by Frank Schnittger
Mon Dec 10th, 2007 at 10:45:59 PM EST
The signing of the new reform treaty by Heads of Government in Lisbon this week seems like a good time to ask the question as to whether there is any such a thing as a European identity.
The EU arose from a determination by a post war generation of politicians that Europe should never again be the theatre for a world war. In this, it has been extraordinarily successful, and it has gradually grown from being a free trade area covering a few strategic industries, to developing a common market and a large number of common political institutions and policy areas.
The collapse of the Soviet Union presented an opportunity to draw away the Iron Curtain and extend the concept eastwards to include the antagonists of the cold war - with the glaring exception of Russia and the various states made up from the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Previously stringently enforced entry requirements and convergence criteria were set aside to allow even relatively under-developed states like Romania and Bulgaria to join.
That the enlargement was rushed and ultimately botched is probably unarguable. Any governing structure which requires unanimous agreement of 27 Governments is unwieldy, cumbersome, and almost designed to fail. The Reform Treaty, aka the European Constitution Lite should have been agreed before any enlargement took place, and enlargement made conditional on it being agreed.
Now, instead of it having to be agreed by just 15 members prior to enlargement, it has to be agreed by 27 members, and the compelling argument that it was required to streamline decision making and enable the (popular) inclusion of Eastern European states is rendered redundant, because they have been allowed to enter in any case.
So why was enlargement enacted so hastily, and why did it include relatively insignificant states like the Baltic states (apologies in advance to any Baltic friends here) and why was the possibility of Russian inclusion never seriously considered?
The answer to the first question seems to be twofold. The collapse of the Soviet Union presented an opportunity which might never be repeated. A strong Russia would never have allowed the inclusion of the Baltic states, particularly with the status of large ethnic Russian minorities there unresolved. Better to strike whilst the former Soviet Union was in a state of near anarchy and collapse.
Secondly, it suited the British agenda to weaken the influence of the core Franco-German project to control the overall shape and direction of the EU. Not only would Britain find some allies in Eastern Europe, but the wider the expansion, the less likely it would be able to deepen the integration and centralisation of many more state functions around Brussels. Britain still saw the EU as primarily a joint trading block and did not want any widespread delegation of powers to Brussels, particularly when Brussels was still modelled very much on the Franco-German blueprint.
So why was Russia never even seriously considered for inclusion? Was it simply too big a chunk for the EU to swallow? Was it simply in too unstable a condition to be accommodated? Certainly, its territory, extending all the way to Alaska would have stretched the geographical concept of "Europe" beyond all known limits. Its population of c. 140 Million (twice that of Turkey) would have represented over 20% of the total enlarged EU including Russia.
But its economy, as measured by GDP was little bigger than that of Denmark at one stage (during its economic collapse), and even in 2006 it was still smaller than each of German, Britain, France and Italy. In those terms, it is still no more than a medium to large European state. With its enormous reservoirs of Oil and Gas, would it not have been an ideal complimentary partner for the more advanced industrialised but resource poor western European states?
If the original founders of the EU could bring together its chief historic antagonists, Germany and France, to form the core of the new entity, should the eastward expansion not have included Russia, the chief antagonist of the second half of the 20th. Century, and for exactly the same reason: to secure the peace?
Now that opportunity has been missed, and, for whatever reason, Russia and the EU are drifting apart. We may not be back to the Cold War days (yet), but it seems highly unlikely that a fruitful and friction free alliance will develop out of the relationship.
I am not an international relations, or a Russian foreign policy expert, and so cannot give any obvious reason why Russia never seemed to be on the EU potential membership agenda. Perhaps Russian Governments never wanted to join. Perhaps the plan was to get all the smaller countries in first - many of them Russia's natural trading partners - with a view to create a situation where Russia had little option but to seek to join.
Perhaps the suspicions and scars of the Cold War were simply too deep to allow any genuine sense of mutual destiny to develop. I will leave it to the Russian foreign policy and international relations experts here to come up with a more convincing explanation. But it has always seemed strange to me that the EU elite where very keen on Turkey to join, even though, in many ways it has far less resources, common interests, common culture and shared landmass with Europe proper.
All of this is by way of introduction to what IS my central question in this Diary: Is there such a thing as a common European identity, and on what basis has it been created, and thus, how may we expect it to develop in the future?
