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  1. Ideas
14 April 2022

Europe’s superiority complex

European identity is amorphous and unstable, but an abiding theme, as a new history of the idea of Europe attests, is a sense of superiority

By Hans Kundnani

“Pro-Europeans” — that is, supporters of European integration in its current form — like to think that the European Union represents a clean break with all that is bad in the continent’s history. In particular, they see it as the embodiment of a rejection of the nationalism that produced centuries of military conflict within Europe, especially between France and Germany, and culminated in two world wars. But in rejecting nationalism, they also imagine that they have overcome other related currents in European history such as racism. As Mark Leonard put it in the New Statesman last year, Europe’s Other is its own past.

At the same time, however, “pro-Europeans” constantly invoke that past as a source of inspiration and legitimacy, particularly the Enlightenment, which is said to be the basis of the “European values” for which the EU stands, and figures such as Erasmus, the Renaissance humanist in whose name the EU funds a student exchange programme. To its supporters, the EU is imagined as a distillation of what is good in European history — the product of its lessons.

In reality, as Shane Weller shows in The Idea of Europe, a “critical history” of conceptions of Europe from antiquity to the present, the continuities in Europe’s self-understanding are much more problematic than this. Running through the history is a persistent belief in European superiority. For as long as Europeans have thought of themselves as European, they have thought of themselves as being better than the rest of the world. One could almost say that this sense of superiority — and the concomitant mission to “civilise” the inferior non-European world — is the essence of European identity.

Weller, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Kent, examines the way writers throughout history — mainly novelists, playwrights and poets but also philosophers and political thinkers — have sought to identify the elusive essence of “Europe”. In part because almost all the figures he discusses are themselves European, what emerges is a somewhat narcissistic discourse. Many of those who wrote about Europe were “pro-European” in the sense that they wanted Europeans to unite. But the point was not just to learn to live together but to remake the world in their own image. “Europe” was always about power as well as peace.

The idea of Europe begins, appropriately, with myth. It is not clear how a goddess from the Middle East, “Europa”, who was raped by Zeus disguised as a bull, became identified with a geographical region, but for the ancient Greeks it was an indeterminate space. Herodotus frequently referred to Europe, but declared that its borders were “quite unknown” and that Libya, Africa and Europe were “in reality one”.

It was in the medieval period that the idea of a people — Europeans — as opposed to a region called Europe first emerged. The reference to europenses in the Mozarabic Chronicle, an anonymous Latin history of the Muslim conquest of Spain written in 754, is often seen as the beginning of European identity. For the next several hundred years — a period that included the Crusades — European identity was largely synonymous with Christianity and was defined in opposition to Islam. The figure who most embodies Europe in this period is Charlemagne (in whose name a prize is still given for “work done in the service of European unification”).

From the fifteenth century onwards a new idea of European identity emerged that was more racial than religious. This modern idea of European identity overlapped with the idea of whiteness, which emerged around the same time in the context of the colonial encounter of Europeans with the populations of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

During the Enlightenment, some Europeans also began to imagine that it was precisely their secularism — the separation between church and state — that made them distinctively European. Thus, beginning with Machiavelli, European identity was increasingly understood in political terms, but even as the perceived content of European identity changed, the sense of European superiority endured — a pattern that would be repeated again and again.

Against the background of increasing anxiety about the decline of European civilisation from the end of the nineteenth century and especially after the First World War, Europe was increasingly seen in geopolitical terms — as an economic and political bloc threatened by rising powers such as Russia and the United States. Between the wars there was much fraught discussion of the “European spirit” among intellectuals such as Paul Valéry. (Frantz Fanon would later write in The Wretched of the Earth (1961): “It is in the name of the spirit, in the name of the European spirit, that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimised the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.”)

The history Weller tells shows that when today’s “pro-Europeans” talk about Europe they follow a logic established in the period between the Enlightenment and the Second World War. They believe that Europe stands for a distinctive set of “values”, which, although of European origin, are seen as universal — hence the mission to “civilise” the world. Unlike in the medieval period, that mission is a secular one, but as Weller puts it, the logic has always been that “human history is, or at least should be, the history of the Europeanisation of humanity”.

The challenge of imagining and defining Europe was always the conspicuous cultural and religious diversity within the continent. Weller shows how the French writer Victor Hugo and the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte each imagined Europe through the prism of their own national culture, which they saw as epitomising what it meant to be European. This tendency to instrumentalise the idea of Europe — which also continues today — is captured by the famous quote attributed to Bismarck: “I have always found the word ‘Europe’ in the mouths of those politicians who wanted from other powers something they did not dare to demand in their own name.”

Some writers, however, such as the German romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel, imagined that diversity was itself distinctively European (and thus another marker of superiority), in contrast to other parts of the world that they imagined, in a typically Eurocentric way, as being more homogenous. But this still left open the question of what, if anything, could unite Europeans. Inevitably, that unity — or identity — was constructed in opposition to an external Other. Thus in order to reconcile internal diversity with unity, the idea of Europe had to be exclusive.

Europe’s “Other” evolved with its changing identity: during the medieval period when Europe and Christianity were more or less commensurate, this Other was Islam. From the Enlightenment onwards, and especially in the colonial era, non-white people around the world became Europe’s “constitutive outsiders”. As a geopolitical conception of Europe developed, Europe was increasingly defined against — and seen as being in competition with — Russia and the US. Weller argues that the postwar idea of Europe centred on peaceful co-operation did not break with this history of Othering as cleanly as “pro-Europeans” would like to think.

Weller does not examine the evolution of the European Union itself in detail, but the initial phase of European integration overlapped with the end of the colonial era. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, France was fighting a brutal colonial war in Algeria and many saw European integration as a way for Belgium and France to consolidate their colonial possessions in Africa at a time when they were unable to maintain them on their own. Europe may have been an alternative to empire for Britain, but it wasn’t for the six founding members of what became the EU (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).

The memory of colonialism was never integrated into the narrative of the EU in the way that the Holocaust was. Nevertheless, a new sense of identity did emerge, at least among elites, that was closer than Europeans have ever come to a civic (that is, inclusive) regionalism rather than a cultural or ethnic (that is, exclusive) one. In so far as “pro-Europeans” saw the EU as a model for the rest of the world, it was one based on peaceful co-operation between nation states, the social market economy and the welfare state. After the end of the Cold War the EU remade central and eastern European countries in its own image as it enlarged to include them — a renewed civilising mission, as Jan Zielonka has argued, though by European standards a relatively benign one.

Since 2010, however, “pro-Europeans” have once again become more defensive and the discourse around European power has become more anxious, as it was from the end of the nineteenth century. Especially since the refugee crisis in 2015, this discourse has also been framed in increasingly civilisational terms. Thus European identity seems to be shifting away from the more civic regionalism that developed in the postwar period to a more cultural or even ethnic variant. In place of the “European spirit”, “pro-Europeans” now talk about the “European way of life”. The war in Ukraine, which has also been framed in civilisational terms and which many “pro-Europeans” see as a re-foundational moment for the EU, may strengthen these tendencies.

In this context Weller’s critical history of the idea of Europe is an important corrective to the self-mythologisation of the EU. It should be read especially by “pro-Europeans” who continue to invoke the Enlightenment as if it were not implicated in European barbarism; to speak of European values as universal values even though it was exactly this idea that legitimated European colonialism; and, mistaking Europe for the world in a typically Eurocentric way, to celebrate the internal diversity of European identity while ignoring its external exclusiveness, and thus imagine it to be an expression of cosmopolitanism.

The Idea of Europe: A Critical History
Shane Weller
Cambridge University Press, 362pp, £29.99

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