If EU supporters are to be believed, Europe is indeed a fragile flower. Politicians and commentators have continually warned the public about the threat posed by so-called populist movements across Europe. Martin Schulz, the socialist president of the European Parliament, issued the latest alert ahead of the recent Austrian presidential election, warning that ‘Europe’s character will be changed’ if Norbert Hofer, the far-right Freedom Party candidate, won. It is far from clear how one man can alter the character of a whole continent just by being elected to a largely ceremonial post.
Nor is it clear how one ought to define Europe’s character, or on what grounds Schulz can claim to be an authority on the subject. Europe has always been a contested concept. In geographical terms, the question of where Europe begins and ends has never been settled. Not so long ago, many Western commentators insisted that Russia and the Ukraine were in Eurasia. Now that Turkey is set to join the EU, the geographical meaning of Europe will become even more contested and confused.
There is just as much uncertainty over the character of Europe. After the Cold War, many commentators used the term Old Europe to refer to parts of Europe that remained outside the Soviet bloc. In contrast, Eastern Bloc countries were branded New Europe. Today, parts of Old Europe – Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – are still treated as not quite European and given lectures by the EU about what it means to be European.
Today, members of the left-ish, pro-EU political elite more than match traditional right-wingers in their contempt for popular democratic decision making
Historically, Europe has always been divided. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire created religious, political and cultural differences that endure to this day. And since the fall of the Roman Empire, there have been periodic attempts to recreate it. This was first imagined as a Christian empire in the Middle Ages, under Charlemagne, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. It is important to note, however, that Charlemagne envisioned a Christian version of the Roman Empire, not a united Europe. Ever since, ideas about Europe have been raised, contested and dropped. Enlightenment thinkers wrote about a continent devoted to scientific and secular values. And, in the 19th century, the idea of European unification was associated with the ability of a single nation to unify the continent through conquest.
Arguably it was Napoleon who came closest to the role of unifier of Europe. When he was crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon evoked the memory of Charlemagne. For sections of the French elite, Napoleon still represents the personification of Europe. In 2002, the French magazine Historia featured an article entitled, ‘Napoleon – the real father of Europe’. The Historia cover showed Napoleon crossing the Alps, his hat sporting the EU insignia. ‘History has vindicated Napoleon’s vision of a “great European family”’, wrote Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister of France, in Les Cent-Jours ou l’Esprit de Sacrifice.
But what really inspired the establishment of the EU was not Europe’s alleged character; rather, it was the imperative of avoiding a conflict like the Second World War, and the need, therefore, to reintegrate Germany into the Western world. Continental unity was driven by Realpolitik – security issues and economic exigencies – rather than philosophical reflection about the meaning and character of Europe. The former German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, admitted as much when he asserted that ‘German problems can only be solved under a European roof’. For Adenauer, it was preferable that the roof was under German ownership. And Angela Merkel has continued to find this roof useful when imposing her migration policy on Germany’s neighbours. Since the 1950s, and especially since the 1980s, this ‘roof’ has played a vital role in shielding many European governments from the pressure of their electorates.
Evading the question of Europe’s character
Contrary to Schulz’s musings, Europe does not have a character. Advocates of European unification hoped that over time the diverse national identities would fade away and, in their place, a continent-wide identity would emerge. Hence the EU has done its best to undermine national identities. Since the 1970s, it has encouraged groups like the Catalans and the Scots to cultivate and develop their cultural consciousness. And its interest in protecting minorities of all descriptions has allowed the EU to play the role of their protector, standing up for them against their national governments.
One side-effect of the EU’s policy of promoting regional attachments has been to help fragment national identities. Yet the weakening of national consciousness in large parts of Europe has not been paralleled by the rise of a European identity. It has proved much easier to diminish a national consciousness than it has to cultivate a genuine EU identity. Since the 1970s, numerous surveys have indicated that Europe’s citizenry have little affection for the EU, and that even its advocates only support it pragmatically. The EU’s lack of legitimacy is well understood by its leaders, whose periodic attempts to mobilise support for European values invariably lack conviction.