, endless opportunities and newfound freedoms. What is more, in a cowardly betrayal, many of the people who built the EU constantly denigrated it while doing so. Many politicians repeatedly blamed “Brussels” for everything that is unpopular while at the same time taking credit for the more popular decisions, even though they are made by the same Europe.
The anti-European groups that have always existed in the founding member countries are now being joined, as neighbouring states come on board, by hordes of nationalist politicians going after European seats in an attempt to bring down the institution from within.
I am Belgian. I live in a country often described as a miniature Europe, where several different cultures coexist. I can clearly see how the idea of cutting ties—breaking things up and reassembling them in smaller, autonomous entities, advocating the “every man for himself” approach in all its permutations—could be electorally advantageous.
As a cartoonist, I know first-hand that it takes a lot of imagination to talk about Europe without poking fun at the complexity of its institutions or the absurdity of certain decisions, without criticising the influence of lobbyists, the salaries of MEPs and civil servants, and the divide between citizens and the organs of power. And because humour loses much of its punch when it chooses cheerfulness over sarcasm, I use my drawings to emphasize the more negative aspects and, in my modest way, console people by helping them laugh at their misfortunes.
Another point I try to make whenever possible is that, while no opinion should be censored, we must not be taken in by the allure of the more simplistic among them.
It may seem strange that writers, politicians and sociologists came up with the idea of asking me, a cartoonist, to join them in setting up a foundation that we have decided to call “Ceci n’est pas une crise” (“This is not a crisis”), a name which, straight out of the box, invites us to think more deeply about the times in which we are living. For my country, Europe and indeed the world, experiencing an economic crisis is not like going through a short-lived bout of depression or indigestion. Like the famous painting by my fellow countryman Magritte “This is not a pipe”, what we see is not necessarily what we are told we are seeing. The foundation will seek to bring about a wide-scale shift in attitudes, so that we move towards a society committed to living together, to exploring new ideas and discussing ways to dispel the fears aroused by the changes. We have to prevent situations where communities react by turning in on themselves, and help build a post-national, European society.
Having said that, the experience will be so dreadfully serious that I’ll want to draw again!