Is there any such thing as a European identity? Amidst all the kaleidoscopic variety what – if anything – do 28 members of the European Union have in common? The facts of history have created shared interests and cultural connections that are in the end more important than the differences. We know we are different from Asia; and we are more different from America than we – perhaps especially the British – think. So in a 21st century of globalisation and emerging great powers, Europe must discover and define that common identity. This is a challenge for all the big states of the EU.
Europe clearly has something distinctive and vitally important to offer: it is the experience of a unique journey through centuries of exploration and conflict, errors and learnings, soul-searching and rebuilding. It is an experience of universal significance. One way or another, the world will have to learn these lessons, and it will certainly be the poorer if this European voice is not heard.
Below is the first chapter from The European Identity: Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny written by Stephen Green.
Europe is the western corner of the Eurasian land mass. It has natural frontiers to the north, south and west, but not to the east. It is easiest to think of its eastern borders as being broadly those of the present-day European Union.
Are those borders permanent? Not necessarily. But Russia has a very different identity; occasionally down the centuries it has sought to convince itself and others that its outlook is essentially European, but at its heart it is the land of the steppes and forests. It has a geopolitical centre of gravity which is well to the east of Europe, and a culture moulded to this day by the Orthodox heritage which marks it out so distinctly.
And Turkey? Even in the days of old Byzantium, relations with Catholic Europe were always fractious and sometimes violent. Then came the Ottoman centuries when Turkish military expansion was the constant nightmare of Europe. Now Europe is thoroughly secularised, and Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, sought the same for his country. Yet recent years have shown that Turkey’s secularism is much less deeply rooted. Turkey may eventually join the European Union, but the cultural challenge looks intractable to many on both sides.
So Europe effectively includes the 28 current member states of the European Union and a few other potential member states in south-east Europe, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland – and a number of small entities such as Liechtenstein, Monaco and the Channel Islands, all of which are vestiges of earlier, premodern forms of sovereignty.
We need to ask ourselves whether this Europe has any real identity. For although the world of the 21st century is ever more global and interconnected, the importance of geopolitics has in no way declined. There are some old and some new great powers on the world stage. There are new actors, new cultural challenges and new sources of instability. Directly or indirectly, Europe will be impacted and profoundly challenged. How the Europeans respond will depend on what they have in common. What if anything – amidst all the kaleidoscopic variety – do we Europeans think we share? What is it to be a European in the modern age? Does it have any significance – geopolitically, commercially or culturally? What future does it have?
These are questions for all of Europe, but especially for the three leading states of the EU, for each of which they are unsettling in a unique way. For France – used to seeing itself as the moral and political leader of the European project – its whole self-understanding is in play, as the centre of gravity shifts towards a reluctant Berlin. Meanwhile, Britain has for centuries regarded the continent mostly as a threat or a dis- traction; but it is learning that its own identity is far more fragile than it ever realised. And for Germany, which – because of its deep history – is more truly comfortable with a multi-layered identity than either of the other two, the 20th century still casts a shadow; the role of leadership which has been thrust upon it by the facts of geography and economics still does not come at all easily.
Few people have ever thought of themselves primarily as Europeans. In the four centuries up to 1914, when Europe was the dynamic centre of the world and when Europeans fanned out over the globe to trade and conquer, they defined them- selves by their religion, by their language and by their nationality (which they saw increasingly in racial – and indeed Darwinian – terms). After 1945, in the wake of the moral and physical disasters of what was in effect a second Thirty Years War at the heart of Europe, there was a new determination to achieve a robust and enduring peace. This was the vision of a small European elite, but they were responding to a widespread sense of exhaustion and disgust (which it takes a leap of imagination these days to fully comprehend). It was given effect in the embryonic structures that eventually evolved into the European Union, and blessed – initially from the sidelines – by a Britain which only belatedly, and never wholeheartedly, joined up.
Yet none of this, not even in the early visionary years, rep- resented the emergence of a new and widely recognised Euro- pean identity. In fact, there is no political appetite – in any member state, and certainly not in any of the big three – to strengthen a European sense of identity by giving any institution or individual role a clear leadership mandate at the European level. This reluctance is not born just from linger- ing nationalism or from theoretical concerns about the democratic legitimacy of any such mandate. It reflects something much deeper: an insistent question about what that identity is and how it should be projected.
In the last 70 years, the most pressing objective has been achieved: not only has Europe been at peace with itself, but war between the member states has become virtually unthinkable. But the sense of a European identity, though it has grown, remains weak. It is still the case (as evidenced by the official Eurobarometer surveys) that majorities in every country think of themselves not primarily as Europeans but in national terms (and in the case of Britain fewer than half see their identity in European terms at all). Recent years have seen a growth in the percentage of people who see themselves as national but also European, and a decline in the percentage who see themselves as national only: but for all other than a very small minority the European identity is secondary rather than primary.
