Europe’s Children

 

 

          In order to understand the question contained in the theme of our encounter, we must first, as Voltaire asks us, define our terms. Europe was not, and is not, an easily definable term.  In 1751, Voltaire himself described Europe as a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed, but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principle of public law and politics, unknown in other parts of the world. The mythical princess Europe of Phoenician descent, abducted by Zeus who crossed the sea from Asia to Crete precisely here, carried by the divine bull,  Bos-phoros, was left well behind.

          Europe has since Antiquity been discursively shaped through constant negotiation of whom to include and whom to exclude. The Greek view, where Europe bridged the Mediterranean, was transformed during the Crusades into a divide by this sea, and for many centuries Western Christianity substituted Europe as a concept for self-unification, with a strong ideological and political connotation that the original Greek Europe never had. The Mediterranean divide did not curtail commercial and other contacts, but accentuated the cultural distinction between a Catholic Self and a Byzantine and/or Muslim Other.

          During the Ottoman expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the restrictive definition of Europe was more problematic in the Balkan peninsula, as the Ottomans employed a tolerant regime with respect to religious politics. Moreover, the military and economic power struggle in the Levant, between the Habsburgs, France, Spain and the Italian city-states, went in many respects beyond any religious dichotomy. Economic interaction and military conflicts between Ottoman rulers and European powers in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans were not different from the corresponding interactions within Europe. In constantly shifting constellations, some European powers made pacts with the Ottoman rulers while others made war against them. In this way the constructed religious/ ethnic borderline between Europe and the Turkish Empire became a fluid European line of contention.

          When the connection between Christianity and unity was destroyed by the Thirty Years War, Europe took on new meaning in the emerging Enlightenment discourse and became a label for a new kind of unity. The term Europe came to fulfill the need for a more neutral designation of the common whole. Europe emerged for its peoples as the unchallenged symbol of the largest human loyalty. The Enlightenment philosophers developed the idea of Europe as a community or a confederation that would guarantee concord and community, as THE universal civilization project, and as a counter-image formulated against a despotic East.

          The Enlightenment project first found broad support during the crisis of liberalism in the last century. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period in European history, a time of European civil wars, which brought a soul-searching of the same magnitude as had the wars of religion three hundred years earlier. The idea of a united Europe gained currency after the excessive invocations of the nation in the First World War, both in a Central European form such as the Paneuropa movement founded by Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi in 1923 and, with a French and Western focus, in the proposal by Aristide Briand in 1929 for a United States of Europe within the framework of the League of Nations. These ideas reflected the self-contempt and humiliation felt by intellectuals and statesmen in the wake of the Great War, and were connected to the hopes of a lasting pacifist peace.

 

          For the resistance movement during the Second World War, as well as for the oppressed peoples of the Soviet camp after its end, the European idea took the form of a dream projected onto an uncertain future, a myth of exile. In the West,  the dream of a pacifist Europe resurfaced only to be absorbed by the rhetoric of armed peace under the exigencies of the cold war. This was the palpable framework in which the European idea took concrete political form in the 1950’s.

Thus, there are many images of Europe in terms of content and form developed historically over centuries of contentious attempts to appropriate the interpretative power contained in the concept. Europe has only existed as an invention - of groups of states, before the French Revolution, and after the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars by nation states. So many meanings of Europe have emerged precisely because there has never been such a thing as Europe, in a concrete and essentialist sense, but only as an imagined continent of ideas. We all are the children of this imaginary continent, and our political imagination must now invent a Europe for the twentieth first century.

          With a focus on the two most recent centuries of European history, we can see that the idea of modernity and the processes of democratization have been, and are to a large extent still, intimately linked with the idea of Europe. The longue durée of European history is one of pluralism and contradictions. The imperial tradition in which European empires contained several nations in one state image shifted gradually towards the imagined communities of the nation state. When we move up to the contemporary era, the manifold heritage of a pluralistic Europe is overshadowed by the rather uniform ideal of one nation, one state; and during the last half of the twentieth century, the construction of a new European community or union was conceived in the light of these experiences: the image of Europe as a supranational unit is nothing other than the idea of Europe as a substitution for the nation state, as a bigger nation state transgressing the existing nation states. One can even argue that the story of the formation of the modern state is in great part the story of the formation of Europe, and vice versa. The imaginary European Nation is responsible for many great assets of the contemporary Europe, from the notion of European citizenry, freedom of circulation, and equal rights, to the converging regulations in education and culture. But it is also responsible for its suspicious view of the Other, and for a kind of superiority complex which matches the inferiority complex of those who, living for centuries, historically and culturally, at Europe’s borders, feel often that they are Europe’s unwanted children.

