The banality of the good

Ignore the sceptics: the real Europe is foreign-language schools in Oxford and flights to Rome for £

In the Cafe Orange on the Oranienburgerstrasse, in the now trendy heart of what used to be East Berlin, I talk to a guy dressed in T-shirt, sandals and designer sunglasses. An old '68er, he is sharply critical of the current policies of the Bush administration. At one point he leans forward and says, teasingly: "Don't you think we need a new Boston tea party?" Surely, he jokes, the Boston tea party was good for relations between Britain and America - in the long term. When he gets up to leave, I notice that he puts on a black baseball cap advertising "American Eagle". "Ja," he says, "das habe ich in Boston gekauft." ("I bought it in Boston.")

Everywhere I turn in Warsaw, on the streets, on the TVN24 television news channel, on Radio Zet, I see and hear ads for Madonna's new album, American Life. (You need to say it in a Polish accent: "A-mehrr-ikan Life".)

On the Plaza Canovas del Castillo, just across from the Prado Museum in the heart of Madrid, I find Planet Hollywood and McDonald's. The bestseller in the local bookshop is Bridget Jones's Diary. Back in Oxford, I've just received an e-mail announcing: "Harry Potter 5 en francais deja sur!" The Daily Telegraph, next to some fulminating Eurosceptic report on Valery Giscard d'Estaing's plans to abolish Britain, advertises flights to Rome and the Dordogne for £4.99.

So let's talk, for a change, about the real Europe - not the fantasy dystopia of Westminster-based politics and the Daily Mail. In the past few weeks, I've divided my time between five European cities: Madrid, Warsaw, Berlin, London and Oxford. In real life, they have so much in common. One of the things they have in common - and this is where Europhiles may start getting uncomfortable - is a huge dose of America and the Anglosphere.

Oxford, which has just narrowly failed to win the nomination for European Capital of Culture in 2008, is a European city, and not merely in the obvious sense of its architecture, libraries and intellectual history. It is now deeply European in its everyday street life. The story is told that when the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski arrived here in 1969, having been banished for political reasons from Warsaw University, he walked the streets for a few hours and came home slightly puzzled. "It's a nice town," he told his wife, "but where are the cafes?" Well, now there are almost more cafes than there are pubs. They are full of German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Greek, Finnish, Swedish and Russian students. Everywhere, in spring, you see the sexual foreplay of the language schools.

However, the cafe in which Vladimir and Maria meet is as likely to be Starbucks as Pret A Manger, and the language in which they flirt is English. Or is it American? The Czech writer, former dissident and now former president Vaclav Havel once said to me that there are three kinds of English: "There's the kind of English that Czechs speak to Spaniards and Italians speak to Russians. Here, you understand 100 per cent. American English - you get about 50 per cent. Then there's English English, of which you understand nothing."

Oxford cafe English is generally of the first or second categories. It's what is now called Elf - which, in case you're wondering, is not the language of the Elves invented by Oxford's own J R R Tolkien, but English as Lingua Franca.

Welcome to the real Europe. There's no point, really, being for it or against it. This is just the way it is. As Mikhail Gorbachev used philosophically to remark, this is "life itself". When the French try to stop the waves of transmogrified and subtly re-Europeanised cultural Americanism, to preserve, by bureaucratic protectionism, the French and European "cultural exception", they are like King Canute trying to stop the incoming tide. Except that Canute knew that he couldn't stop the tide, while they appear not to - or at least, will not admit it.

Now we're told there's "old Europe" and "new Europe". When I took part in a television discussion about "European identity" in Berlin the other day, the introductory film started with a soundbite of Donald Rumsfeld's famous off-the-cuff dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe". Only subsequently did it go back to Europa, the mythical princess abducted by Zeus. Even then, the anchorman made laboured innuendo comparing the god-bull-rapist Zeus to Bush's US. Yet what is the most influential think-piece written about Europe over the past year? The one by Robert Kagan, an American neoconservative, endlessly quoted in all European capitals. So it's not just that our fast food, films, fashion and language are American. Even our debates about Europe itself are American-led.

