4 December 2015

The European Identity by Stephen Green: Realities we cannot deny


The European Identity: Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny. Stephen Green, Haus Publishing, RRP £7.99

Stripped of its history, culture and achievements, how would Europe be viewed by the world? Had an Indian invented the steam engine or a Chinese sailor discovered the Americas, and therefore radically changed the course of economic history, how would Europe be treated? Would it be seen as no more than the western peninsula of the great Asian landmass, a patchwork of quarrelling tribes that we nowadays associate with places like Sudan or Nigeria? Or is there something unique about the European identity that has shaped its people in a way that distinguishes it from other regions of the world?

This is the question that Stephen Green, former trade minister for the British government, tackles in his short but satisfyingly laconic book.  It is a timely contribution.

Europe is facing a critical moment. The euro currency has sowed discord between the Germanic and Latinate parts of the continent where unemployment remains high. EU states disagree on how to handle a refugee crisis that shows no signs of abating, while the threat from international terrorism has reinforced the primacy of the Hobbesian nation state to ward off a clandestine threat to social order.

On top of this, in our post-nationalist age in which expressions of patriotism are acceptable only at sporting occasions, Europeans are increasingly unsure of their identity in what some see as a turbulent and threatening world of globalisation and rising powers not unlike the end of the 19th century. Conditions are ripe for a wave of successive victories for radical-right parties offering the usual comforts of order from chaos; pride from humiliation; security from fear and resentment; and relief from struggle. It might not come to that save for gentle economic headwinds and strong moderate leaders, but we’re still working out whether we have any of those.

We know language is one of the most important markers of identity – from the spread of langue d’oil across France and the re-emergence of English during the Hundred Years War to the influence of Martin Luther and Dante in standardising languages in Germany and Italy. But it was religion and the use of Latin as a transnational lingua franca that held much of Europe together for much of the pre-Reformation era.

Wars of religion arose from the schism wrought by the Reformation, and we are left wondering how things might have been different had Charles V, who in the early 16th century was head of an empire spanning much of Europe, been nicer to Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521. We might ask the same question today of the House of Saud and their reliance on the ultra-conservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, before we realise that these arrangements are always about vesting interest and legitimising power.

As the power of the Catholic Church receded and began to be challenged by the forces reason first by the likes of Galileo and then during the Enlightenment era, nationalism inevitably filled the vacuum of identity. We like to think that history is progressive, and that the Enlightenment will eventually usher in a benign World State with the universal application of natural rights. The best criticism I have read of this view is George Orwell’s scathing account of the simplistic Manicheanism of HG Wells in an essay in 1944:

“On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses.

“The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age.

“Modern Germany,” he wrote, “is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous”.

We are left with the legacy of nationalism even today. A third of Europeans do not identify as European at all. Despite decades of political integration and a commitment to ‘ever closer union’, only 2% of Europeans adopt a purely post-national identity. The vast majority see the Westphalian nation state as their guardian.

The core of Green’s analysis is the effect that the Enlightenment had in the development of the three largest European states – Germany, the UK and France – and how this informs their attitudes to the European Union.

Britain still adopts the empiricism of David Hume, sceptical of grand ideas and a priori reasoning. In Britain, things evolve pragmatically and incrementally. Look at the Anglican Church – with its amalgam of Catholic and Calvinist aspects, the development of common law since Magna Carta, or the ideological flexibility of Britain’s political parties. In this sense the EU is entirely alien to British tradition if not in its conception as an a posteriori response to war then at least in its design and direction. It’s a theme on which British eurosceptics ought to build their case for separation, rather than immigration, trade and the membership fee.

France is the country of Descartes, rationalism and étatisme. Nothing is more important to the French than the operation of the state, which is why the rise of Germany as the leading power in the European Union, a largely French conception, is an existential issue for France. Hegel is Green’s model for Germany, the country of metaphysics, but also one – through its romantic philosophers, artists and poets – where history moves forward in a yearning struggle for an absolute and universal system, the so-called Aufhebung. This is why Germans often say they are scared of themselves.

And yet, Germany is the model Green says Europe should follow if it is to build a common identity that respects the intractable differences of language, custom and values. The experience of the Holy Roman Empire has conditioned the German mind to accept three different levels of identity – that of the Heimat, a spiritual and physical place of origin; the region; and the confederation. That is the system that Europe needs today.

But one wonders whether that is enough. The Holy Roman Empire was weak and vulnerable to Prussia, while the Hegelian instinct for uniformity appears to be trumping that of the power-sharing confederation. This can clearly be seen behind EU policies on fiscal management and refugees. The idea is to promote One Europe with One Policy and One Compassion, but this falters when it collides with a real world of diverse economies and attitudes to issues such as immigration and multiculturalism that range from the Merkel to the Orban. Maybe the best we can hope for is a benign idealism held strongly to account by democratic nation states.

Green believes that while a United States of Europe will never happen and few people – other than the elite – want it, we should never forget that European countries have more similarities than differences. The legacy of the Enlightenment – Europe’s crowning achievement – makes this small corner of the Eurasian land mass distinct from other population centres of the world. That is undoubtedly correct, irrespective of the performance and ultimate fate of the EU.

With more European history taught in schools, more language coaching, more Erasmus schemes and deeper engagement from civil servants, business leaders and the media that go beyond platitudes and economic statistics, we can – and indeed are – build a citizenry that includes ‘being European’ as a core part of their identity. That, in the final analysis, is the most valuable contribution of the European Union and European cooperation, and long may it last.

Zac Tate is Deputy Editor of CapX