April 24, 2006

There is no such thing as Europe

One of the difficulties of discussing the future (if any) of European countries is the insistence by people who are supposedly sceptical of the European Union of talking about “Europe”. This is true about numerous American publications and websites and the worst perpetrators are the think-tanks on both sides

When the British think-tank Centre for European Reform, which is wholly sympathetic to the “European project” (it used to take a perestroika view of a need to reform and readjust but no longer does so) talks of a “European social policy” or a “European farm policy”, the terminology is understandable. But when a website like Brussels Journal, which boasts of its opposition to European integration, or a think-tank like Open Europe produce postings or, in the case of the latter, papers and discussions about the best way forward for “Europe” one needs to call a halt.

Let us return to our muttons. To all political intents and economic purposes, there is no such thing as Europe. To argue, for instance, as one well-known American Republican politician did some years ago in London that the European Right must have the same crucial debate that the American Right had had some time before, in order to recreate itself and face the new century is fatuous. The European Right does not exist in any coherent sense. The Right in Central Europe is completely different from the Anglospheric British or American one, though there is the occasional overlap. France divides politically along fault-lines that are not repeated anywhere else. And the Right in Scandinavia tends to be somewhere around the moderate Left everywhere else.

Europe is a geographical expression, though there is some debate about its boundaries. It is, to a great extent, a cultural expression but mostly as opposed to certain other cultural entities. Even in this we can see the almost unbridgeable differences when we look at the spread of “European cultures” to the New World. The massive difference between the Anglospheric and Hispanic colonization and the countries that have grown out of them has been well documented.

Historically, the European experience is very varied. In the west it was largely defined by various wars between Catholics and Protestants and the ongoing struggle between England (later Britain) and France, the east’s experiences centred first on the split between the Latin and the Orthodox Churches, then, for centuries, on the fight against the Ottoman Empire.

Even such supposedly unifying historical events as the Second World War left very different marks on the many different countries. It is not just a question of whether you were on the winning or the losing side. There is the matter of whether there had been an occupation and if so, how many, how popular and how long did they last. Which parts of the population or the political elite supported which occupation? Where does treason lie? One can go on asking these questions for a very long time.

There is, of course, the European Union, a political construct of massive complexity, which has reached the point of non-reformability. One assumes that the muddle-headed calls for European reform often mean the reform of the EU. They usually come from people who have no understanding of the organization or its structure. In order to hand social policy back to the member states, as suggested by a recent Open Europe paper, there needs to be an amendment to the consolidated treaties. To achieve this, there needs to be an Inter-Governmental Conference and an agreement by all 25 member states; the amended treaty has to be ratified by all of the latter. An unlikely sequence of events.

It is true that the EU frequently prevents the member states from developing their own changes and reforms. On the other hand, if the various governments were really determined to carry them through they could do so, without monumental EU reforms. (This does not apply to anything that has become EU competence like external trade.)

But to talk of reforming the European economy or agriculture or social model is to accept the whole European integration project, which is nonsensical in most ways. There is no such thing as a European economy, as the tensions within the eurozone prove quite conclusively.

There is no such thing as a common European interest, which means there can be no common European foreign policy.

The differences in the agriculture of the various states are so great that the straitjacket of any common policy, however reformed is unlikely to help anyone. How can countries like Greece, Finland, France and Britain all be part of a common agricultural policy? It is pointless even to talk about its reform that would somehow push European agriculture into the world. Individual countries might be able to open up to the world (or might decide not to do so) and might compete. Europe can do no such thing.

The creation of the European concept in economy, agriculture, environment etc is merely a method to enhance political integration. Those who talk of European reforms, European opening up, European development in the twenty-first century have accepted the integration project and cannot see its inherent senselessness.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at April 24, 2006 09:26 AM


I wonder if your view isn't conditional on a relatively placid international situation. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East (which an ad hoc US strike on Iran will only delay) will have dramatic repercussions on European security. A nuclear Middle East, an America that has pulled back, and a hostile Russia could turn the EU into a true federation if its electorates choose to hang together rather than hang separately.

