Europe’s Greatest Weakness and Greatest Strengths

In short: it’s the borders, but not as you know it.

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A continent loosely summed up as 750 million people in the more northern climes of the world, famous for its history, heritage and export of culture (and peoples).

But let’s look closer at the geography: the world’s sole ‘landmass’ delineated from the rest by physical barrier – mountain ranges and seas (do ignore the Indian ‘subcontinent’, China or Eastern Africa that could easily do the same) – with the Caucasus forming an adjunct against the Middle East at one end, and the more spurious boundary of the Urals at the other. Never mind that this range peters out uncharitably 600km from the Caspian coast, and is low and heavily gap-toothed anyway – infinitely porous for the peoples of the Steppe, and to which White Russia has long suffered and capitalised on, this is the boundary that claims itself a stopper against the rest of the Asian multitudes. That declares itself more than just a peninsular of Asia.

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The idea that all continents are defined by their physicality demonstrates European exceptionalism – insofar that the idea of Europe is in reality more based on ethnicity, thinly veiled. That what defined this continent has long been the triptych of pale skin, Caucasian race and Christian culture, all but glossed over in textbooks to this day and accepted as an unsaid, unquestioned norm. With this idea comes the attachments of history, a richly influential vein that runs through collective peoples who went on to annexe 3.5 other continents (the Americas, Australasia and Russia/ Kazakhstan) as the greatest source of immigration the world has ever known and likely ever will. In short Europe is a sanctum alluding to the ‘old country’ for many hundreds of millions outside it still, and an idealistic narrative on governance  to even more – a cultural source code for successful nations if one may, yet often reduced to a sum of parts. Europe frequently gets boiled down to a list of these parts.

Ethnic map of the world by Haplogroup:

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This veneration is both the winning laurel and Damoclean sword. On one hand its historic urbanity, iconic motifs and exportable cuisines, languages, style and arts continue to draw visitors and investment by the billion, yet its exceptional storytelling can also jar with the demands of a globalised world, and demographic paths toward a more mutually reliant populace on the big spinner. As the per capita incomes of the Developed World and the Developing World (once known as the Third World) begin to converge the eyeliner so long denoting Europe as belle of the ball is increasingly consequential: attracting even more suitors but also a more fragile sanctimoniousness.

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For example, Europe’s plinth-like status brings in 671 million visitors (2017, accounting for 57% of international travel), with $767 billion investment to local economies – by far the largest destination for tourism, immigration and FDI. New housing, continents removed, still delusionally aspire to Tuscan villas, Norfolk farmhouses and Berlin apartments whether they be in the sprawl of the Texan interior, embattled Israeli outposts or upmarket estates in China’s third tier cities. The English language/ suit has become the uniform for global professionals, and Greek democracy, Italian art, French enlightenment, English industrialisation, British and Russian economics, and Swiss modernism have been adopted as worldly norms – sold as templates for governance and modern culture. Looking back on this weight of far-reaching achievement pride becomes an easy reaction, despite cultural piggy-backing, technology transfer strictly limited between brothers-in-arms, and disparate achievements conveniently united by one race (a redrawing of boundaries as and when needed), cultivated under the umbrella term of Western iconography – but subtly redolent of supremacism. Not to mention a more painful eyeballing from history on an inheritance built on colonialism, slavery, incessant power struggles, foreign invasion and hierarchical inequality no different from the rest.

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But Europe today is also a region most angst-ridden about outside influence and historic navel-gazing (or utter lack of, via rose-tinted media portrayals), susceptible to modern day demagogues, where every major economy is now, for the first time in a century, either right wing or in coalition with the far right.

To start, one cannot possibly quantify 750 million people, 130 languages, 50 countries, 87 ethnic groups and myriad cultures and histories as one. Witness the past attempts to do so, whether through bloody world war or cultural hand-wringing when pacts such as NATO or the EU sacrificed imagined sovereignty for greater geopolitical win-win. The continent is still a disparate collection behind the flawless face, with infighting commonplace between countries, and regions within – not to mention many societal pitchforks readied for the stream of newcomers, whether they be from the continent or outside (and despite the welcome also laid out). This is little different from many given parts of the world.