          Of course I think, first and foremost, about my own country, Romania: Romanians are a Latin people, but a Byzantine Christianity, a community often split apart by Europe’s changing frontiers, with a culture which vindicated its European roots back in the nineteen century, only to be cut off Europe by the communist rule. But, in a way of other, the complex of a equivocated Europeanism is shared by all the frontier cultures of Europe. Czeslaw Milosz, the great Polish poet of the last century, Nobel Prize laureate in 1980 and famous for his essay The Captive Mind,  which condemned the accommodation of many intellectuals to communism, wrote once a poem about what Europe means for us all. Allow me to quote a few lines from it:

Bypassing rue Descartes

I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,

A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.

We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest

Saigon and Marrakesh,

Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes.

I had left the cloudy provinces behind

I entered the universal, dazzled and desiring.

Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh

Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.

Soon enough their peers were seizing power

In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas.

 

Meanwhile the city behaved in accordance with its nature,

Rustling with throaty laughter in the dark . .

On the level of the events and of conjunctures, a lot has changed since the Middle Ages: the political map of Europe has been redrawn many times, empires have come and gone, political systems and trade routes have been modified, but the relationship between periphery and centre in Europe has remained. Despite changing meanings of Europe there are some stable elements in the discourse on Europe in Eastern Europe: stereotypes, categorizations and representations of relations between these countries and Europe, which are extremely tenacious. Their recurrence in Eastern Europe’s political and intellectual debates through centuries justify our viewing them, in the spirit of the great historian Fernand Braudel, as tenacious mental structures.

          The discourse on Europe seemed to change in the course of the 1990s. In the wake of the enthusiastic fall of Communism, the intellectuals’ definition of Europe as a cultural and moral community prevailed. In such a Europe there was room for all the societies which won their freedom and restored democracy in the former Communist countries, as creators and defenders of European values. However, by the end of the decade, security matters and economic incentives for modernization and progress prevailed. Politicians and economics experts began to set a different agenda for the European debate, and the concept of Europe began to be synonymous with that of the EU. The debate on Europe became a debate about adjusting to the EU. In this way the identifications of the Eastern Europe with Europe was once again put on trial.

          The nations that even today form the core of the EU are largely the same that were part of the Western Christian empire of Charlemagne, the countries that had become leaders of European cultural and economic development already in the Middle Ages. The idea of their peripheral position permeates East European thinking about Europe. Even more dramatic is this Complex of an Unwanted Child in Ukraine, in Russia, or in Turkey, which are deeply linked not only with Europe, but also with Asia.

          We all share a vulnerable position in the periphery of the European civilization and various deviations from the so-called European model, and we all try to justify the fact that our development had taken a different course from that of Europe, by stressing our role as Europe’s shield against various possible forms of Otherness. Confronted with the difficulties, both real and imagined, of the European enlargement and integration, both our Euro-skeptics and our Euro-enthusiasts are eager to stress our merits for the sake of Europe, and. are still on the look-out for a mission for us in Europe, for instance as a vehicle for Eastern European spirituality directed towards the materialistic West, as a new version of the role of a bridge between East and West. On the contrary, our Euro-skeptics bring up questions that we recognize from earlier on in history, for instance how the modernization with the West as a model threatens our originality, or what function the borders have had and still have in contemporary Europe. Others seek a political mission that consists in setting up a security system, a kind of new bulwark, be it against old enemies, as the Russian imperialism, or against the new threats of terrorism. The attitudes of both Euro-enthusiasts and Euro-skeptics reveal a profound inferiority complex and insecurity with regard to the status of the Eastern frontier-states in Europe and the strength of their identity.

          There are, however, many moderate attitudes as well, even if they are not the loudest ones in the debate. Those that express such attitudes could be called Euro-rationalists. I proudly count myself in their ranks. As Euro-rationalists, we view the adhesion to the EU as necessary in order to save our countries from marginalizing and speed up its modernization. But we want to assume the adhesion both through advanced economic transformation, and through firm support for adhesion among the society at large. For us, Europe is certainly a model, yet not one to be imitated thoughtlessly, but internalized in a creative way, in a way that fits our own societies. Above all, this Euro-rationalistic attitude does not want to either identify completely Europe with the EU, or the EU with the Common Markets of Europe. We express the opinion that the EU is most about principles, about political culture, and culture as such, that the EU is a means to share and promote the essential values of freedom and democracy, which are the essential legacy of two millennia of European history: a legacy to be shared with all. I believe that Romania needed to join the EU to strengthen its commitment to these values, but not Europe, since we always have taken part in the creation of Europe.

          The Euro-rationalist attitude is an attempt to overcome both the uncertainties of a frontier status, with its heroic myths and inferiority complexes of the unwanted child and alike, and the excessive certitudes of a Europe, from time to time too pleased with its centrality. For there are many obstacles on the way of uniting Europe, but maybe the hardest to overcome is the inferiority/superiority complex which seem to oppose the “Old” Europe and the “New”. If we, all of us, truly want to share the European values, we must, all of us, get rid of these complexes as soon as possible, in order to build a common field of progress and of freedom for all Europe’s children.