Greifswald students might be able to answer questions about Europe and the EU but do they actually feel European? asks the initiative Wir Sind Europa.
By Emma Wallis
Like many things in Germany, when something has to be done, it should be done properly. So it is perhaps not a surprise that a pub quiz is serious business in Greifswald student bar “Die Kiste”. By the advertised start time, most teams are already in place, one even has its own team banner, a badminton racket with its name “The shuttle and the cocks” written on it. Not more than 6 people are allowed per table and no help is allowed from outside, so strictly no smart-phone scrolling.
The evening kicks off with a projected video about the dangers of over-drinking, “a joke” whisper Anna-Lena Steltzer and Sophia Siemer, (students with the “Wir Sind Europa” group, who have contributed three European themed rounds to the quiz) to me as I look a bit confused. Beers are in evidence on the tables, but equally many soft drinks lubricate the participants as the teams sit poised with their pens and printed sheets, ready to start. In a black and white dress and high heeled black and white brogues, the quiz compere, Paola Schewe quietens the room down and calls Anna-Lena and Sophia up to explain a bit more about the ‚Wir Sind Europa‘ contribution. The teams listen intently and examine the ‚Wir Sind Europa‘ flyers placed on their tables.
Who is the new Handball Meister in Germany?
Round One is a general news round from the quiz masters and the first question focuses on the singer from German band, ‚Die Toten Hosen.‘ So far, so German. The second question is about the new Handball Meister, they turn out to be from Flensburg. Question three is about the price of a giant pearl and question four wants the name of the Swiss referendum about bank control of the Swiss franc. Then we jump outside Europe to ask how does a big entrepreneur propose to solve the South African water crisis, with an iceberg pulled from the Antarctic comes the answer later. Who is the new US Ambassador in Germany? Richard Grenell is the answer. What happened to the AFD politician Alexander Gauland recently? (His clothes were stolen whilst bathing.) Where did the latest volcanic crisis explode? – Guatemala; and how old is the nearby (to Greifswald) former fishing village Wieck – 770 years old apparently.
Working in journalism, I ought to have got 10 out of 10 for that round, but, ahem, I realise my general knowledge / current affairs is woefully patchy. I console myself with the thought that I’m just not good at pub quizzes and things start to look up, it seems for everyone, when we move away from general knowledge and towards the European themed questions.
Do you mean EU or Europe?
Cultural questions about the EU is the subject of round two with the question mistresses being Anna-Lena and Sophia, studying Law and European studies respectively. Each table looks busy discussing the possibilities, “of which there are several,” say some of the teams later. It seems, like attitudes to the EU in general, answers to questions about it can often be confusing. Do you mean geographical Europe or members of the EU? Some ask. “This is about the EU” quiz master Paola reiterates, “…so you should be able to answer that question yourselves!” The room settles down with a little bit of quiet harrumphing and rumbling here and there.
What is the most visited museum in the EU? Kicks off the round. Luckily, for anyone who might be confused between perhaps The Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi gallery in Florence, there is a picture of the Mona Lisa on the slide. But is that a red herring? It turns out not to be – Le Louvre is the correct answer. Which EU country inaugurated its first bike lane in 1858? wonders the second question. Pretty much everyone is convinced that that must be The Netherlands, and they turn out to be correct. Question three shows the many different possibilities that go with EU exceptions. What groups Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland together? Is it the red in their flags? Wonder some, or that they don’t have the Euro currency.? Well, yes, that’s true, both those things do unite this group of four, but the answer Sophia and Anna-Lena were looking for was the EFTA economic agreement, although one point was awarded for noticing that they all have red in their flags.
How often is the Eiffel Tower painted?
The answer to question four seems to be a hole in one for everyone, The ode to Joy is the name of the European hymn, EU cultural diffusion in action gets a big fat tick. But how often is the Eiffel Tower painted? Comes the next query. It turns out only every 7 years, but lots of people, myself included, imagined it must be more often, a kind of Forth bridge scenario, (that as soon as they have finished one coat, they must need to start again from the bottom.) What is the largest EU city which is not a capital? Wonders a later question; one that many of the teams discussed at length. Lyon was one idea I heard floating around “that’s pretty big” said one male student. “What about Milan?” I ask, trying to compare its size and population, estimated from having been there rather than any actual grasp of demographics. It turns out it is Hamburg, perhaps not surprising given that Germany has the biggest population in the EU and a federal system which places less importance on a capital city anyway, but still surprising to me because most German cities, by London standards, are tiny.
