Thursday, 01 May 2014 00:00

Road trip to a new Europe

Written by Edgar Gerrard Hughes



It's a sublime and sleepy spring afternoon in Słubfurt, and Michael Kurzwelly is pontificating from a tree stump in the central square of the city he founded. "I am not German, French or Polish," he says, "but European. When you have lived in many cultures, you cannot stand to exist in only one."

Kurzwelly lives in a picturesque university town that conventional maps know as Frankfurt an der Oder. The river that marks the eastern edge of the city is also the limit of the German state: on opposite bank sits the Polish town Słubice. As a sworn transnationalist, Kurzwelly did not feel at home in either Frankish Frankfurt or Slavic Słubice. His own identity, he says, was '"the identity of being in between." And so he dreamed up a polis of his own: Słubfurt, "the first city located half in Poland and half in Germany."

Fifteen years on, Słubfurt has developed from an artist's flight of fancy to the capital city of a unique breed of nation. Its name is Nowa Amerika and its 'fluid borders' stretch from the Czech frontier to the Baltic Sea. It is at once an art project, an anarchic joke and a protest against the limitations of the nation state; an "imagined community", in Benedict Anderson's words, or perhaps a state of the mind. Yet it is not a purely conceptual entity. Nowa Amerika has its own parliament, constitution ('everything is permitted') and newspaper, as well as a currency divided into units of time.

Finally, it has its headquarters. Once a dreary urban wasteland earmarked for development into a mall, the square is now a verdant and lively hub with a bike track, a volleyball court, a giant chess set and a "speaker's corner". And today Słubfurt square has some significant guests: about me perch a group of wanderers on a mission to connect the dots between Europe's countless "local struggles" (of which Michael Kurzwelly's is just one). They are the crew of one of six "caravans" currently touring a continent they hope to reshape for the better.

Photo: Edgar Gerrard Hughes
A state of mind: Michael Kurzwelly in Słubfurt's central square.

Transeuropa Caravans is an initiative created by European Alternatives, a campaign that aims to 'promote democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation state'. Since 2012 they have been methodically building the blueprint for a new Europe founded on the demands and desires of ordinary citizens. First, consultations were held with individuals and civil society groups in cities from Cardiff to Bucharest. Then, with the help of legal experts, European Alternatives converted these into a Citizens' Manifesto packed with concrete policy proposals. Some, such as ending forced evictions or Roma people, would be achievable immediately and without further legislation. Others are more ambitious – one item, for instance, proposes an unconditional basic income for all EU citizens. But all are underpinned by a philosophy of "pragmatic utopianism".

A handful of MEPs have already pledged their support for the manifesto; more will surely follow. But comprehensive as it is, this manifesto is still a work in progress. And the six "caravans" currently trundling their way around Europe are the next stage in the project's development. "First we invited the people to come to us," says Daphne Büllesbach, the co-ordinator of the North Eastern caravan route. "Now we are going to the people." Not just any people, however, but those who "come together locally to challenge the status quo." The day before I met them, this caravan met a group of rebel economists in Leipzig campaigning for a degrowth economy. The following day they would visit a Polish community devoted to the campaign for Roma rights.

At first sight, this "caravan" is simply an eccentric road trip. The squat Citroen 2CV and the lumbering Volkswagen minivan – "the Duck and the Bulli", as they are known by their crew – hardly seem like the mechanised infantry of a soft revolution. But then that is part of the point: the Europe they aim to create will not be forged primarily through treaties or summits, but through thousands of local initiatives and personal connections between ordinary citizens.

Last modified on Thursday, 01 May 2014 16:39

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