National electorates in Europe haven't embraced the idea of a true federation. It isn't really fair to dismiss federalism on the evidence of an EU that tries to have its cake and eat it, ie. have federalism and national sovereignty at the same time. If the people of Europe aren't ready to form a true federal electorate, then ceteris paribus it won't happen. But on present trends, the need for security could trump all of this, underline what Europeans have in common, and bring them together in self-defense.

Do you and others here think that under more dangerous conditions it might be helpful if some of the British Commonwealth countries pull more closely together as a bloc (eg. the UK, Canada, and Australia) and work together with South Africa, India, and the United States as common purposes permit? The alternative concept of an Anglosphere, in which the national members relate to each other directly, would depend more heavily on America. An Anglosphere in which the United States is joined by a larger number of weaker partners wouldn't offer as much to America (or give the other partners as much leverage) as an Anglosphere consisting of a smaller number of stronger partners.

Posted by: David Billington at April 24, 2006 07:02 PM

You are quickly persuading me. Tell me more, or lead me to more.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at April 24, 2006 07:03 PM


I think our posts crossed. Are you responding to Helen's?

Posted by: David Billington at April 24, 2006 07:08 PM

Ms. Szamuely, your point is well made that using the term "Europe" to refer to the whole of the Continent and Britain in policy debates causes us to implicitly accept that Europe is a whole cultural and political concept to begin with, cum history etc. However, while it is true that these countries are not the same and often less related to each other than to their colonial progeny, we must still attend to the debate about whether and to what degree to erase these distinctions. There is no "Europe" now. Must there be? Why not? Despite my own (and this blog's) Anglo-philia, I think only a fool would ignore the whole integration debate. In a sometimes dangerous world where the West declines relative to new powers, why not push these nations together? Would this not be the best way to promote the liberalism and English language we so value? Why not?

PS With regard to national difference. Were not the (American) colonies each distinct and proud? Did it not require Civil War for the American nationality to gain supremacy over other identities? And finally, did not Americans a century later whitewash their own history about the war, celebrating both sides, ignoring the aims of the Confederacy, the lack of common feeling etc....?

Posted by: Edmond at April 24, 2006 09:26 PM


Spot on. I've been saying it for years now - all the 'European' this and 'European' that is a tool to get us to accept 'Europe' culturally. This makes is it easier to subsume all the seperate nations and peoples of the continent into one country - Europe. It's a long, hard road but unless we elect a thoroughly patriotic party, one committed to taking GB out of the European Union, the only way is fight back is to also do so culturally. This means using the correct terminology. We could make a start with old fashioned words such as 'England', 'France', 'Germany' and so on.

Posted by: Pete_London at April 25, 2006 09:50 AM

"Were not the (American) colonies each distinct and proud?"

Quite distinct. Massachussetts and Virgina despised each other, the second act of the Roundhead/Cavalier hatefest, and people in Philadephia took a long time to forget that Puritans in Mssachussetts had made a practice of hanging Quakers at one time. It was a miracle that these people cooperated for long enough to accomplish enough of anything to convince themselves that there was anylue in sticking together.

Posted by: Jim at April 25, 2006 12:29 PM

Apologies for not replying to the various points earlier. It seems to me that a swift response now is in order together with a further posting that would develop the ideas a bit more.

Firstly, the European Union is not a federal state and has no intention of being so. The aim is a united centrally operated political entity. The member states already have fewer rights for legislation than the States in the US. The pupose is to pass as much as possible of the legislation (between 50 and 80 percent at the moment, depending on how you count it in Britain and, apparently 80 percent in Germany) in Brussels. This then must be implemented in the member states. The Constitution does not change that, merely strengthens it.

