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(1) Europe: An Idea

The Idea of Europe

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Today, as the older territorial and national boundaries of the world become increasingly uncertain, the quest for national and transnational identity has intensified. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, the product of “the individual’s social locations and psychological crises in an increasingly uncertain world.” Previously, anxieties about identity tended to afflict only states of relatively recent creation-the so-called “new states” in Africa and Asia in particular- and areas of massive and diverse emigration such as the United States.

The states that made up “Europe,” however, had supposedly been of such antiquity and undisputed cultural homogeneity that their members rarely troubled to ask themselves who they were. But the experience of two world wars, combined with ever-increasing migration for political, economic, or broadly cultural motives across the rapidly dissolving frontiers of Europe, have forced upon Europeans the uneasy sense that their self-confidence in knowing just who they are is almost certainly unfounded.

This volume traces from the ancient world to the present the determining features of what might count as a collective “idea” of Europe as a political and cultural domain. This is not, of course, a linear history.

No such history could be written. Our objective is rather to identify the concerns and convictions, the shifting discursive practices and the different languages, political, cultural, and economic, of which all identities are constituted. The contributors represent different disciplines-history, anthropology, political science, the law—as they do different intellectual styles. Some in particular look at Europe from beyond Europe, and their gaze is highly critical of both what Europe has been and what it is now becoming. Others, while accepting the obvious burdens and contradictions of the European past, are cautiously hopeful about the possibilities of a new and happier European future. The texts ofers no attempt to solve Europe’s current dilemmas. Its purpose is rather to add an historical voice to a conversation that has been going on within Europe and outside for several decades, a conversation that will shape a new, potentially exciting, potentially threatening, political, cultural, and social order. Most of us, whether we belong to Europe itself or other parts of the “Western” world, which Europe has played such an important role in shaping, will have to learn to live with this order. It is time we also came to understand it.

For decades there has been within Western Europe an ever-insistent suspicion that the days of the nation-state are numbered. This, at least for the foreseeable future, is largely an illusion. Politically and institutionally the state remains the final term of reference. As the general enthusiasm for the unification of Germany demonstrated, the state is still capable of arousing a great deal of popular attachment, even among one of the most Europhile of Europe’s peoples. In the minds of such East German politicians as Wolfgang Thierse, former leader of the Eastern SPD and subsequently speaker of the German parliament, there may be an insoluble link between unification and “Europeanization.” But if his position is to be at all coherent, Thierse’s vision of the future United States of Europe must still be one in which the individual states retain a great measure of their former identity as nations.

Even if the nation-state is not about to vanish, the erosion of its effective powers within what now constitutes the European Union has been considerable. As Philip Ruttley explains in his essay on the process of unification after 1945, the institutions of the Union, the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice have, as the “Euroskeptics” bitterly complain, greatly diminished the authority of local assemblies and national judiciaries.5 Beyond Europe, too, “globalization” has shrunk the operational capacity of the state by transferring a great deal of its previous informal authority to private, and necessarily multinational, institutions.

All of this is obvious enough. Whether you view it with dismay or pleasure depends on which side of a number of political and cultural fences you happen to sit. All people, not only Europeans, must share some anxiety over whether the successor to this now long-standing political and social institution will turn out to be a mega-state, a federation of minor states, or merely a political corporation. In the midst of this shifting political landscape, most of the peoples of Europe are participants in a vast and far-ranging political, economic, and cultural experiment. No one has any clear idea of the outcome. But, as Thomas Risse and Daniela Engelmann-Martin stress, it will be-indeed, if it is to succeed, it must be-dependent upon the image of a newer and better political order, one that ultimately can replace the older alignment of peoples.

This alignment dates back to the Congress of Vienna, and, as Biancamaria Fontana argues on the legacy of the Napoleonic wars, it set the scene for many of the divergences and contradictions that still beset the attempt to create a united Europe. Most, too, will recognize that some of the divisions in Europe established even earlier by the confessional struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries-divisions between Protestants and Catholics, between an industrialized, capitalist, and predominantly republican North and a largely agricultural, quasi-feudal if not exactly monarchical and ultimately backward South-are vanishing and that in their place a new sense of what it means to be European is slowly and uncertainly emerging. The very thought that it might be useful to talk of a European identity, which even those who most abhor the idea do so if only reactively, has become a source of anxiety.

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