Western Europe may seem like a relatively homogeneous place now - with quaint differences of culture, language, philosophy etc. - but really the prospect of such diverse and historically antagonistic states uniting around such a comprehensive institution as the EU would have been unthinkable for most of the 20th. Century.
So what are it's natural boundaries? Certainly Russia, west of the Urals at least has been intertwined with European history for centuries. The Ottoman Empire famously extended to the gates of Vienna at one stage, but was it ever seen as anything but a foreign invader?
Turkey has a democratic and secular tradition which stands comparison with many European states, but has it ever been seen as truly European? Israel is made up largely of European (and Russian) émigrés. Is it disqualified from consideration as a European state by its geography, or by its politics? Certainly the origins of most of its people would entitle it to be regarded as part of Europe.
If there is one thing (amongst others) which killed the first attempt at creating an EU constitution, it was a general antagonism to the accession of Turkey, widely seen as being on the Brussels agenda at the time. Possibly the second reason was that it failed to articulate, in any recognisable way, ANY vision of what Europe was about - normally the first challenge confronting any constitution.
It is all very well for diplomats to want to streamline and rationalise decision making, and to consolidate a succession of barely intelligible treaties, but if even the experts cannot divine what the text of the proposed constitution actually means, it is hard to see why the general populace should be excited by it.
By the same token it is also hard to see why its latest Constitution Lite incarnation will be passed - if the electorates in the more sceptical countries are actually allowed to give their verdict by way of referendum. Perhaps it will be sold negatively, on the basis that the alternative is decision making PARALYSIS and CHAOS.
But at its heart there is a big missing. Where does it say what Europe is actually FOR, why should citizens fight for its FREEDOMS, why should its soldiers be prepared to risk their lives in its defence? Is this not the acid test of any state?
We might say that constitutions like the American Constitution, with all its stirring language, can also give rise to patriotic excess - and that is precisely what Europeans are wary of, having seen it as leading to the world wars of the 20th. Century.
And here we come to the nub of the matter. It suits many people, in many member states, that the EU remains a somewhat inchoate and incoherent mess. With no clear vision or governing structures, muddling along like some giant amoeba, going nowhere in particular but just looking after the joint interests of its members if and when those can be defined and agreed.
If anything the amoeba analogy is too kind, because an amoeba is a single celled organism whereas the EU has at least 27 cells, but no heart, brain, spine, bones, muscle, or soul - although the British would argue that it does have a lot of fat chiefly located in Brussels!
So does this mean that there is no discernable or European identity at the heart of the EU project? Something that can tell us why (European) Russia is excluded, and eastern Turkey was emphatically rejected for inclusion by the populace if not the European elite? Something that tells us that the largely European peopled Israel is anathema, but the largely Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo are favoured over Orthodox Serbia?
Is it just a glorified economic trading pact made up of Sovereign Nation States which doesn't really have a strong identity and independent existence in itself? Is it all a marriage of convenience which will collapse faster than the Warsaw Pact when circumstances change?
I want to present a somewhat unfashionable and controversial thesis here that has been almost silent throughout all this debate, and it is this: At its root Europe's identity, if it has one, is centred around a common European tradition of Christianity.
DROP OF JAWS all around. How on earth did I reach such a conclusion? Wasn't all reference to Christianity removed from early drafts of the EU Constitution. Are we not all agreed that Religion has been a cause of as much strife as Nationalism (if not more) and do we really want to go THERE again? The world wars of the 20th. Century may have been primarily driven by Nationalism, but the preceding centuries of war were driven by religion, and particularly by the divisions highlighted by the Reformation.
Isn't one of the singular achievements of European democracy that all constitutions are now secular? Fascist Italy, Spain and Portugal with their close association to the Catholic Church are no more. Even dear old Catholic Ireland has removed the reference to "the Special Position of the Catholic Church" from its Constitution.
However when I say Christianity, I do not mean the institutional Churches, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. I mean what they have in common, rather than what divides them. In a really perverse way, the EU can be seen not just as a historic concordat between the competing Nationalisms of France and Germany (east west) but also the competing Christianities of Catholic (Latin) South and Protestant (Anglo Saxon) North, with Germany having a foot in both camps.
