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US NewsWhat Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All

11:26  23 may  2019
11:26  23 may  2019 Source:   msn.com

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“ Slavery ,” an Italian grandmother said. “ Nothing at all ,” a French electrician said. “I grew up with that idea that Europe was our future,” Father Ragusa recalled. But for a new generation, Europe has become synonymous with austerity and the perils of open borders.

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What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times European countries’ flags flying in Strasbourg, France.

In his front yard in Poland, Jaroslaw Kurski flies the European Union flag, blue with a circle of yellow stars, and he carries one during street protests against a nationalist government that has chipped away at his country’s young democracy.

“The European flag has become the symbol of resistance,” said Mr. Kurski, the deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper based in Warsaw.

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In northern France, Guy Fünfrock and fellow Yellow Vest protesters at a rainy traffic roundabout talk about resistance, too, but defiantly fly the French tricolor. To them, Europe embodies everything they have come to hate: shuttered factories, stagnating wages and a young banker-turned-president who champions deeper integration.

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Slavery itself was never widespread in the North, though many of the region’s businessmen grew rich on the slave trade and investments in southern plantations. Though the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, the domestic trade flourished, and the enslaved population in the U.S

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Mayor Susanna Ceccardi of Cascina, Italy, on the platform, right, from the anti-immigrant League party campaigning in Cortona.

“This Europe serves big business, not the little people,” said Mr. Fünfrock, a retired carpenter.

I met Mr. Kurski and Mr. Fünfrock on a 10-day journey through the European Union before the Continent votes from Thursday through Sunday for the European Parliament. I wanted to know: What does Europe mean to Europeans today?

The election has shaped up as a battle for the soul of Europe — between those who want more Europe and those who would water it down. The decades-old project of unity has rarely been more precarious.

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Today that expansion has left the bloc laboring under the weight of its own ideals and ambitions.

I retraced its origin story, starting at the French-German border, where it all began after World War II. Then to Italy, the country where the founding treaty was signed by just six members. I ended in the post-Communist east, where Europe’s newest members, and many of its poorest, joined after the Cold War, eventually bringing the group to 28.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times A pedestrian bridge crossing the Rhine River, which forms the border between France and Germany.

By the end, I felt disoriented, and realized many Europeans did, too. “Freedom,” a German professor said, when asked what the European Union meant to him. “Slavery,” an Italian grandmother said. “Nothing at all,” a French electrician said.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times The Rev. Elvis Ragusa with parishioners at a home in Cascina, Italy. He said Europe is living “a big crisis.”

But almost no one wanted their country to leave the European Union, even if almost no one was happy with how it was working.

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That it simply requires a reboot, like switching a computer off and on again. Its tone is that of the hectoring schoolmaster who knows what’s best for the children, and tolerates no dissent. This is not a dialogue but a lecture we need to accept without question.

Slavery , condition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons. Learn more about the history, legality, and sociology of slavery in this article.

Hope competed with disillusionment, I found. The balance almost invariably depended on opportunity — whether the idea of Europe had opened doors to prosperity, or let in unwanted threats in the form of new states, new values or new people.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Schoolchildren in Gdansk, Poland.

In the sleepy Tuscan town of Cascina, Italy, I met a Catholic priest who fretted that Europe had lost its way.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Syrian refugees, who had arrived during the migrant crisis, watching a soccer game at a bar in Strasbourg, France.

“We’re living a big crisis,” the Rev. Elvis Ragusa, 36, said, sitting in an office next to his small church.

As a child, he watched an Italian television series called “Europe Is Us.” There was also a game show that offered up to 1 million lira to the first person to call in and shout “Europa, Europa!” live on air.

It was the 1990s and Europe meant prosperity. “I grew up with that idea that Europe was our future,” Father Ragusa recalled.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times The cathedral in Strasbourg, France, a city on the border with Germany.

But for a new generation, Europe has become synonymous with austerity and the perils of open borders.

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Father Ragusa’s town had voted for the left for seven decades. But three years ago, it became the first Tuscan town to switch allegiance to the hard-right, anti-immigrant League party of Matteo Salvini, Europe’s most flamboyant populist leader.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Rita Lemmel, the daughter of a German prisoner of war who married a French factory worker, dreams of an American-style United States of Europe.

The priest took a small plastic globe off his bookshelf and spun it to show a flagrantly outsized Italian boot protruding from Europe. This is how Italians like to think of Italy today, he said.

Nationalism is winning. “It could be very dangerous,” he said.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times A teachers’ demonstration in Reims, France.

His words came back to me in Arezzo, Italy, where an engineer recalled his shock when his 16-year-old daughter gave the thumbs up after she heard on the news that a hundred migrants had drowned.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Magdalen Adamowicz in her apartment outside Gdansk, Poland. Her husband, Pawel Adamowicz, was mayor of the city until his murder in January.

“Good,” she had said, “that’s a hundred less coming to Italy.” Then, seeing her father’s face, she added: “Look, Dad, don’t be so shocked, everyone thinks this.”

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A French teacher from Normandy told me how his students started describing immigrants as “rats” during the 2015 migrant crisis.

After that, he started signing them up for a European exchange program, Erasmus. I met him and his students on the plane to Gdansk, Poland.

