Blesok no. 47, March-April, 2006

Reconstructing Europeanism?

Aleš Debeljak

    More than ten years after the Velvet Revolutions and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, however, it has become clear that unquestioned coordination between “European” symbolic, moral, political, and social values, on one hand, and “European” capitalism, on the other, is no longer tenable. A Pandora’s box was opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it cannot be closed up again. As the eastern part of the continent witnesses the rise of fanatic nationalism and the birth of many new countries based on old (though not always discernible) ethnic traditions, Western Europe turns a blind eye to the return of a suppressed history, convinced that the “spring of nations” was something that happened long ago. It seems that the painful history of nineteenth century—the unification of the German Länder, the stitching together of the Italian provinces (“We have Italy, now we need Italians!” Massimo D’Azeglio notoriously exclaimed), and the brutal ethnic homogenization carried out by the French state—is nowadays completely forgotten. If these past nationalist movements had more clearly been integrated into the symbolic horizon of Europe, perhaps today one would not so easily get the impression that, whereas nationalism in the bigger countries is legitimate, nationalism in the new, smaller countries inevitably sets off alarm bells. In order for European integration to begin, it was imperative that the nationalist history of Western Europe be suppressed. Thus, erstwhile nationalistic countries have become enthusiastic Europeans under the cover of economic prosperity and a consensus on the inevitable progress of the “common market.” It was precisely in an effort to facilitate this progress, that Winston Churchill, in a famous speech at Zurich University in 1946, based the reconstruction of the European family on a prospective partnership between France and Germany.
    France and Germany—which together represent the leading force for European integration today and, indeed, have a great deal invested in the existence of a strong Europe (although for different reasons)—have more or less buried their nationalist animosities by facing the demons of their own totalitarian history (the Vichy regime, the Third Reich). While their visions of the E.U.’s future structure may differ, based as they are on the countries’ specific histories (the French republican tradition of a strong state and the German development of constitutional checks designed to preclude the possibility of another Holocaust), we nevertheless can discern a common denominator in all their essential European efforts, namely, the nationalism of a fat purse.
    Do not misunderstand me. There is no doubt that the historical reconciliation between these two traditional adversaries represents a significant achievement of political deliberation and is worthy of profound respect. But we would be misguided not to recognize the primacy of economic logic as the basis for this reconciliation. It was, after all, the economic integration of Western Europe that was the truly essential factor in Jean Monnet’s and Robert Schumman’s original idea. The political goal was to forever prevent Germany from building a war machine with the resources of mining and heavy industry in Saar and Ruhr valleys. A lasting peace between traditionally hostile countries could be achieved so long as any potential war is not only conceptually incomprehensible but also economically impractical. The forerunner of the E.U., the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was established in 1951 in Paris by six signatory countries, became the first truly supranational organization in postwar Europe to have teeth, regulating the production of coal, steel, and iron ore. The master narrative on which the legitimacy of postwar Europe rests was devised in order to prevent any new catastrophic breakouts of imperial chauvinism and ethnic megalomania, the past scars of which needed a long time to heal. Economic resources were used to further the process of unification in order to achieve a political goal, namely, the renunciation of force in resolving disputes among members of the Union.
    The creation of a European “community of peace” is predicated, then, on a pragmatic consideration, which, however, demands to be teleologically justified. The telos of peace as the supreme value provides the irrefutable language of necessity embedded in the foundations of European unification. Such unification is required for the liberalization of the intra-European market, reinforcement of habits of institutional cooperation, and reduction of cultural and societal mistrust among the members. Economic integration would provide a sense of interdependence among the peoples, and this was supposed to keep the psychology of fear at bay and so, hopefully, eradicate the breeding ground for the kind of catastrophe that had devastated Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, and Leningrad. Impediments to global trade and the free flow of capital were to be abolished and, in this way, international conflicts would cease. This mantra, though not necessarily heard every day, functions as an unquestioned assumption behind every argument promoting “Europeanism.” The less one hears it, the more effective it is.
    The technocratic discourse of the E.U. fails, then, to set forth any comprehensive, albeit idealistic, vision that might give people direction and meaning beyond the realm of the mundane. Instead, it derives from a conviction that all visions are corrupt; one need only ensure the conditions for free trade, and all the rest will follow. Here, and here alone, has Europe managed to amalgamate irreconcilable differences. I am reminded of Blaise Pascal’s observation that the most important thing in the development of faith is exterior form: if a set prayer, for example, is repeated daily as part of a ritual, religious sentiment will follow spontaneously.
    One can see the same principle at work in the discourse of E.U. experts, now linked to the perverted latter-day Cartesianism “I shop, therefore I am.” At a time when one ostensibly revolutionary idea after another has collapsed, producing immense suffering in its wake, many pundits continue to recite the mantra of the “invisible hand of the market.” But this merely obscures the fact that, if the hand of the market must remain invisible, it is only because it extends its middle finger. At a time of vast inequities in wealth and opportunity, relentless degradation of the environment, and proliferating outlets of consumerist indulgence, which have all but displaced any sense of responsible citizenship, great numbers of self-styled political realists continue to entertain the exclusivist illusions of Western Europe and of the E.U. as the one and only site of relevance.
    Instead of radically reconsidering the continent’s changed cultural, moral, political, and economic terrain following the tumultuous collapse of communist anciens régimes, the E.U. engine, alas, merely kept on rambling along tracks that had been laid out for it before anyone could have imagined the possibility of an undivided Europe. Technologically advanced, economically dynamic, and rapidly integrating the western half of the continent, the E.U. miserably failed in recognizing the historic opportunity it was offered. “We fiddled when Sarajevo burned,” Timothy Garton Ash pointedly laments in his History of the Present. By “we” he means, of course, Western Europe.

