Artikler - Tema

Has Europe ever begun?

By Antonio Oraldi  | Ill: I. Hondio, J. Jansson. Nova Europea Descriptio, Amsterdam, 1683

Inner political conflicts, the eminently geopolitical nature of the birth of the EU as well as the economic character of its historical development help us make sense of the lack of a strong European identity. The famous ‘European integration’, in simple words, is too economic and political and too little cultural or ideal. Ultimately, such lack of unity in cultural terms presents the highest danger for the EU: a crisis of legitimacy.

The European Union as a geopolitical (quasi-)region

It was the 25th of March, 1957, when Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg signed the Treaties of Rome. The European Economic Community (EEC) was founded – the ancestor of the current political (dis)union. The Old Continent saw its fall as a precondition for rebirth. Hence, the need to rebuild from the bottom a physically and morally fragmented area was apparent. But the reasons were mostly geopolitical. World War II, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and the fall of the UK and France as imperial powers created the greatest geopolitical Gestalt shift of recent times. The US emerged as first world power and had strong interests in building a solid stronghold to contain the Soviet expansion. France-Germany relations were to be brought to stability after nothing less than three direct conflicts in 75 years (1870-71, 1914-18, 1939-45). Last but not least, the EU was created also to avoid falling again into totalitarianism. Europe as we know it was born out of its own failure.

But is a region without proper limitations even a region?

The context of the origin of the EU certainly does not reveal a harmonious commonality of historic experience. Rather, the golden past of Europe was one of great inner conflicts. In fact, that the commonality of historic experience cannot be a source of European identity became even clearer after the fall of the iron curtain. Many ex-communist countries gradually opened negotiations soon started joining the EU. The question comes naturally: where are Europe’s boundaries?

To know oneself is to know one’s limits. But are there any definite limits to the European territory? Historically, the question seems to have a negative answer. The core of the region appears to be Central/Western Europe. On the other hand, many other pieces of the puzzle seem removable at will. First, the iron curtain was a rather stable limit. Then it disappeared. What was not-Europe became Europe. And what about Russia? It is and it is not Europe. Similar is the case of Turkey, the other historically rival Empire, which nonetheless opened negotiations to join the EU in the recent past. But is a region without proper limitations even a region? Is Europe a place or a “non-place”? Is it actual or mere utopia?

A European identity?

If trouble arises in understanding Europe as a region, there is more trouble to be had in grasping its identity. Neither language nor history will do. Ironically, Christianity remains the last common denominator of the enlightened and lay European project – given the essentially inexistent prospect of an imminent accession of Turkey, also in light of the latest comments from President Erdoğan on the nazist tendencies of Germany and The Netherlands. But religion no longer constitutes a strong basis for identity: “God is dead and we have killed him”, claimed Nietzsche famously in support of this thesis. Not to mention the fact that Muslim population is growing very fast in Europe.

Yet ideology has always been the mantra of the EU, starting with its founding fathers. An essentially illuministic–neo-liberal enterprise, succinctly expressible in the four F’s: Freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital. As compelling and fulfilling the project may seem, a series of studies concluded that “there is no convincing empirical evidence of European integration having led to either short-term or sustained economic growth effects. […] The Single Market project was part of a global process of economic restructuring and mainly served to enhance the competitiveness of world-market oriented European countries.” (P. Dicken, Global Shift:208). The cradle of democracy and Enlightenment seems not to bear the threat of economic stagnation, nor the sudden temptation to back dictators contextually perceived as useful.

Identity and Crisis

It is in times of crisis that we discover who we really are. Migrations, terrorism, economic stagnation and the annexation of Crimea as well as the proxy war in Eastern Ukraine are bringing to the surface deep inner political conflicts and confusions. European countries are facing migratory movements of historic dimensions, which are destined to reshape the cultural and political face of the Continent. Yet Member States are fighting each other on the ‘quotas’, preferably leaving the dirty job to Greece and Italy, whose geographies leave them in no position to argue. Economic stagnation is hitting Europe as a whole, particularly these countries on which migrants land directly.

Uncertainty spreads, both of the future and of a shaky present, where the Other is strongly perceived as a threat and not an opportunity. Hence irrationality becomes a governing principle of social reality, tensions and fears arise resulting in a confused perception of migrations and terrorism as the opposite side of the same coin. Accordingly, in its efforts of dividing equally the number of ‘quotas’, the EU is often perceived as an illegitimate violation of national security, other than sovereignty.

In a democracy, public opinion matters. Anti-EU and anti-immigration parties seem to understand it very well.

In a democracy, public opinion matters. Anti-EU and anti-immigration parties seem to understand it very well. Their political rise is both riding and spreading feelings of delegitimization of European institutions, which a strong feeling of identity would probably contrast. Yet in 60 years of EU this feeling of identity seems to not have fully conquered European hearts and minds. In virtue of constant internal disagreement, the EU has not been able to act as a strong united body. The dream of the United States of Europe remains a pale dream.

Instead, a non-elected Commission imposes directions on Member States; and a Parliament devoid of significant power acts upon a Constitution that ‘does not qualify as a democratic constitution’, as RECON – a research project made for the EU Commission itself – claims. In the foreword of the same policy review, it is also stated that ‘European identity/identities has been a research topic on the European Commission’s agenda since the 1990s’. As if the question never occurred to anyone in Brussels before. The rule of thumb seems to be: granted economic prosperity, the ‘post-material’ question of identity does not arise.

Contrarily, during economic stagnation, we become much more fragile and concerned with ‘ourselves’. Thus we define the pyramid of value with ourselves at the top, then our closest ones (family, friends) and then, finally, the ones we identify with otherwise, for instance a nation-state or a certain social group. Yet the European Union failed to impose itself as a cultural element of identity. We are experiencing the paradox of the fall of the nation-state while not being ‘self-conscious’ of it. Our consciousness and feelings of belonging are not yet adapted to the new political landscape. We primarily identify as Italians, French, Germans, Greeks and so on. And we are not ready yet to share with a Greek something that we may very well want for ourselves or our compatriots.

In a world of constant transformation, however, Europe has to decide what it wants to be. The ‘animal that defies simple categorization’, as Dicken calls it, would perhaps need to stop defying it and reach clarity and unity in aims. With all its political, historical and even conceptual contradictions, Europe still hosts the largest market in the world and most European countries have not experienced any internal war after WW2. Happy birthday, Europe, happy birthday to you.


Antonio Oraldi is a student in Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Aberdeen in exchange in University of Oslo.