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Separatism within Europe:

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Yet should Europe give up on its institutionalised veneration on what it thinks it is to be European – rather than by dint of pure geography – it would find it can marry contemporary progressiveness with a rich past and continuation of traditions. Look at the record of the Nordic, Alpine and Benelux nations, world leaders in education, quality of life, social justice, economic performance and environmentalism coupled with a rich heritage of culture, architecture and the arts, all within the same breathless sentiment.

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But contrast that with worrying support for Le Pen, Jobbik, the Freedom Party or Brexit, coupled with instances of hate crime, terrorism, media-fuelled xenophobia and a stout lack of charity for the current refugee crises (the vast majority of the worlds 68 million refugees fleeing to neighbours within the already embattled Middle East and Africa – some of which have become refugee-majority populations within the last decade – with ‘only’ 1 million of the richest affording the crossings to Europe).

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Also note how Austria and Denmark straddles both these perceptions – open progressiveness with reactionary populism, which lends to the fact no part can be summarised despite all intent. Should Eurocentrism take down its artificial borders both in mind and physicality it can limit the damage wrought by a generalised decline in birth rates and productivity, both demographically and culturally. When the ‘old country’ no longer negates the idea that all societies are new, and that they have always had to be in order to survive.

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Europe is in short a wondrous, rich tapestry of histories and cultures; it does well to build on it. But it also does well to remember how porous its borders were in the age of empires, whether being invaded and influenced from outside (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Turkics, Huns, the Silk Routes, Moors, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans) or doing the invading and influencing of the outside (Greek -Macedonian, Roman, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Russian, German), that has so lent it the multitudinal aspects to build and importantly, trade on.

Les trentes glorieuses:

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This is not to overlook the genius of democracy, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, but they were not entirely standalone as we have come to assume, and with often fore runners abroad, from China’s equivalent scaled Industrial Revolution in the Dark Ages (that was destroyed by Mongol politicking and climate change), to Mughal manufacturing that took a quarter of global GDP and Ming Dynasty navies that operated the largest pre-industrial ships, industries, explorations and fleets in history, to the first shoots of democracy in Iraq and India, alongside the worlds first cities, or the first modern warfare fired up by the Mongols.

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Many icons we think of intrinsically European come from beyond, from the adoption of a Middle Eastern religion that is Christianity, to the International Style of modernism (clue’s in the name) sourced from medieval Morocco and Japan, that the early modernists such as Le Courbousier studied – the white wedding dress of the Ottomans, the Romanesque arch of Arabia, the Mongol onion dome, the Chinese naval tech, the Japonisme of impressionism and modern art, the African beat, the SE Asian spices, the Americas coffee, Chinese tea, the Himalayan gardens, the Indian manufacturing, the modern American/Japanese business frame, the knife and fork, the apple, the tulip, we could go on, and still do. The idea of Europe breaking down its barriers to speed into motion its coming extinction, as had been done in the continents it itself overran in the past, only ever happened when coupled with genocide, including viral. The way we see the world today should, in a very European tradition, be encompassing, outward looking, clear – yet holding a subtle richness of history and nuance beyond the everyday.

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Do you agree? Comment below:

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What is the World’s Greatest City?

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Dubious question, and one that is contentious to say the least. In the past entire Thucydidean wars were declared over economic competition, trade, hegemony, religion, and culture for that title; today they are argued over endlessly  in annual criteria-based league tables, internet fora and in everything from Trip Advisor to The New Statesman. So why all the fuss? The title breeds geopolitical influence, soft power, tourist bucks and social media tags. Cities are that great coral reef of experience, impervious yet every growing and changing. They stand testament to our lives and livelihoods, our myriad cultures and collective consciousness– with the idea of a single pre-eminent city imbedding itself as a bedrock to contemporary society. A city is, if you like, a crystallisation of culture; the greatest city is the greatest place in humanity.

bjjjwww.johnlake.co.nz

Urban agglomerations are that great marker of history – touchstones of experience where entire eras become marked by their reign, from ancient Rome to Victorian London, Angkor to Edo – with surprising ‘entries’ that stand testament to time (if not in physicality), such as former world’s largest   – the boat city of Ayutthaya, Thailand to the present day hamlet of Gurganj, Turkmenistan, a glorious Silk Route nexus before it succumbed to history’s single bloodiest massacre.