    What exactly was the missed opportunity? Above all, it was a chance for the E.U. to liberate itself from the heritage of the Cold War. Instead, Western Europe maintained the polarization by other means: now, instead of seeing them as the enemy, the E.U. viewed the countries that had freed themselves from the communist straight-jacket as poor relatives with unrealistic ambitions and a childish wish to imitate the West. To the extent that the Cold War was fought on the basis of competing ideological claims and belief systems—that is, in thinly veiled metaphysical terms—the E.U. has remained a willing prisoner of its own received wisdom. In this respect, it could do nothing but see itself as the site of a unique civilization representing the ultimate horizon of universal aspirations, a civilization of superior values and the ultimate guarantee of their survival.
    For the political elites of the post-communist countries, crowding in the waiting room of this contradictory club, the understanding of the E.U. as a place of superior standards, norms, and values in all walks of life has undoubtedly possessed great mobilizing power. This was not a question of selective rational deliberation but, rather, a comprehensive idea that presented the E.U. as a promise of happiness and the alleviation of all tensions—an Arcadia from which the peoples of the East had been expelled at the onset of communism; after the revolutions of 1989, they could simply return to their “natural” habitat. It is thus no coincidence that the “return to Europe” represented one of the very few clearly identifiable rallying cries in Central and Eastern Europe in the nineties. This slogan was felt as genuine in various public circles and enjoyed wide support among the people in general, and not only among the post-communist elites, who, however, quickly discovered (regardless of whether they leaned left or right) that symbolism doesn’t get you very far. In countries where communism had preached only absolute dichotomies, “Europe” now meant the embodiment of beauty, truth, and justice. Before long, the public discourse of Eastern and Central Europe had placed “Europe” on a pedestal as a metaphysical idea, something sacred and beyond all doubt.
    Europe, then, was a privilege. No privilege, however, can survive its practical universalization. From this particular point of view, it is not surprising—though it is unacceptable for me—that in contemporary debates about what privilege it is we are really talking about, the traditionally overlooked part of Europe is, in fact, omitted. The entire post-communist world is present in these debates only through its absence. Let me state this clearly: the post-communist world is not an active participant in these debates, i.e., it is excluded from any possibility of substantially influencing the outcome of negotiations on the emerging European political, cultural, and economic identity in the twenty-first century. Regardless of differences in the achieved forms of democratic order and market efficiency, the state of human rights, and the established institutions of the rule of law, as exhibited today by the countries aspiring to join the E.U., it is safe to say that the least common denominator they share is a consensus about the need to reduce the complex processes of integration. This means reduction to the instrumental-pragmatic dimension. The adoption of the huge corpus of the acquis communautaire and its integration into individual national legislation in post-communist countries is generally understood as a formal, technical obligation and less as a central political mechanism of rearranging the fundamental relations not only between the state and the civil society, but also between the state and existing cultural, ethnic, and historical identifications.
    In this light, we need to consider possibilities for constructing a common template for an inclusive European identity that will have a wide public appeal. Here, too, Western Europe’s preconceived notions and excessive reliance on the integrating effects of “economism” and nothing else tend to undermine, rather than invite, the construction of a viable shared master narrative. Moreover, the dominance of the E.U.’s economic aspect continues exactly to the extent to which comprehensive and rationally organized attempts to formulate a “common mental framework” for the E.U. are doomed to failure. Such joint projects as the “Cultural Capital of Europe” program, which fosters mutual understanding between European nations; the Erasmus, Socrates, and Tempus scholarships, which are designed to encourage the sharing of scientific research; international human rights workshops; and support for efforts to build a democratic mentality in the public at large—all these and many other welcome forms of European cooperation will hang in a limbo of limited engagement if they are not anchored in a common grand narrative.
    What, exactly, do I mean by this? What I have in mind is a substantial imaginative framework of general identification, material for “common dreams” that can give all the citizens of Europe a certain minimum of existential meaning and emotional density, through which we recognize a commitment to something that transcends us as individuals with particular identities. I realize, of course, that such a construction is idealistic, hinged as it is on a search for balance between ethnic and cultural traditions on the one hand, and loyalty to a supranational, overarching cultural habitus on the other. Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that the reciprocity of horizontal transactions that would give each member equal say in the affairs of the whole can be established without mutual acceptance of a publicly shared sphere within which such reciprocity can take place.
    My own experience, however, along with a consideration of the genesis of national identification as the strongest form of modern collective allegiance, tells me that “Europeanism” cannot be an effective unifying narrative unless it consciously and systematically draws from the heritage of all European nations. As such, “Europeanism” would have to meet several demanding standards. It would have to include cross-generational continuity, perpetuated by a common cultural amalgamation of distinct ethnic traditions and reinforced by shared memory and the expectation of a common future, as Dominique Moisi points out in the essay “Dreaming of Europe.” In other words, “Europeanism” would need to provide a symbolic order wherein a centripetal force might be able to counteract—though by no means abolish—the centrifugal forces of primary identification that one feels as a Pole, German, Catalan, Croatian, Scot, or Italian. The emotional charge in these building blocks of “Europeanism” in statu nascendi is, of course, undeniable. The various kinds of totalitarian nationalist abuse, which in both nineteenth– and twentieth-century Europe have often afflicted the mobilizing power of collective emotional ties need not disqualify them from the equation. In fact, the dominant political currents in Europe’s “age of extremes” offer copious evidence that primary national identifications based on the shared self-perception of the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic heritage have almost always won the competition for popular allegiance, leaving other kinds of identifications, based on social class or the lofty ideals of abstract cosmopolitanism, as second-place options.

