What is Europe?
It was Henry Kissinger who, as United States secretary of state, most famously expressed the non-European diplomat’s frustration with the unbearable lightness of Europe’s being when he asked: “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”
If Kissinger was confused in the 1970s, when the forerunner of the European Union had a dozen member countries, what would he say now, when the EU has grown to 25 diverse states, with five more waiting in the wings and at least another 14 sniffing around the periphery?
US uncertainty and scepticism about what Europe really is hasn’t prevented Washington putting pressure on the EU to reward this or that country by letting them join the European club of rich, democratic nations. Most recently, it has been lobbying for Turkey to be allowed to come inside.
The US wanting Europe to do something is not by itself, of course, a sufficient reason for Europe refusing to do it.
But as European leaders finished their debate over whether to let Turkey start filling out the EU application form (probably a 15-year process), there has never been more uncertainty and doubt within the clubhouse over what kind of Europe a Europe that either excludes or includes Turkey will be.
Either choice provokes awkward questions. If not Turkey, why Bosnia, why Albania? If Turkey, why not Ukraine? Why not Israel? Why not Turkey’s neighbour Iraq? The question of what kind of entity we are building when we enlarge the EU so dwarfs the question of whether Britain adopts the euro that it is time to rephrase Kissinger’s remark. If I call myself European, what am I calling myself?
The word “Europa” has been around for a long time. Mythology apart, one interpretation is that the early Greeks used the word, which may have meant “mainland”, to refer to the forbidding, cold, mountainous, barbarian expanses that lay to the north, west and east of their archipelagic heartland.
The ancient Romans did not think of themselves, or call themselves, “European”. Present-day romantics may like to think of the Roman empire as the precursor of European boundaries and European values.
In fact, the Romans considered the Celts in the west, the Germans in the north and the Slavs in the east to be barbarians, outsiders. Their empire was a collar around the Mediterranean, which they called Our Sea; Syria, Palestine and Libya were as much a part of their imperium as Gaul or Britannia.
But the complexity of the “What is Europe?” argument is such that the romantics aren’t all wrong, either. Roman law, literature, language and philosophy do press close round the taproots of European culture, however that is defined.
Versions of the geographical term “Europe” regularly cropped up in early maps, such as the medieval genre known as “T&O”, which showed a T-shaped world of three continents — Europe, Africa and Asia — with Jerusalem at the centre of the T. But the wider world in which the ancestors of present-day EU citizens lived was defined for them by their faith: it was Christendom first.
Winston Churchill, who, to the annoyance of conservative Euro-sceptics today, was an early and fervent enthusiast of European union, believed that the father of the modern European idea was Henry Navarre, king of France.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Churchill said in a speech in 1948, Henry “laboured to set up a permanent committee representing the 15 ... leading Christian states of Europe. This body was to act as an arbitrator on all questions concerning religious conflict, national frontiers, internal disturbance, and common action against any danger from the East, which in those days meant the Turks.” I’m sorry, did you say “Turks”, Sir Winston?
Michael Heffernan, a geography professor at Nottingham University and author of The Meaning of Europe, argues that the defining moment came later, with the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648.
“Europe really takes a modern form, as a clearly defined cartographical entity, quite recently, in the course of the 18th century — as an area where a balance of power between nation states exists,” he said. “The Treaty of Westphalia was the first attempt to try to regulate relations between nation states, with recognised boundaries, in a civilised way.”
Sadly, these civilised nations continued to try to tear each other’s armies to shreds. Heffernan’s bleak assessment is that when the attempt to define Europe as a place where civilised kings and dukes sat down and settled their boundary disputes in a gentlemanly way failed, scholars reached for their maps as a substitute. The logic of “We have made a civilisation, and called it Europe” gave way to “We are in a map-shape called ‘Europe’, and therefore we are civilised”.
“Often, the attempt to try to define Europe in pretty crude geographical terms, as a feature on the map, was simply an act of despair, when it was demonstrated that the Westphalia model doesn’t work, and the states were constantly going to war,” said Heffernan.
When the late geographer Bill Parker wrote his oft-cited paper Europe: How Far? in 1960, talking of a “tidal Europe” whose eastern borders ebbed and flowed according to the criteria you happened to be using, the Iron Curtain and a colonial, us-and-them attitude towards the Islamic world far harsher than today’s made the definition of Europe’s boundaries academic.
Now, whether because they associate it with prosperity, with national or personal security, or with ideals of tolerance and intellectual freedom, politicians and peoples all over the east and south are starting to rattle at the spokes of the EU’s turnstiles. It was surprising for Eurocrats in the 1990s when Russia dropped a hint that it might consider applying to join; disconcerting a couple of years ago when the king of Morocco asked if his country could become a member.
In a speech two years ago in Brussels, the then president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, set out the almost imperial dimensions of the dilemma. “Each enlargement brings us new neighbours,” he said. “In the past many of these neighbours ended up becoming candidates for accession themselves.
“I do not deny that this process has worked very well. But we cannot go on enlarging for ever. We cannot water down the European political project and turn the EU into just a free trade area on a continental scale.”
In the debate Prodi called for about the limits of Europe, the French — who have wanted the EU to be something greater than the economic sum of its parts, something you could feel as well as use, since Victor Hugo called for a United States of Europe — have sounded the most brassy notes.
This emotional attachment to some kind of common European soul produces contradictory outbursts. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, former French president and author of the EU draft constitution, said the admission of Turkey would be “the end of the European Union”. He said Turkey had “a different culture, a different approach, a different way of life ... its capital is not in Europe, 95% of its population live outside Europe. It is not a European country.”
Former French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, by contrast, amplified De Gaulle’s call for one Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and urged the membership not just of Turkey but of the countries of the Maghreb.
“Europe’s capacity to conduct dialogues with China, India and America depends on the extent to which it can be a union of all territories from the icebergs of the Arctic to the sand dunes of the Sahara, with the Mediterranean in their midst,” he said.
The much-derided preamble to Europe’s would-be constitution is vague enough not to exclude any country from joining one day. It talks about Europe being “a special area of human hope” embarked on a “great venture”, but also speaks, specifically, about Europe being the originator of the idea of human rights.
Curiously, it is in this one area that a much broader idea of Europe has already come into being, in a very concrete way. It is already possible for people living in Russia — even if they live on the border with China, or on the edge of the Sea of Japan (or Turkey), even if their villages look towards Iraq — to share with people in Hemel Hempstead or Torremolinos the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
In his 1948 speech, Churchill spoke enthusiastically of a movement for European Unity.
“In the centre of our movement,” he said, “stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.” — Â