Saturday 15 December 2012

The Myth of 'Europe'

A few days ago I heard a very powerful lecture by Denis Wood, in which he talked about the social construction of regions, basically stating that regionalism is a load of “bullshit”. You could pick practically any geographical region in the world, and create a narrative around it to create a common identity. This reminded me that Europe is no exception. Around what is European identity constructed, and what are the values that underlie the idea of Europe? The recent Nobel Peace Prize might tempt us to think of democracy and justice, that Europe is some kind of realisation of the Kantian vision of perpetual peace. When European leaders applaud themselves, notions such as these tend to be referred to the most, and most of us have taken for granted that Europe is as ‘real’ as France or Poland. However, as I will show here, that is not the case: Europe is an artificial construct, from which it follows that there is nothing intrinsically good about the idea of European integration. A European federal state ought not to be our aim per se, particularly if such a state is founded on the economic system that is currently dominant. However, in spite of Europe being no more real than Atlantis, and in spite of there being nothing intrinsically good about European union, I will argue why I am still a Europeanist.

Ethnic groups of Europe
Europe is the Western peninsula of the Eurasian tectonic plate which stretches from Borneo to Iceland. There is no European continental plate, and apart from Europe, no landmass that is merely a peninsula carries the designation of being a continent. Officially, Europe stretches in the East until the Ural Mountains, the Volga River, the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Europe is an entirely cultural artifice, a fact which any encyclopaedia will acknowledge. Nevertheless, the common perception of Europe has changed quite dramatically during the centuries. While Cyprus is geographically part of Asia, it is nevertheless a member state of the EU, because it is considered to by culturally European. The EU application of Morocco in the other hand was rejected because it is not part of the European continent. Israel annually participates in Eurovision, and Malta, which historically has been regarded as part of Africa, also joined the EU in 2004. The boundaries of Europe change, and perhaps the most drastic development has been that of framing the definition of Europe around the EU: Russia is thus certainly not a part of Europe, although the country constitutes around 40% of the geographical land area of Europe. Most Western geography textbooks written during the Cold War further divided up Europe, considering the communist states of Eastern Europe to be part of the geographical designation ‘The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’. My own city of Leipzig was thus part of a vast region stretching all the way to the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.

Cultural Europe (Where's Russia!?)
The idea of Europe is therefore obviously not geographical, but cultural. But around which values is Europe constructed? Well, I’d say Christianity for one, as well as democracy, secularism, ethnicity (yes, white skin), and a common history (the times when ‘we’ killed each other). The ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage of Europe is supposedly the foundation of our values, which date back to antiquity where they were first formulated by Aristotle, Plato, and the other ancient Greek philosopher, or so the story goes. Well, perhaps one should remind those who make such claims that it was Muslims in Islamic Spain who discovered the ancient Greek texts and translated them into Arabic, and that it was the exchange between Muslims and Christians that facilitated the renaissance. Spanish Muslims? The 900-year period of Islamic culture in Spain was not an occupation. A large part of the proto-Spanish-speaking population had converted to Islam. Europe was invaded by the Huns, the Mongols, the Arabs, the Turks and the Magyars, to name but a few. None of these peoples came originally from geographical Europe, and it may strike you that most of Europe was quite recently part of the Mongol Empire (in fact, the region of Kalmykia in European Russia maintains a Buddhist majority to this day!). The great European wars were fought indiscriminately outside and inside the ‘continent’, and I see no reason to exclude North Africa from the European region, considering the close trade relations that always existed around the Mediterranean.

The European idea must not replace one type of nationalism with another. There are ‘indigenous’ German-speakers in the territory of all of our neighbours, and people speak Sorbic when you travel east from Leipzig for about 90 minutes. National borders do not define nations, and neither do languages, because although Sorbs have their own language, they very much consider themselves to be Germans. So faced with this, the Europeanist tends to say, ‘Well, the idea of a homogenous nation-state is obviously flawed, but we are all Europeans, right?’ Unfortunately, as we have seen, that idea is equally flawed. Europe does not just start or end at some arbitrary socio-geographic boundary. In my opinion Europe is constructed around consumerism, or, alternatively, the area that can be reached with lorries from Germany, France, Benelux and the UK.

Nevertheless, I am still a Europeanist, just not one of those who think that integration should come at any price, who thinks that anything the Commission suggests is good as long as it brings as harmonisation. I don’t think that the European Union should be limited to a particular geographical area. I think that if we implement integration through a supranational governance (or regulation) structure successfully, the EU can be a test-case for a global integration. I don’t think anybody could dispute that the Earth represents an unconstructed unit. The Earth is a relatively closed system, and humanity itself is indeed a community, because we are all members of the same species. I see something intrinsically good in preventing violence between human beings, and in facilitating the equal distribution of resources through global regulation. The EU can provide a role-model for this process, and therefore I support it.

Harald Köpping