The European Identity: Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny
By Stephen Green
Haus Publishing, 2015
Despite being fairly short and sketchy, Stephen Green’s book is replete with vital insights and – what is as important for igniting discussion – the odd contentious statement.
Most people, perhaps not surprisingly, see themselves as British or French or Italian (etc.) rather than European; or as British (etc.) first and foremost. Green accepts this but he then goes on to explore what it means, or might mean, to be European. What do a Brit, a Pole and a Greek (say) have in common? And if the honest answer is ‘Not a lot’, then how might one forge or engineer a common European identity?
It is an issue of current concern, what with the EU referendum coming up in the UK in June and a general disillusionment with the EU evident across the continent. In the main, Green addresses the issue by looking at the entangled experience and fraught historical perspective of three European nations: France, Germany, and Britain. These were the most interesting passages in the book, putting me in mind at times of Stephen Toulmin’s still magnificent Cosmopolis and making me wonder whether ‘the European identity’ Green hankers after might be just another way of referring to modernity. Anyway, Green’s final view is that for these three nations, and the rest too one assumes, there is enough common ground, enough shared history and entwined culture and plain geopolitical interest, for us to stand together. Towards the close, he writes:
Out of their different perspectives, and out of the many and painful failures and wrong turnings we Europeans have taken over the generations, has emerged something profoundly important for the world of the twenty-first century: a commitment to rationalism, democracy, individual rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, social compassion, and an understanding of history as dynamic, open and progressive. These are worth our loyalty: this is the basis for a European patriotism.
This is all very fine, of course, though one might question whether these are specifically European values, and whether ‘compassion’ or indeed the simple ‘rule of [international] law’ is much in evidence in the deal that the EU has struck with Turkey to manage the migrant crisis.
Within the book, one notes that Europe segues into ‘the house of Europe’ (Helmut Kohl’s designation of the EU and an allusion, I think, to the description of the Holy Roman Empire as ‘the house of God’) which then becomes ‘the European project’ and then the EU proper. This tends to give the impression that Europe and the EU are as one; that only a nation that is in the EU can be properly or officially European.
In the light of this, Green’s statement at the start that Russia is not part of Europe – a curious note, to my mind – becomes more understandable. He gives as one supporting reason that Russia is ‘the land of the steppes and forests’. To which one might reply: Well, yes, and Sweden is the land of fjords and forests, what of it? (Incidentally there is, as I learnt in another book published by Haus – Smile of a Midsummer Night – a Swedish connection to St Petersburg.) And applying Green’s own criteria of ‘historical and cultural realities’ one might mention the battle of Stalingrad and a war that saved Europe from Nazism. The human cost of that war on the USSR side, according to Antony Beevor, was about 25 million lives. Or one might mention the scores of Russian artists and writers (Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Kandinsky…) who have made immense contributions to European culture. Russia has a towering presence in the European imagination, whereas certain other EU member states (say, Malta) do not.
Yet Green’s statement makes sense if one accepts that Russia is at odds with the EU and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, as long as the EU and NATO are as one. At present 24 of the 28 EU member states are also members of NATO, including all former Soviet bloc countries (Poland, Hungary, etc.) and all countries that were once part of the USSR (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). The EU has even courted Ukraine, a country right on Russia’s border, a policy that has arguably (John J. Mearsheimer and Richard Sakwa – not Boris Johnson – put this case best) provoked the crisis there. Even so, one can hardly argue that Russia’s geopolitical centre of gravity lies outside of Europe…
The European Identity is a worthwhile and thought-provoking read, though come June the choice for Britain remains just as thorny as ever: an unhappy marriage or a messy divorce?
The publisher’s description of The European Identity can be read here.