“I thought: What can we do at our level to open these kids up to humanist ideas, to the idea of Europe?” the teacher, Mathieu Le Parquois, told me. His grandmother had been deported during World War II, but that was ancient history for his students.

“Not even their grandparents experienced it,” he said.

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The place where I still found abundant idealism was in Strasbourg, France, on the border with Germany, where people did remember that history.

There, I met Rita Lemmel, the daughter of a German prisoner of war, who married a French factory worker. Their daughter has both passports, speaks both languages, lives in France and works in Germany. All three dream of a United States of Europe, American-style.

“We should have a president, and governors in each country,” said her French husband, Bruno Lemmel.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times The shipyards in Gdansk, where the Solidarity union was born.

But more often, I found that the European Union had become a proxy for big abstract things that people feel threaten their way of life: Migration in Italy. Capitalism in France. Liberal secular values in Poland.

Some were contemplating liberal democracy itself.

“Is it the best system we have? And for whom?” asked Wit Nirski, a 36-year-old advertisement strategist I met on the train from Warsaw back to Berlin. “Is it the best system for growth, is it the best system for people?”

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times A view from the train from Gdansk to Warsaw. “If people were happy,” he added, “why would the populists gain?”

Nowhere did the conversations feel as raw as in Poland, where freedom is both recent and fragile.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Worshipers attending mass at St. Mary’s Church in Gdansk. Gdansk — the city where World War II started; where the Solidarity union that brought down Communism was born; where Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, was born, too — was still reeling from the fatal stabbing this year of its mayor, Pawel Adamowicz.

His widow, Magdalena Adamowicz, is running in the European elections after her husband’s murder because, as she put it, Europe means “tolerance.”

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Supporters of the League party during a campaign event at a discotheque in the seaside town of Cecina, Italy. Two of her grandmothers survived Auschwitz, she told me. “If you set people against each other, then you can have the same story as before,” she said. The week before I was with her, Polish state television showed images of Mr. Tusk next to images of Hitler and Stalin.

Mr. Kurski, the editor, told me that his paper faces some 30 lawsuits, several from the nationalist government.

The European Union and the European Court of Justice are important allies, Mr. Kurski said. “Without the European Union,” he said, “Poland would be an authoritarian state.”

Yet in the small Polish town of Swiebodzin, whose claim to fame is a giant statue of Jesus, several people told me that Europe stands for diktat and secularization.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Workers in the Kronen factory in Kehl, Germany.

“The E.U. is dictating conditions to Poland,” said a local resident named Borzena, 59, as she stepped out from an evening Mass. Gay marriage and gay adoption were not welcome here, she said.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Elena Borisova, a Bulgarian living in Germany, is a supporter the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Opposite the church, a nationalist election poster showed the campaign slogan of the governing Law and Justice party: “Poland is the heart of Europe.”

Poland’s nationalists do not want to take Poland out of the European Union. They want to take the European Union out of Poland.

“We are Polish and we want to stay Polish,” Danuta Bialooka-Kostenecka, a local politician in the north, told me.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times Jeremy Klein at home in Reims, France. It was after the former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union that things got tough in France, he said. Everywhere people wanted their own nation “first.” Especially in Italy.

I spent a day on the campaign trail with Susanna Ceccardi, a 32-year-old rising star of the League, who says Europe is at risk of being Islamized.

As mayor of Cascina, she has instructed the police to remove immigrant hawkers, hired private security guards outside schools and handed out pepper spray to Italian women in her town. She was distributing fliers one recent Saturday, promising to fight “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times The flower market in Kehl, a western German town where the streets are clean and unemployment is low.

Like on that Tuscan square, where the League was the only party campaigning, in Kehl, a contented western German town where the streets are clean, the cars are big and unemployment is low, the only campaign stall I saw belonged to a far-right party, Alternative for Germany.

Its slogan — “Secure the Borders!” — made me think of all the times I had crossed borders on this journey, while barely noticing.

I walked across the Rhine, once a front line between France and Germany.

I took the train from Poland back to Germany, crossing the Oder, another river name associated with a front line.

But where physical borders have melted away, other borders have risen. Borders between cities and countryside, borders between young and old and, above all, between rich and poor.

Those borders have grown taller, said Jeremy Klein, one of the Yellow Vest protesters on the roundabout of Thillois, outside of Reims, France.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Andrew Testa for The New York Times A tower block in a poor area of Reims. An electrician, Mr. Klein works 60-hour weeks and still struggles. He blames Europe. It was after the former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union that things got tough in France, he said.

“We have sold our know-how to Europe and now we are in competition with workers who are paid less than us,” he said. “We’re just competing with Europe. It is not a fair Europe. I don’t feel European at all. I am French, only French.”

The Kleins have never voted and do not plan to vote in the European elections. “What’s the point?” Mr. Klein said.

After 10 days on the road, my main takeaway was this: Europe cannot be taken for granted. But neither can its demise.

What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All © Getty As Father Ragusa put it in Tuscany, Europe is a choice Europeans need to make over and over again.

He spoke of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was killed by the Nazis and had written about the role a toxic combination of economic hardship and ethnic hatred played in the rise of fascism. What he had written about Germany during its ascent could have been written today, Father Ragusa said.

The question Europe ultimately faces is the same, today as always, he said: “What values do you want to follow? You have a responsibility to decide.”

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin and Joanna Berendt contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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