The background has been terrible. But that may help explain why, in the foreground of our campaign to start a pan-European conversation about the future of our European Union, there has been so much enthusiasm, passion and determination.
Since our launch in early October, a series of events right across the continent have used Annalisa Piras’s docu-drama, The Great European Disaster Movie, as the starting point for a debate. It has been an inspiring sight, even if the news outside has constantly conspired to make the film look over-optimistic rather than the scaremongering effort it was condemned as when it was first broadcast on the BBC in March.
In Warsaw, hosted by the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation in the gorgeous Royal Lazienki Theatre, there was a very positive atmosphere at a packed screening, perhaps reflecting the point made in an interview in the film by Radek Sikorski, former Polish foreign minister, that often the new member countries such as Poland have a more upbeat view of the EU because they have so recently lived through an alternative sort of union, the Soviet Union.
In Rome, hosted by the School of Government at the prestigious LUISS university, the tone was more sombre, which might have been caused by the fact that in the meantime terrorism had soiled Paris with blood and tears, and the streets of the Eternal City were conspicuously lined with armed soldiers, keen no doubt to show force as the Papal jubilee was just bringing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
All over the continent, fear of terrorism and the tragedy of so many deaths of refugees trying to reach European shores, along with the sight of tens of thousands more languishing in makeshift camps or marching with their traumatised children through our freezing forests, have revitalised the ugliest strand of intolerant nationalism in France and everywhere else. Walls and fences have been going up, and as Timothy Garton-Ash has written so eloquently in The Guardian, the most dangerous walls to go up have been the walls inside our own minds.
That is exactly why it is so important to bring people together, to think and to talk about what is going on. Events have been held from St Andrews in Scotland to Caltanissetta in Sicily, from Brussels to Bratislava, from Oxford even to Stanford in California, where a group made up principally of Italians gathered together to talk about the old world, despite being in the newest part of the new world.
In the midst of all the news-induced fatalism the attendees cared enough to come together and reclaim the conversation about what went wrong, and how to make it better, from their national media and chattering classes. Dozens more events are being planned, including an Awakening Day in the pipeline for late January with ten debates taking place simultaneously across Europe.
Remarkably, when asked by show of hand at each event, the majority of the audiences so far have retained a sense of optimism that the project can be saved. But how? Here interesting differences begin to emerge.
In Italy audiences in Manciano and Grosseto tended to stress the need for the EU to do more for young people and for jobs and growth. In Slovakia the focus was on the challenges posed by the refugee crisis. At an event in Bratislava, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Velvet revolution, participants bemoaned the appearances of new physical and mental fences, while at a later event hosted in the same city by Comenius University, the audience were keen to have a dispassionate discussion on whether the rules of Schengen are still fit for purpose.
In the UK the film was, perhaps inevitably, seen through the prism of the impending referendum on EU membership. An event at University College London revealed high levels of anxiety and pessimism in the audience regarding Britain’s chances to remain in the EU.
Reviewing an event hosted by The London School of Economics, the student foreign affairs publication The London Globalist observed that the film provides “a useful corrective to the Euroscepticism that dominates much of the British press”, adding: “It is a powerful reminder that the rights and freedoms we enjoy in the European Union are fragile and all too easily taken for granted.”
Thousands more have followed the campaign via social media, joining the debate to discuss the failures of Europe but also to remind themselves and others that we need Europe to exist and succeed.
The European dystopia we’re living through may look like a political fantasy fiction, compared to just a year ago, but it is no Star Wars. The force of our better instincts, of historical memory and cooperative goodwill is not yet awakened and the baddies - our worst instincts of selfishness, myopia and aggressive nationalism – may well still prevail in the end.
We need your help to wake up Europe in 2016. Will you join us?
From time to time we'll share exclusive interview clips (including never-seen-before footage), the most incisive blog posts and the most interesting dispatches from our event organisers as they take the europe debate to the furthest, biggest, smallest, weirdest, most unusual places around europe and beyond.