What could we still learn from the insights of a long-dead thinker? I had no idea. But after travelling to 12 cities that were also visited by humanist Desiderius Erasmus more than 500 years ago, I have found the man behind the name. In dozens of fragments, actually, spread across the Europe like a gauze of stories. In my search to uncover the legacy of the man who is often referred to as the ‘first European’, I spoke with people who, often unintentionally, embodied the story of Erasmus and modern-day Europe. In my second story, ‘Europe with(out) borders’, I take you to the pro-European bubble of Cambridge University and the headquarters of the Eurosceptic Front National in Paris.

Haven’t read the first story of In Search of Erasmus? Read ‘The Beginning of a European Journey’. 

About In Search of Erasmus: Over the next few weeks, you can join Job Zomerplaag in the footsteps of one of Europe’s greatest thinkers. After having lived and studied in Erasmus’ birthplace Rotterdam, he became fascinated by the man and his legacy. In 12 cities across 7 European countries, he collected stories of modern-day Europe with the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus as a travel guide.

Erasmus’ Europe

Concedo nulli, ‘I yield to no one’. Watching the rolling English hills flit by my train window, I imagine a smug-looking train driver painting Erasmus’ motto on the nose of his locomotive. Erasmus took pride in this motto – which he ‘borrowed’ from the Roman god Terminus, the guardian of boundaries in Classical mythology. Erasmus’ reasoning is clear: he preferred to expand borders rather than bow to them.

In our own times, Erasmus is often seen as a European avant la lettre. As a groundbreaking Renaissance thinker, he advocated individual responsibility and independent thinking, and as such contributed to a new focus in Europe on the individual. His ideal Europe is marked by Christian unity, with its different people joined by a common, reformed Roman Catholic faith. In his own lifetime, with Ottoman influence extending to the very gates of Vienna and Western Christianity divided by the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus hoped that European rulers would ultimately band together to fight against the ‘Turks’ rather than fight among themselves.

University town Cambridge

Child of Europe

By 2018, many of the countries in Europe have indeed joined together to form a union but growing anti-European sentiment has put pressure on this fragile partnership. In the Summer of 2016, this anti-Europeanism – which seems to haunt Europe like a modern-day Reformation – gained ground during the Brexit referendum. Nevertheless, some have not yet lost faith in a united Europe. Alice Anders, a 22-year-old student at Cambridge University, bravely held out against Brexit with her movement Cambridge for Europe. In the referendum, Cambridge resembled the stubborn Gaul village of the Asterix comics: nearly three-quarters of the town’s citizens voted ‘Remain’, while a majority of the electorate nationwide opted for a Brexit.

Alice in front of ‘her’ St. John’s College in Cambridge

Alice is a ‘child of Europe’: born in Germany, raised in France and currently studying French and Spanish in the UK. Although she was not able to cast a vote in the referendum herself, she worked for months to persuade people to vote pro-EU. “I have no problem with people holding a different opinion, but I want to ensure that they can enter into a decent dialogue. Arguments that are based on misinformation do not hold water. That’s why it is important to ensure that people are properly informed before engaging in discussion.”

Although she lost this round – she describes Brexit as ‘surreal’ – Alice will continue to fight for a united Europe: “The roots of this anti-European sentiment lie in a lack of humanity and sense of community in our societies.” Alice remains hopeful. She believes that we can turn the tide by promoting knowledge and science and raising children with values that transcend mere self-interest: “Brexit, the refugee crisis and the rise of right-wing extremism are merely the symptoms of this growing deficiency.”

Front National’s headquarter in Nanterre 

Front National

While much of what Alice says reminds me strongly of Erasmus’s ideas, I also want to talk with a peer who explicitly does not identify as a ‘child of Europe’. That is why I decide to trade the mediaeval cobblestones of Cambridge for the irregular paving of Nanterre. In a former police station in this Parisian suburb you can find the headquarters of the French political party Front National. In a gloomy office overlooking the courtyard with a statue of the nation’s heroine Joan of Arc, I have arranged to meet with Gaëtan Dussausaye. At the time, the 23-year-old Gaëtan was chairing the party’s youth movement – with 25,000 members the largest of its kind in France.

For over four decades, Front National (‘The National Front’) has represented the far-right, nationalist position in French politics, and for months, its leader Marine Le Pen headed the polls in the 2017 presidential election. When I enter the highly secured compound, I realise that in less than two days’ time I have travelled from an academic bastion of Europhilia to the lion’s den of Euroscepticism.

Dreaming of borders

Gaëtan first became attracted to Marine Le Pen’s party as a pupil in secondary school. He was appointed Chairman of FN’s youth movement Front National de la Jeunesse at the age of 19. He is an outspoken critic of totalitarianism in society, which he believes takes two distinct forms: on the one hand, Islam, which forces radical ideas on people; on the other, globalisation, which is promoted by the banking sector and the political elite.

Gaëtan Dussausaye, (then) FN’s youth president in his office

The young Frenchman is also less than enthusiastic about the European Union, although he does believe in the existence of a European culture as a collection of subcultures. And when asked whether, like Alice, he feels a European, he doesn’t beat around the bush: “I feel European because I feel French.” In Gaëtan’s view, being French isn’t defined by ‘the colour of your skin, religion or sexuality’: “It’s the colour of your heart.” And this heart beats faster at the mention of liberty: the freedom to make your own laws, the freedom to guard your own borders. Because Gaëtan makes no bones about this: his ideal France is one surrounded by borders – borders that open to friends, and close to enemies.

In Search of Erasmus was originally written for Erasmus Magazine, the independent magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam. You can read the original articles here.
Job Zomerplaag
Job Zomerplaag is an independent journalist based in Rotterdam. For AWE he chronicles life in Europe's cities.