If you define the European identity in this way the exclusion of Orthodox Russia and Serbia, Islamic Turkey and Jewish Israel makes more sense. Of course there are anomalies - there is Orthodox Greece, and the aforementioned possibility that Islamic Bosnia/Kosovo may join. But these are relatively tiny populations which no not threaten the overall dominance of Roman Catholic/Protestant (or catholic as opposed to Orthodox) Christianity as a whole.
Of course, virtually no one in Europe wants to go back from a secular to a theocratic state structure in Europe - a society run by churchmen rather than statesmen. The memories of religious conflict are still far too raw. But that is not at all what I am arguing.
What I AM arguing is that the quintessential European identity HAS been moulded by centuries of conflict, chiefly along a Roman Catholic/Protestant axis, and what we have now is a historic fusion between the two, combining elements of Protestant individualism and Catholic authoritarianism in a set of political structures which are avowedly secular, but Christian secular, that is to say, secular within a broadly Christian context. In fact the word secular, in this context can be read to mean not only non-theocratic, but neutral as between Catholicism and Protestantism within Christianity.
That is all very well if your roots are broadly Christian - you can feel comfortable in any European state regardless of whether its roots were originally Catholic or Protestant. That is what secularism guarantees you. But what if you are Muslim?
The failure of many Muslim communities to integrate successfully in Europe is largely because the European concept of a secular state IS Christian. Unless you agree to become a secularised Muslim (and there is really no such thing in Islam itself) you will find it difficult to integrate.
Turkey, by contrast, may also be a secular state - i.e. not run by Churchmen/Imams - but it is an Islamic secular state - and thus incompatible with a deep, hidden, but implicit Christianity at the heart of the secular (Western) European sense of identity.
This theory raises all sorts of problems. At the heart of both the British multicultural and the French universalistic state projects is a rejection that the state should take any cogniscence of any religious affiliation whatsoever. This may have arisen historically to create a de facto truce between Catholics and Protestants, and may never have been intended to extend to Jews and Moslems, for example.
However the horrors of the Holocaust, and the fact of the large-scale Moslem immigration to Europe (driven initially largely be economic or imperial factors) made it imperative that this "religion blindness" be extended to other religions as well. This forced a repression of the fact that the original founding ethos of all western European states was a Christian one, whether Protestant, or Catholic, and, when secular, an abstraction combining elements common to both.
Western Europe thus had to suppress its folk memory of a common catholic (i.e non-orthodox) Christian founding ethos and identity, in order to atone for the Holocaust and take account of Islamic and Hindu immigration. For Europe, now, to reassert its Christian identity would be profoundly threatening to its Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Atheistic citizens and run counter to both the multi-cultural and universalistic models of societal integration.
The problem now is that Europe had no common identity at all in its attempt to be non-discriminatory towards all its citizens. Whereas all US citizens take a common Pledge of Allegiance and citizens of other countries are unambiguously Chinese, or South Africans, or whatever, European citizens have nothing more than a common passport or driving licence!
Europe can therefore never be a political power, in the sense that the US, Russia, China and India can be world powers because it will never be more than a mix of 27+ nationalities who are not allowed to have an identity based on about the only thing the vast majority of them have in common.
So the answer to my question: Is there such a thing as a European identity? Is yes, and it is broadly, catholic Christian in origin. But the very fact that the outcome of the religious wars was an assertion that all religious beliefs had to be tolerated and accepted means that this common European identity can never become the basis for the EU project.
Those who see the EU as an emerging superpower are therefore likely to be disappointed. It lacks the shared values and identity that would be required to overcome all the competing nationalisms within.
It will never have a directly elected President or Government answerable to a directly elected Parliament which relegates national governments/parliaments to regional subsidiary status. It will probably never have a written Constitution worthy of the name, because the only values and identity which is remotely common to the vast majority of its citizens cannot acknowledge its own existence.
The reality is that in Europe today you can be German or French, Italian or British; Atheist, Christian, Hindu, Moslem, or Jew; but you cannot be European, because for that to be anything other than a banal regional appellation it would have to recognise the fact that it is fundamentally a Christian construct albeit expressed in secularised terms. And that is about the only thing the vast majority of Europeans have in common. How embarrassing is that, for those who think of religion as no more than a relic of an unfortunate past!