By Sally McGrane 12:05 A.M.
On the Sunday before Easter, the sun was shining on Berlin’s charming Gendarmenmarkt. At 1:30 p.m., the first blue-and-yellow flags—symbols of the European Union—appeared on the square, held aloft or worn like capes. The P.A. system was up and running. A pop-y German New Wave classic came on: “Visit Europe, while it’s still standing.” From the broad, shady steps of the concert house, Alexander Knigge’s aviator sunglasses reflected the light. “This song’s about nuclear war,” he said. “But, actually, it fits today’s situation pretty well.”
Knigge is a German real-estate lawyer and one of the organizers of the Berlin chapter of Pulse of Europe, a grassroots movement dreamed up by a Frankfurt-based lawyer in response to the feelings of intense dismay brought on by watching Donald Trump’s victory on television. Pulse of Europe events feature an hour-long program that includes live music and an open mike, and have been taking place on city squares across Europe almost every Sunday afternoon since the beginning of the year. Their mission is simple: to show support for the European Union.
Today, the theme was France—a country where four of the five major Presidential candidates in the upcoming elections have taken “Euroskeptic” positions. Knigge, who had never been involved in a protest movement before getting involved with Pulse of Europe, fielded organizational questions from other volunteers and reflected on his reasons for helping out. “It’s a matter of freedom, and peace,” he said, as the playlist bounced to “Frankreich, Frankreich,” another eighties hit, in which the singer wakes up to a shock: overnight, he has lost his baguette, his cigarette, Jeanette and Claudette. “If France decides to leave the E.U., the E.U. is gone,” said Knigge. “My grandparents fought in World War II, and we all know that the European Union is the best guarantee against war. I don’t really trust Germany—I’m happy it’s completely bound up in a bigger union.”
Knigge paused, to smile at the lyrics (“Oo-la-la!”). “Also, I really like living in Europe. I’m forty-five—I’m not going to move to Spain. But I like the idea that I could.” Knigge is not alone. The Pulse of Europe gatherings started with four hundred people on Goetheplatz, in Frankfurt, one gloomy mid-January afternoon. Since then, they seem to have struck a nerve: the weekend before the Gendarmenmarkt rally, some forty-five thousand people attended events in ninety-two cities spread across twelve countries, according to the organizers. Politicians are taking note: Last week, in one of his first speeches, Germany’s recently elected President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, explicitly praised the organization for countering what many say is the E.U.’s overwhelmingly negative public image. “These young people, they are tired of people only talking badly about Europe,” he said. (National politicians tend to make the E.U. a scapegoat for things that go wrong in their countries, while taking credit themselves for things that go right.) “For many of our children and grandchildren, Europe is already a homeland,” Steinmeier added.
Tanja Börzel, a professor of political science at the Freie Universität Berlin, said that Pulse of Europe was filling a need. “Pulse of Europe reminds us that Europe is more than just a bunch of men in gray suits, meeting to discuss problems,” she said. “It’s such a powerful image of ordinary citizens mobilizing.” Calling the group “an emerging social movement,” she added that, while Europe’s right wing has been able to mobilize twenty per cent of the population, “Pulse of Europe signals to politicians and right-wingers that the silent majority is pro-Europe.” Börzel disagrees with critics who say that Pulse of Europe’s lack of a specific political agenda limits its effectiveness. “They lay out clearly what they support: Democracy, rule of law, human rights. This is not self-evident—look at Hungary and Poland. These values are no longer to be taken for granted.”
“I think that is enough,” she said. “To initiate momentum. Then it’s up to the politicians to make specific reforms.”
Polls show that the majority of European citizens do, in fact, support the E.U. But, after the Brexit referendum, Daniel Roeder, the founder of Pulse of Europe, grew concerned that headline-grabbing populists could win more Brexit-type victories. Then came the U.S. election. “The day after Trump was elected, my wife and I were sitting in the living room watching TV in disbelief,” Roeder said. “We thought, Let’s do something. There must be other people who are feeling like us, sitting here in complete shock. Maybe they will join us.” The next morning, the couple began e-mailing friends and colleagues. They designed a Web site and drafted a nonpartisan, pro-European Union mission statement. “Let us become louder and more visible!” it reads. “Basically, we wanted to create a pro-European critical mass,” Roeder said.
So far, most Pulse of Europe demonstrations are located in Germany, though gatherings have taken place in towns from Montpellier to Stockholm, and organizers say queries have come in from Warsaw and Budapest. “Europe is our everyday life,” said Aurélien Condomines, a Paris-based lawyer who runs the French chapter of Pulse of Europe. “I was in London after the Brexit vote. I went to professional lunches, and people were crying. They said, ‘My God, what have we done? Could we have prevented this?’ It’s part of your identity. Your self is torn apart when someone comes and says, ‘You’re not a European anymore.’ It’s crazy.”
Things like markets and marriages bind European countries more closely than many people realize, Condomines added. “So far, Euroskeptics have made the most noise.” But that could change: Recently, thousands of people at a Munich Pulse of Europe gathering shouted a greeting to Bordeaux. “ ‘Liberté, egalité, fraternité,’ with German accents,” Condomines said. “It was really funny.” Still, Martin Fischer, a German attorney who lives with his family in Amsterdam, told me that cultural differences cannot be ignored. “I see one of my obligations in my life, growing up in Germany and dealing with the Holocaust, being to speak up as soon as I see signs of nationalism,” Fischer said. However, he was frustrated when Dutch friends said that they would attend the Pulse of Europe events he was organizing in Amsterdam but did not. “Finally, my Dutch friends said, ‘We don’t show our political opinions in public.’ ”
By the time the clock struck two on Gendarmenmarkt, several thousand people had arrived. Toni and Marie, rosy-cheeked ten-year-old twins, said they feared one thing if the E.U. failed: “War.” The eighty-three-year-old pastor Klaus-Heinrich Kamstein agreed. “It’s crucial, in my opinion, to speak loudly in favor of Europe now,” he said. “We’ve already seen the results of hundreds of years of governance focused on nation-states. Among them are World War I and World War II.” An advertising filmmaker in dark glasses and a pink fuzzy sweater worried that, with the Brexit, working across borders would be more difficult; a twenty-four-year-old political-science student said that she directly benefitted from the E.U.’s open internal borders, as, to attend a Dutch university, she crossed the border every day. Juliane Latzke, a thirty-four-year-old mother of two, said that she was there for her small children: “I was born in the G.D.R., and I know what it means not to be free.”
Despite these fears, the atmosphere was celebratory. “We’re not protesting against something but for something,” said Knigge. “It’s fun.” As usual, the hour—which included a minute of silence for the recent terror attacks in St. Petersburg and Stockholm—wound down with the Italo-pop ballad “Insieme” (“Together”). As the 1990 Eurovision winner Toto Cutugno crooned, “Unite, unite Europe,” everyone on the square joined hands. “I think the important thing is to bring emotion to the European project,” said Julia Hahn, another organizer of the Berlin gathering. “That’s something the European Union has missed out on. One weekend, we asked, ‘Who has fallen in love in another country?’ You should have seen how many people raised their hands.”