Secondly, comparisons with America are tempting but misleading. The European countries have had longer separate histories than the states had done at the time of the writing of the Constitution, let alone now. I have no doubt that the American colonies were distinct and proud and the states still are. That is still a long way from being completely different historically, politially, socially and economically. Correct me, if I am wrong, but I believe the political structures of the states are similar (not completely the same but similar) and are mirrored by the federal political structures. That is completely untrue for Europe.

Pushing nations together through imposing political structures and legislation is considerably more dangerous than letting countries work their own alliances out for themselves. To pretend that there are European problems and, therefore, European solutions is to misread the situation.

As for the world situation becoming unstable, well, when was it otherwise. That has never made all Europeans stick together. See fight against Ottomans (not really!) passim.

This is already too long for just a response, so I shall leave other ideas for a further posting.

Posted by: Helen at April 26, 2006 07:48 AM

If to be truly European, one has to undergo some Roman intrusion, a bit of the Volkerwanderung, medieval Catholicism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the 18th Century Agricultural Revolution, the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, the efflorescence of Science and Scholarship, the evolution of a Constitutional Monarchy, the development of historic privileges and liberties into a modern liberal state, the avoidance of Nazism and Communism, then Europe would seem to consist principally of.... Scotland and England.

Posted by: dearieme at April 26, 2006 10:55 AM

Making notes about Euroepan integration/unification as comparable to American federal nation formation is invalid. To put European unification in the context of the Americas/Western Hemisphere, one would have to imagine a federation of the United States with Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Netherlands Antilles and Canada. European countries have interrelated history and sure, at one time it could be considered some countries have probably the same national origin. For instance, you could argue the Netherlands is probably "German" while Poland and Czech Republic could be one, and Austria and Switzerland are artificial entities separated from Germany.

But there are also countries that don't share political union apart from sharing medieval Catholicism like England and Scotland or unified Scandinavia. And in the case of Greece it really didn't have much to do with the Franks in medieval Europe at all.

Saying that American states are diverse is probably akin to saying the diversity of Cornwall, Yorkshire, Lowland Scotland, and Ulster; or alternatively the diversity of Brandenburg, Saxony, Wuerttemburg, Francoia, and Bavaria in Germany. Once you start contrast Lombardy with Midland the difference is more akin to comparing Arizona with Bahia in Brazil - simply incomparable.

On the other hand, there is no doubt when Americans talk of Europe, they do mean a geographical concept. In this case, Britain is in Europe just as Korea is Asian.

Posted by: Joel at April 26, 2006 06:07 PM

David B

I meant the OP, but go right ahead. I'm fully involved now. My way of looking at this is going to be skewed. I am Anglospheric in outlook, but my 3rd and 4th sons are Romanian, and have some wistful hankering for a European identity about them.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at April 26, 2006 10:34 PM

My apologies. While I believe the comparison with post-revolutionary America and the current EU are not so wildly off the mark; I worry that we are getting distracted from the main question, which is should Europe try to become a single political bloc and to what extent?
Let us assume that no comparison is apt. Are there long-term advantages to an integration of Europe. (I hasten to point out that I do not approve of the Bruxel-crats and there are many kinds of integration; let us not confuse them with any kind of "Europe".) I would argue that a powerful EU dedicated to free-markets and liberal democracy is good for the world, the West and for citizens of its constituent nations. When it has been engaged, Britain has been a good European leader; its manuevering brought in the former Soviet sattelites and their democratic reforms.

PS Since I brought up the reference to the US; I'll explain. No analogy is absolute but I think a few facts bear in mind.
1) American national identity took at least a century to create.
2) The colonies were not just culturally, but economically very distinct; in some ways that make Europe look homogenous by comparison (agrarian slave economy vs. industrial etc)
3) Threat is not like that risked by lone colonies (existential); but the relative decline of the West (Europeans in particular) does bring hazards--Europe nations could indirectly
harm each other (ex. France, Germany and Iran,Iraq etc...hell the US doesnt give the UK weapons fearing other Europeans will give them to China).

PPS Americans routinely think of Asia and Europe as cultural blocs. Think of all the Asian parents jokes and the fact that no one talks like India, the middle east or Russia are "Asian". Ditto Europe--albeit less since they are part of our in group (Westerners).