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There are many criteria, or handfuls of monikers that can lay claim to the single greatest hit. Richest city? That would be Tokyo, followed by NYC, LA and Seoul by total city economy, to er, Oslo or Zurich per capita.  Most influential city? well that could be anyone’s guess – NYC, London, Seoul get bandied about a lot with the youthful limelight, whilst Beijing, Brussels and Washington DC have the largest bureaucratic sectors. And LA might have something to say about global entertainment.

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Most beautiful city? Once again, the arguments range on everyone’s tastes as collectively supportive for Rome or as individualised to Brasilia. Sydney, Sana’a, Venice, Havana, Fez… the list would be endless. Many would agree the most beautiful megacity would be the complex elegance of Paris, but that would discount the myriad voices calling up the canyonscapes of NYC, the natural wonders of Rio, the futurism of Shanghai or the glorious, pluralist mix that is Istanbul/ London /Beijing. Moreover, how many actually visited, and how many base their opinions from received sources?

paree.jpgblogs.ft.com

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Well the proof is in those voting with their feet some say – the most visited city, a rotation between Hong Kong, London, Paris, Singapore and Bangkok for international visitors, might be good indicators. But even with this seemingly narrowly defined criteria – based on numbers of overnighting foreign visitors – doubt still creeps through. Paris only counts its centre in the league (take that EuroDisney!), while Hong Kong is heavily skewed by the large amount of travelers coming in from over-the-border China, essentially the same country.

-And what about those domestic travelers? Are their views not as valid? Places like Kyoto and Orlando see in over 50 million visitors each year, double the top spot of the international-only league, while Shanghai, the freak, welcomed a whopping 70 million during 2010’s Expo year.

rioowww.telegraph.co.uk

Ratings? Well Kyoto, Charleston, Florence, Siem Reap, and Rome are all up there (Leisure and Travel Awards), as are London, Marrakesh, Istanbul, Paris, and Hanoi (Trip Advisor). Sun kissed, party mad Beirut makes sporadic appearances near the top depending on its security situation, whilst several places are as much loathed as glorified (ahem, Dubai, Macau, Seoul we’re looking at you). It’s pretty obvious there are too many cooks – whether they be trumpeting the Michelin stars of Tokyo or the street food of Tbilisi.

Beirut Residents Continue to Flock to Southern Neighborhoods

Beirut, http://www.worldpressphoto.org/collection/photo/2007/daily-life/spencer-platt

Plus there’s Quality of Life. The Nordic, Canadian, Oceanian cities doing swimmingly, but the perennial winners being a rostrum between Vienna, Munich, Auckland and Vancouver according to Mercer (39 scoring factors including political, economic, environmental, personal safety, health, education, transportation and other public services) with nods toward Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Toronto for the larger cities, and a whole 37 places before the first megacity over 10 million (Paris) shows her pretty head.

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Vienna, travelaway.me

Meanwhile, Monocle magazine puts a megacity right up there, climbing from 5th to 1st was Tokyo (due to its ‘defining paradox of heart-stopping size and concurrent feeling of peace and quiet’), but recently usurped by Copenhagen, with Vienna, Melbourne, Munich and Berlin (a rise of 11 places since ‘after dark’ living was taken into account) worthy of mention. It’s 22 metrics include several that look at housing and the cost of living, from the price of a three-bed pad to the cost of a glass of wine and decent lunch, plus access to the outdoors, with notable upsets when seasonal changes and ambience were taken into account in 2010 (Copenhagen, maelstrom of wintry existentialism, still managed to buck the trend).

copenCopenhagen, exithamster.wordpress.com

But then there are those places with the x factor, the je ne sais quoi regardless of manicured lawns and the price of middle class, middle aged lattes. We must bear in mind cities function in the mind as well as body, that they are a cumulative, inclusive experience. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s not just how pretty or rich or even popular you are.

Some pics to finish off with:

indJodhpur, www.theatlantic.com

issTel Aviv, www.allphotobangkok.com

lonnn.jpgLondon dalstonsuperstore.com

hanoiHanoi www.gettingstamped.com

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05 People Second Place Photo and caption by Yasmin Mund / National Geographic Travel

Jaipur, India

 

Continued next post…. The World’s Most Diverse City