In 2009 the first Central European Forum in Bratislava marked the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution by looking back at the transition to democracy that had taken place over the previous two decades. The late President Václav Havel, a key driving force behind this process, was among the first cohort of distinguished guests who accepted our invitation to debate the question ‘Whatever Happened to Democracy?’ This issue may have sounded somewhat provocative at the time whereas today it leaves everyone cold, as many people across Central Europe appear to be losing faith in democracy. It is as if people can recall only the first part of Churchill’s famous adage – ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others’ – while ignoring the punch line. The world seems to have forgotten how much worse all the other options are.
However, the cornerstone of a democratic system can’t have simply vanished into thin air. The need for human dignity, freedom and solidarity still exists, it has only been increasingly difficult to find, masked as it is by a distorted form of desire to belong and submit to something that has been stifling calls for reason and empathy with others. The French philosopher André Glucksmann dubbed this type of desire nihilist. He argued that we need to understand nihilism in order to successfully defend European civilisation from the nihilism of terrorists, as well as the nihilism of dictators and corrupt politicians, the nihilism of movements full of young men cultivating hatred and the nihilism of general indifference.
Is there anything we can do to stem this trend? The developments we have seen in Central Europe so far this year do not offer much hope. Citing the need to protect us from immigrants, our governments have isolated us from the rest of Europe, leaving other countries to shoulder the burden of the mass exodus of people from crisis regions. We have paid a fatal price for this isolation: the coarsening of public discourse, the rise of nihilism and growing popular support for parties and movements that have swept into parliaments on a surge of fear.
Our common Europe now faces further similar surges unleashed by global upheavals of an economic, political and environmental nature. More and more people will be headed for our continent. At the same time, a barrier of alienation will keep growing between the citizens on the one hand and, on the other, institutions of liberal democracy that are no longer fit for purpose in a globally interlinked world and whose room for manoeuvre keeps shrinking.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” said the great 20th century cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Opinion polls have shown that a terrifying number of Europeans have succumbed to a fear of the future. But the large numbers of susceptible people do not necessarily reflect the full picture.
When things seem at their most hopeless we often say that hope is the last thing to die. However, sometimes hope can be the first thing to die, with everything else following suit. When the majority in a democratic society no longer believes in a chance of a democratic future, that chance will undoubtedly be lost.
“Action is the antidote to despair” claims Joan Baez, still a revered icon in our part of the world. In order to find the antidote to despair we have to keep our eyes open and not let our view be distorted by fear. At this year’s Central European Forum writers, scholars, journalists, activists and – unusually – also politicians, from all over Europe, will share with the public their antidotes to fear. We hope you will come and join our discussions at the Astorka-Korzo’90 Theatre in Bratislava and in Banská Bystrica.
Central European Forum 2016 is organised by the NGO Project Forum in partnership with:
the European Alternatives Platform
the Václav Havel Library
the Artfórum Bookshop
the NGO Česko-slovenské Mosty (Czecho-Slovak Bridges)
Not in Our City, a civic platform
Time to Talk, a Pan-European debating network
and a team of volunteers, Bratislava university students
This year’s conference is taking place with the generous support of:
the European Commission – the Europe for Citizens Programme
the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic
the ERSTE Foundation in Vienna
the Bratislava Regional Authority
the Goethe-Institut in Bratislava
the French Institute in Bratislava
the Slovenská Sporiteľňa Foundation in Bratislava