When people are asked what are the important ingredients in the European identity, half of those who are citizens of eurozone countries cite the euro. Only half as many cite history and culture. Not surprisingly, fewer than a quarter of those from non-eurozone members cite the euro, although they are about equally likely to cite history and culture. Furthermore, the trend data show that culture is on the wane as an element in people’s understanding of identity: there is evidence that sport is becoming a more important factor – and it is unclear what effect this has on people’s sense of a Euro- pean identity.
Indeed, the case for Europe is almost never argued in terms of identity. In Britain, even the pro-Europeans argue not on the basis of common values and cultural identity, but on the basis of commerce – from the benefits of the single market and the advantage of critical mass in international trade negotiations. In France and Germany, and in the eurozone more generally, policy debate for the last few years has focussed – for understandable reasons – largely on a near-term macro- economic imperative of stabilisation and structural reform. The urgent task has been to integrate monetary policy and coordinate fiscal policy – not in order to strengthen any Euro- pean identity, but to deal with the problems of over-indebted weaker members of the eurozone (above all, Greece) and to get growth going again. The Treaty of Lisbon sets out the member states’ resolve to ‘continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. But apart from rare voices like that of the influential German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (of whom more below), there are few – and no politicians of any significance anywhere – who see the creation and nurturing of a new European identity as a primary challenge, or even as having much relevance, for modern Europeans.
A whole generation has grown up since the fall of the Berlin wall – an event which led to the creation, for the first time ever, not only of a new, unified and peaceful Germany but also of a new European Union embracing almost all of the continent. It is a generation for whom borders are not restrictions, either physical or psychological – and on whose shoulders the burden of the painful past sits ever more lightly. And yet there is more existential angst than ever about Europe’s place in the world and about its whole future. Even instinctive integrationists such as the German elite fret that the vision is being swathed in fog by the complexities of Brussels regulation and the struggles of the eurozone. Meanwhile, the lukewarm British commercial pragmatists never really committed themselves to the concept of Europe as an identity at all. Yet the facts of history have created shared interests and cultural connections that are in the end more important than the differences. We know we are different from Asia; and we are more different from America than we (especially the British) think we are. We have also been reminded of late that Europe’s huge neighbour to the east – Russia – has a history and a culture which is quite distinctive and that its identity has a different centre of gravity. In a 21st century world of globalisation and great powers – a century in some ways not so very different from the 19th-century world which was also one of globalisation and great powers – Europe needs to define and discover its common identity.
The 21st century is not going to be Europe’s age. Europe is now in long-term relative decline, both politically and economically. It is no longer the energetic, ambitious and aggressive continent it was when the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the British set out over the oceans to plunder, trade and colonise. Europe also is no longer the continent whose technical brilliance the Chinese emperor Qianlong so unwisely spurned when Lord Macartney sought to open commercial dealings with China in 1793. It is no longer the continent where an aggressive Germany sought to settle and Germanise vast tracts of Slav land to the east and unleashed a campaign of unbelievable brutality in pursuit of that goal. And it is no longer the frontline of a Cold War between two superpowers with the capacity to destroy each other and everyone else many times over. Europe has retreated from being the self-defined centre of the world to being what it had been before the 15th century – a corner of the Eurasian land mass. At that time it was backward in comparison either with the sophistication of China (with which it had very little contact) or with the intellectual prowess of the Muslim world (which has left its visible European imprint in the glories of Andalusia). That is not true today: modern Europe is of course one of the most sophisticated and prosperous societies on the planet. But the question about how it can sustain its prosperity and its intellectual stature in an age when the centre of gravity has moved away from it – the question about what it has to offer and on what basis it can expect to retain its influence – is becoming more and more insistent.
The political decline of Europe has been under way remorselessly for a hundred years. All the European powers have lost the empires they acquired with varying degrees of intention and brutality. The record of imperialism is very mixed: the French and the British saw themselves at least partly as civilisers, not just as colonisers and competitors in the unseemly scramble for Africa. But each of the major colonisers has something to be profoundly ashamed of, and which bedevils key relationships with other nations and cultures to this day. For the French it is the tragedy of Algeria, where colonisation and decolonisation was brutal and bloody to a degree that few French people have truly absorbed: the war of independence in the 1950s cost several hundred thousand Algerian lives. For the British, the Bengal famine of 1943 lies – or should lie – on the national conscience; so should the Natives Land Act of 1913 which laid the basis for apartheid in South Africa; and the opium wars of the 19th century are a huge national disgrace which the Chinese do not forget, even if the British prefer not to remember (and, when con- fronted with the facts, to assume it is all just past history with no relevance to the present). For the Germans, the eastern colonisation project (with its associated and systematic genocide of Jews and massive slaughter of Slavs) was of course in an unspeakable class of its own – although the uncomfortable truth is that they have been more honest with themselves about the facts than either the French or the British.