The next question seemed less interesting to some and perhaps illustrates the continuing gulf and lack of understanding between the “crazy islands” on the brink of Brexiting away and the rest of the continent. “When does the British Queen send her citizens a personalised telegram?” “Oh that’s easy,” I tell my team enthusiastically, “on their 100th birthday,” but at least half the faces around the room appear not to care much about not knowing that answer. It turns out that she also sends a telegram if a couple make it to their diamond or 60th wedding anniversary, an achievement that with later marriage is going to become less and less common in the future. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but there is distinctly less interest and more hilarity reserved for the question about Britain, perhaps that is because in the farce that is the Brexit process we have already become an irrelevance; or perhaps it is because we always were and Brexit has just consolidated what many on the continent always thought about us, we are really not that important to Europe at large. We are still labouring under the delusion that we put the ‚Great‘ into everything, Britain included, but for many Europeans we are simply “little Englanders” who are tolerated on the margins and will not be much missed when we cast off in March 2019.
How many official languages?
And which famous fountain harvested 300,000 euros in coins? “La Fontana di Trevi” say I and most other people around the room, and it turns out we were right. Italy might be, still, in the middle of an economic crisis which could threaten the whole Euro but its cultural contribution to Europe cannot be trifled with. Probably more people in Europe have thrown a coin into the Trevi fountain when visiting the peninsulas many world heritage sites than would ever hope for an audience with, or a personalised telegram from, the British Queen.
One of the first teams to complete that round were “Reise Gruppe Haesslich.” “You are pretty sure of your answers then?” I ask. “Yeah pretty sure,” comes the reply. “We know quite a lot about Europe,” as students used to travelling across borders. Having grown up with the single currency and free movement, these are realities which they don’t question. “But there were lots of possibilities for some of the questions,” one of the team members interceded, “for that Norway question in particular, I mean you could say that Berlin is not the capital of any of those four countries, for example,” he elaborated. “The question about how many official languages for the EU bureaus was difficult too,” chimed in another. They thought 3, it turned out to be 24 official languages. “But that question was not really clear,” thought a mathematician and physicist from the Juryker team, who explains he really hates unclear questions; perhaps because being a scientist he likes precision, or because his team ended up winning, so getting it right is something to be done properly. It turns out, that the Juryker team are frequent winners at this evening, confides another of the Juryker team shyly as he waits at the bar to bring their bottles back.
Cool concept but…
Another team, ‚Am Tresen gibt’s Freibier,‘ seem even more confident about round two and it turns out for good reason. They go on to score 8 points in that round and to come near the top of the quiz over all, only one point behind Juryker. Only the official languages question seemed to stump them. “The concept of Europe is cool,” says a male member of the team, “but there are really two different ideas contained within one in Europe. Travelling everywhere and not having to change money is a good thing, but that is independent of the institutions.” Paraphrased, he explains that from institutions you have to accept that you can’t always get everything you want. In politics you have to make compromises and it is difficult to balance so many interests; a consensus that seemed to be echoed in different ways across the room.
People in their twenties and thirties are used to going for at least a year abroad for study, or having fellow degree students from a variety of different countries working and studying alongside them. All that is reality and is cool and not something that they want to change. But, the institutions are still far away from their reality or experience. These are faceless people deciding faceless laws in Brussels and they don’t seem to have much impact on the citizens who live within Europe’s confines.
Big differences between the bloc
The team ‚Pommernjungs,‘ made up mostly of political scientists and jurists appear to agree. Although perhaps a few years older than some in the room, they are still too young to really remember what things were like before 2002 and the introduction of the Euro, a question in round three incidentally. Europe is generally accepted as a good thing, particularly travel and free movement. Everyone looks aghast when I bring up the possibility that the currency though is not really working for everyone. Should Germany leave the Euro, thus making it acceptable for other struggling countries to do so? I wonder. “Auf gar keinen Fall,” replies one of the ‚Pommernjungs‘ who turns out to be from Niedersachsen. “Only if you want the German unemployment rate to shoot up,” laughs another team. They concede that originally it was the French who wanted the single currency, but now it is here, Germany would never be the ones to abandon it.