PPPS I'm really sorry I rambled so long.

Posted by: Edmond at April 26, 2006 10:47 PM

Helen - The Ottomans did not have nuclear weapons and I doubt we will see the French taking the side of a nuclear Iran against the Germans or anyone else. The core EU countries will not join the United States in a war with Iran, but I have trouble believing that a radicalized Islamic world with nuclear weapons won't pull Europeans closer together at least in matters of security, with or without the United States.

Assistant Village Idiot - Many Europeans think they have graduated to a kind of post-conflict existence (Robert Cooper wrote about this back in 2002), leaving America and China still in the age of nationalism and war. If it turns out that Europe hasn't really left this age behind, European values and institutions could be challenged more deeply than by the recent tensions between Brussels and national electorates. This could be healthy but it could also be very dangerous.

To the extent that it has a common sense of purpose, the Anglosphere could have an influence on Europe as well as outlying areas. The westward spread of nuclear weapons to the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America will in any case be as serious as the rise of China, maybe more so. If a common Anglosphere position in foreign policy is possible, it would seem to me in need of a western as well as eastern focus. I also wonder if it wouldn't be in the interest of the British countries to consider relating more as a group to the United States rather than conducting relations with Washington as individual nations.

Posted by: David Billington at April 27, 2006 12:43 AM

Edmond, IMHO your rationales for saying Europe and the US could be used in comparison is a bit lacking since,

"1) American national identity took at least a century to create."

British history was also like this. The idea of a English national identity took centuries up to about 1400 AD to be developed.

"2) The colonies were not just culturally, but economically very distinct; in some ways that make Europe look homogenous by comparison (agrarian slave economy vs. industrial etc)"

So were individual regions in Britain. Also remember that American colonies already spoke roughly the same languages for communications purposes and even much of the Pennsylvanian Dutch use English as a second language rather than a foreign language as they were already significantly Anglicized. It is more akin to Cornwall's people use Cornish at home but they also speak English as a second language. But in Germany or France, English is simply a foreign language - it is not a second language that you will use in your daily life. In other words, comparing post-American War of Independence Rhode Island and South Carolina is more akin to comparing Cornwall and Yorkshire in England alone.

"3) Threat is not like that risked by lone colonies (existential); but the relative decline of the West (Europeans in particular) does bring hazards--Europe nations could indirectly
harm each other (ex. France, Germany and Iran,Iraq etc...hell the US doesnt give the UK weapons fearing other Europeans will give them to China)."

Geographic blocs of countries were nothing new. Congress of Vienna comes to mind. But Europe simply has diverging national interests that make such long term permanent alliance unsustainable. The Vienna system was broken up in 30 years time and the only remaining vestigal legacy to this date is that Sweden is a neutral state. (Switzerland's neutrality was firmly enshrined by the 16th century)

Posted by: Joel at April 27, 2006 04:06 PM

Hi Joel, David, Helen and others,
The debate is probably over and a new post might come in shortly. But I guess I'll comment again.
My main point is not about comparing the EU of 2006 with the US of 1776. While I think there are valid similarities, that is not my main point.
Readers (myself included) disagree with the structure of the EU.
But what should it be? If we believe in free markets, promoting liberal democracy etc. what is the best arrangement for the Continent and Britain?
On many matters (social, various economic etc.) little or no commonality exists and are instead simply extensions of French or German self interest.
But defense and specific kinds of foreign policy issues are common. The current arrangement creates more risk for member states (and their markets) by rewarding those who cooperate with threatening states or terrorist groups. (does anyone remember Iraq, or our current problems with Iran?)
Finally, nations, states and peoples change. The English-speaking peoples have intuitively understood this through history and as a result have remained dynamic and reinventing. With regard to the present or future existence of Europe, we would do well not to construct our debates so rigidly.

Posted by: Edmond at April 28, 2006 11:15 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?