The post-war settlement initially assumed that nothing had changed. Britain and France as victorious allies and imperial powers gained permanent seats with veto rights on the United Nations Security Council. Churchill had famously proclaimed in 1943 that he had not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. Later, Charles de Gaulle equally publicly committed himself to the defence of Algérie française. And even though both countries gave those empires up over the following decades, both meant to retain enough independent hard power to protect their vital interests on the world stage. Both developed independent nuclear deterrents. Both too lay claim to significant soft power based on the legacy of their imperialist pasts – in the context of such mechanisms as the Francophonie and the Commonwealth.
There is considerable substance in this soft power – although this very fact carries its own dangers, because it means that both countries tend to underestimate the residual resentment left by their imperialist ventures. But no delusions can remain about the decline of their hard power and of their political ability to use it. Neither any longer has the strength or the mass to sustain a significant military campaign alone. Britain could no longer recapture the Falklands, as it successfully did in 1982. And it is now doubtful whether either country could get away with major military action other than as part of some form of internationally endorsed campaign (except perhaps in a former colony, on a limited basis and by appropriate invitation – as the British did in Sierra Leone in 2000 or the French did in Mali in 2013).
Meanwhile, the Germans remain viscerally unwilling to project their power militarily. Their refusal to vote for air strikes in Libya in the UN Security Council in 2011 was emblematic. They have since taken the leading role in Europe’s engagement with the Ukraine crisis: but this has been possible only because no one believes that military action can be part of the response. Nothing demonstrates the enduring German sensitivity about the past more clearly than this neuralgia about hard power – graphically under- lined by sharp contrast between the humdrum status of the Bundeswehr and the prewar aura of the Wehrmacht.
But at no point in the decades after the war has the decline of the British and the French and the refusal of the Germans been compensated by the development at the European level of any credible collective ability to project independent hard power. Not since the European Defence Community project (which the British had blessed but had no intention of joining) was voted down by the French National Assembly in 1954 has there been any serious attempt to resurrect such a concept. Looking forward, it is clear that Europe does not even want to do so. Nor is there any sign of a collective European wish to resolve the increasingly archaic position of the French and the British at the United Nations Security Council in favour of a European solution, let alone of the French or the British themselves taking any such initiative.
Recent years have seen the first coherent efforts to project a European collective presence in the geopolitical arena, through the engagement of the still relatively new External Action Service of the EU2 – mainly in its own backyard and by extension into its broader hinterland (in, for example, the delicate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities). The EU has also joined international sanctions programmes against a number of pariah states over the years. But almost nobody expects (or even wants) all this to develop into a degree of activity which diminishes the primacy of individual member states’ foreign policy. It is striking that in the case of the Ukraine, it is one member state – Germany – which has led and, in effect, determined the European response to Russia’s actions. The truth is that nobody expects the political decline of the European nations to be offset by a stronger European geopolitical identity, not even necessarily in its own neighbourhood.
Europe is also in relative decline as an economic force, not just as a locus of political power. Having led the world during the first industrial revolution of the 19th century, it then saw the centre of gravity shift away from it across the Atlantic from the beginning of the 20th century and especially after the First World War. After the massive destruction of the Second World War, the United States was firmly ensconced as the overwhelmingly dominant economic power. At least this meant that (Western) Europe could position itself as part of a transatlantic relationship with shared interests, a common commitment to democracy, and – up to a point – a common economic approach. As a result, Western Europe’s economy grew rapidly for a while as it recovered from devastation,
bringing the people of Europe a degree of widespread prosperity they had never known before.
But this proved to be only an interlude. For since the epochal year of 1989, the rise of Asia has driven a new and historic shift of the centre of global economic gravity, this time to the east. Growth rates have risen in all the continents once dominated by the European powers. But above all, this is an Asian story. So successful has Asia been in the last three decades that its insatiable demand for resources and markets has driven growth in the Middle East, in Latin America and latterly in Africa. At the centre of this remarkable phenomenon is the reemergence of China as a great power – now the largest exporter in the world and asserting its right to a place in the sun. But it is not only a Chinese story: the other Asian behemoth – India – is lumbering forward too, not at the determined and driven pace China has achieved in recent decades, but nevertheless at rates that are almost doubling its economy every decade. Others too, from the large and diverse (Indonesia) to the small and compact (Singapore) are at various stages of what is by historical standards globally an astonishingly rapid transformation.
Astonishingly rapid, yes. But not fundamentally different from the earlier experience of the Europeans. As they modernise, all countries urbanise; there is no exception to this rule. Britain’s 19th century industrialisation moved the country from being 80 percent rural to 80 percent urban in less than a century. China is achieving the same effect more quickly – but it is presently no more than about half way through the change. India has further to go. There will be bumps along this road, but the best central forecast is that most Asian countries (and indeed, most of the emerging markets of the world) will continue to grow rapidly for another generation, both by their own historical standards and in stark contrast with the sluggishness in the old economies of Europe.