Despite the enthusiasm for a European idea, the students see big differences between the bloc. Eastern Germany might be near Poland, for instance, but the Juryker team tells me that there are bigger differences between Germans and Polish people from further East than there are between Germans and Swedes. The historical connections for Greifswald with Scandinavia and the Baltic countries is still being nurtured and there is more exchange that way and west than further east. “That was the case even in the DDR,” says a member of the Juryker team. Greifswald was one of the centres for language learning for diplomats from the DDR so it has always been open to its fellow Baltic nations. “There is even more exchange”, chimes in one female member of the Pommernjungs, who turns out be from Saarland near the western German border with France, Luxembourg and Belgium, “on the western border. I crossed the border all the time when I was growing up and my family still do who live there. We learnt French and you don’t really notice that there is a border at all between the countries. But, living here in Greifswald, I don’t go nearly so often to Poland.” The maths and physics student in the Juryker team would agree. “I am Catholic and so I come into contact with a lot of Polish people here,” he explains, “but there are differences. Polish people who come from nearer the German border are more used to travelling here and open to our way of thinking, but the further east you go, the more conservative people’s mindsets tend to become,” although he wasn’t sure exactly why that was. The consensus between several of the people I spoke to seemed to be that most Germans will grow up learning French or English as a foreign language but few people, even those who live in the east of Germany will take the trouble to learn Polish or Czech. It has just never been that way, they thought, although they didn’t think it had anything to do with economics, more perhaps European history.
Some things have not been well managed
Another member of the Pommernjungs thought that Europe and its institutions were needed to solve ‚the big questions,‘ like climate change and migration. “But are they solving them in the right way?” I ask. “Hmmm,” he responds. “Partly,” he thinks carefully. “Their approach to migration is getting better,” he thought, “but there is always more to be done.”
Lots of the team members, despite expressing their enthusiasm for a European idea seemed to identify themselves first from their regions, then European in second place. They didn’t question being European but it also wasn’t their main concern. The concept of a national state, i.e. “being German” didn’t hold that much appeal for many of them, although they know that they are German. The maths and physics student on Juryker from Niedersachsen said that the idea of Europe made total sense and that he knew quite a lot about Europe. (“He knows a lot about everything” said one of his fellow team members admiringly.) He conceded though that some things in Europe have not been well managed. “What for example?” I press him. “The currency and the economic crisis,” he thought. His other team members nod sagely. Draghi and the ECB have shielded us from the worst, they seemed to think, but Germany should not leave the Euro, that DEFINITELY was not the answer to the crisis they thought.
More connected to Sweden
“Lots of people don’t know what the institutions actually do,” he added, “and no one wants to give away money ‚for free’” he thought. “But it comes back in grants and subventions,” chimed in a Juryker team mate. “That’s true,” says the first student and they start listing the buildings in Greifswald which have been built with EU money. “You can see the plaques around town and then when you see those, it makes you realise the point of the EU,” they decided. But they still feel more connected to Sweden than Brussels over here in the north-east. There needs to be more equality between members, the multi-speed Europe is creating problems, thought another Juryker member.
“So what do you think about Brexit?” I ask. They think for a while, it’s obviously not a theme which particularly preoccupies them. “Well I’m sorry about it, [that Britain wants to leave],” says one Juryker member, “but then they were never very progressive, always hanging back on decisions and initiatives, so perhaps it is better that they leave so we can all move forward.”
Should the UK be punished?
“It’s clear from this whole northern Irish border discussion that they haven’t thought it through at all,” said another. The consensus seemed to be that the UK was stupid, (that it was obvious that they would lose more than they could ever hope to gain by leaving.) “They will lose lots of their NHS workers and other European workers,” thought another member. “Yes, but we will get more British people wanting to become German or other European nationalities,” added a third appearing to look on the bright side. “Yes, I’ve already become German,” I offer, and everyone looks pleased, despite not identifying themselves as German first and foremost. It’s a complicated business, identity and belonging isn’t it I say and everyone nods.
“So should the UK be punished for its decision?” I ask. “No, they shouldn’t punish Britain, but they also shouldn’t get any more concessions,” thought the physicist. “They’ve always had too many exceptions, they can’t expect special treatment any more, even if they do decide to come back.”
The quiz ends with a round of recognising the eyes of famous celebrities and then come the scores. Juryker win with 33,5 points, Pommernjungs come in just behind with 32,5 and the ‚Wir Sind Europa‘ team “Die Sternengreifer” are one point behind them with 31,5. It’s sparkly shots and Jaegermeister all around for some of the winning teams and a consolation prize for the losers. Everyone declares themselves satisfied with the quiz and its contents, a bit like their attitude to Europe overall. Some things might not be clear, or exactly what they had expected but it is something which is ‚just‘ part of the culture now, not something which needs to be continually questioned; it provides a backdrop on to which everyone can project their own ideas and find their own way to belong.
Emma Wallis was born in London and lives now in Germany where she works as a freelance journalist. She is member of the „Wir sind Europa!“-Basisgruppe.
Photos: Alvina Lehmann