As a result, there are two characteristic figures in Europe today: the deeply Europeanised anti-European and the deeply Americanised anti-American. We have all met him, the pinstriped Tory Eurosceptic who has a house in Tuscany, is an expert on French wines and knows a great deal more about Wagner operas than Chancellor Gerhard Schroder does. (This last may, admittedly, not be saying a great deal.) We have all met her, the ageing German anti-American peace campaigner, whose inspirations are Woodstock, Joan Baez and not the German Martin Luther but the American Martin Luther King. Except that each in turn would protest: "I'm not anti-European, I'm just against the Brussels Eurocratic vision of a federal superstate", and "I'm not anti-American, I'm just against the inhuman, warlike policies of that Texan cowboy in the White House."

This distinction is sustainable - up to a point. You don't have to admire the European Commission and the Common Agricultural Policy because you like ciabatta, latte and Armani. Because you enjoy the New Yorker, John Updike and The West Wing, you don't have to support George W Bush and the CIA. Those dismissive labels "anti-European" and "anti-American" are plastered around much too freely. But it is not possible to divorce your views of a country like America or a continent like Europe entirely from your views of their representative institutions.

You may retort that George W Bush was not elected by a majority, even of that minority of all adult US citizens who bothered to vote in the latest presidential elections; that the president of the European Commission was not elected by anyone at all; and that, therefore, it's a bad joke to talk of either the current US presidency or the European Commission presidency as "representative institutions". Yet America's highest courts and political institutions have accepted, however reluctantly, that Bush is the legitimate, elected president, and European institutions do represent, however imperfectly, a voluntary, law-based association of democracies. So the distinction soon gets blurred.

Thus the lead story in the New Statesman last week was not entitled "How to stop Bush". It was entitled "How to stop America". I don't want to live in a Europe that is trying to build its identity by asking itself how to stop America. It's hopeless, because to define yourself against the US will not unite Europe - it will split it down the middle, as we saw over the Iraq war. It split governments, with France, Germany and Belgium on one side, and most of the rest on the other. It split public opinion, with most people against war and against Bush, but certainly not against America. To be European today is, whether we like it or not (and I do like it), to be deeply intertwined with America - culturally, socially, economically, intellectually, politically. Why cut off your nose to spite your face? Why define yourself by who you are against, rather than by what you are for?

There's a whole lot to be for in Europe today. Europe's horrible first half of the 20th century, from 1914 to Stalin's death in 1953, was characterised, between war, Holocaust and Gulag, by what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil". The past 50 years in western Europe, and the past 15 years (since the velvet revolutions of 1989) in central and much of eastern Europe (except the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union), have increasingly been characterised by what I would call the banality of the good.

It is the banality of the good that you see among the young Germans, Italians and now Poles and Russians making out in the cafes of Oxford, Madrid and Warsaw; the banality of the good that allows pinstriped Tory Eurosceptics to fly to the Dordogne for £4.99 and bejeaned anti-American demonstrators to join forces in Geneva for 8.50 euros; the banality of the good that has Europeans making love not war, while comparing notes, in Elf, about the latest American movie. Here is the rich soil in which we can plant and nourish the "modern, long-term and deep-seated pro-European consensus" of which a Scottish-British-European-pro-American Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke well in the House of Commons last Monday.

Yes, there is some serious power politics, too. It is dangerous for the world to have only one hyperpower. It is dangerous for America itself to be that only hyperpower. As the guy in the Cafe Orange in Berlin argued, one reason European-American relations are so bad is that Europe is weak. The US needs a stronger partner, and Europe badly needs Britain in order to become that stronger partner. Dead right. And that's what the real Europe can help us do.

Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention the name of the guy in the Cafe Orange. It was Joschka Fischer. Yes, that Joschka Fischer: the one who's Germany's Green foreign minister, and may soon be Europe's first foreign minister.

Timothy Garton Ash is director of the European Studies Centre at St Antony's College, Oxford, and a columnist on the Guardian. He is working on a book about the relations between Britain, Continental Europe and the United States

copyright: Timothy Garton Ash