Europe will – inevitably – continue to lose market share as a result of all this. That has been the fate of all the early developers, including both the United States and Japan. Loss of market share is the result of a historic reversion to the norm. Before the 19th century, the world’s economic output was never far from subsistence level: so a country’s share of global output was roughly in proportion to its share of world population. Then as now, China had the largest population in the world – and, as late as about 1820, China had the world’s largest economy.
That changed with the onset of the industrial revolution. For the first time in human history, it enabled some economies to produce consistently above subsistence level, thus creating a gap between the two ratios (Malthus was wrong – at least once industrialisation and urbanisation had begun to destroy older social structures3). First the Europeans, then the Americans, and later the Japanese, thus achieved enormous increases in world market share. At the peak of their relative outperformance, these developed countries represented less than a fifth of the world’s population, but created around three quarters of world GDP.
The gap is now closing again as not only China but country after country in Asia (and elsewhere in the emerging world) start to catch up with the standards of living which Europeans have come to take for granted. Within ten years or so, on present trends, China may well be the world’s largest economy again: and that is just a milestone – eventually China will be by far the largest economy in the world. This great convergence, with all that it implies, is the most important fact about the first half of the 21st century.
So even if all had gone well for the Europeans, they would have had to become used to dealing with major new actors on the world stage. But in fact the weakness of European performance has exacerbated the change. This is partly due to the costs and rigidities of its social market economic model (summed up in Chancellor Merkel’s famous comment that Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its output and 50% of its social spending), partly to the extreme stress within the eurozone, and partly to the global financial and economic crisis which was unleashed in 2007/8. This hit the Europeans more badly than the Asians (whose balance sheets had been repaired in the wake of the Asian crisis ten years before). So the crisis has, if anything, accelerated the historic shift towards the east.
Europe is left struggling to find a secure foothold in a global marketplace which is becoming more and more inter- woven – where the US remains by far the world’s largest military power as well as a formidably versatile, inventive and dynamic economy, and where Europe’s ever more sophisticated eastern competitors have in several cases already passed the stage of competing simply on the basis of large pools of cheap labour.
The Asians look at Europe and see a large and prosperous market with some attractive investment opportunities. But they also see a jaded and insecure society that has – to quote the famous, and still devastatingly accurate, remark by an erstwhile American Secretary of State about the British (but generalising it to apply to the Europeans as a whole) – lost its empires and not yet found a role.4 One Chinese diplomat somewhat sardonically summed up what Europe has to offer to the modern world as ‘museums and education’. In the limit, it is as if the fate of modern Europe, obsessed as it is with its modern Greek problem, will echo that of ancient Greece. Classical Greece is remembered now for its literature, its philosophy, its democratic experiments, its internecine warfare, and an empire which expanded far and wide before fragmenting and then being overwhelmed by newer, more dynamic powers – Romans, Arabs, Turks. Does such a fate await Europe now?
Meanwhile, the US knows that the Europeans are increasingly poorly equipped junior partners in NATO and less likely than ever to join any ‘coalition of the willing’ in the use of hard power. But since the demise of the Soviet empire, Europe is no longer a major focus of strategic concern for the Americans anyway. So will the Europeans come to be seen in their eyes as what Canada and Australia are: broadly reliable friends – the kind of middle-class neighbours you like to have around, the kind who have some common interests and are like minded in many ways – but whom you wouldn’t count on for too much?
China’s mood is in some ways reminiscent of Germany’s in the late 19th century: conscious that its time has come and determined to be taken seriously by the existing occupants of the world stage; and burning with not-so-ancient grievances against some of those occupants (for Germany then it was France: for China now it is Japan in particular – but also the Opium wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and European duplicity over Shandong). It is also, like Germany then, ready to compete militarily with the leading military power (now, as then, through an aggressive naval build up).
China and the United States are increasingly wary of each other. As they watch each other, both China and the US recognise what is happening and know that Europe is losing its historical significance. They know that if there were moments in the last century when Europe might have come together in a stronger and more effective union, those moments have passed and will not recur.
What if a real United States of Europe had arisen from the ashes after 1945 – as imagined by Churchill in his famous Zürich speech of 1946 (although Churchill had no intention that Britain itself should actually join such a union)? What if the European Defence Community had not been stillborn? And what if the Treaty of Lisbon had provided for a directly elected President of the European Union? None of these things happened, and realists would certainly argue that the conditions were never there for such radical breaks with the past. That is as may be, but the result is clear: Europe’s response to its diminished position on the world stage, to the new economic competition it faces around the globe, and to the challenges all this implies for its own evolution, has been underwhelming.