    “Europeanism,” then, is merely an “invented tradition” (as Eric Hobsbawn would say), which contains a fragile hope that its far-reaching, inclusive agenda might appeal to a majority of the citizens and peoples of Europe. So far, alas, precious few efforts have been made to construct such a common master narrative. In part, this is because Europe lacks a common natural language. Among the numerous national, ethnic, and cultural traditions on the continent, “Europeanism” does not figure very high on anyone’s list of identities. Moreover, it would not be too excessive to claim that the systemic and institutional integration of the European continent increasingly diverges from cultural integration. Indeed, it is with understandable regret that I must state the obvious: the European Union has not yet succeeded in building a satisfactory series of images, values, and ideals that would transcend our immediate existence with all its difficulties and joys. “Europeanism”—as an orderly constellation of aspirations, values, images, attitudes, convictions, and concepts that could serve as a source of individual inspiration and grant meaning to collective behavior—such “Europeanism” has not yet appeared on the horizon.
    Nevertheless, I am convinced that it needs to be jointly contemplated and envisioned; otherwise, we all will find ourselves, rich West Europeans no less than poor Central and East Europeans, in an undesirable situation. We will share institutions and agencies overseeing free-flowing financial and labor transactions, but our respective cultural spheres will remain condemned to an existence of reciprocal tolerance at best, that is to say, mutually encouraged passivity and a lack of active interest in regard to each other’s immediate experience, as Will Kymlicka suggests in Multicultural Citizenship. Without a broad social consensus on the legitimate and, thus, publicly recognized presence of a grand narrative in which Europeans can recognize themselves precisely as Europeans—and not exclusively as Poles, Germans, Lithuanians or Croatians—any attempt to construct such a narrative has to resort to abstract postulates. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the development of a “common mental framework,” in which the rich experience of European cultural diversity could be symbolically integrated and remodeled, faces greater difficulties in both form and substance than the development of a “common market.” John Stuart Mill, in Considerations on Representative Government, expressed this need in a classic formulation: “Among a people without fellow feelings, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the working of representative government cannot exist.”
    Supranational identifications presuppose the need to recognize multiple loyalties. Inasmuch as the diversity of cultures has traditionally been a key element of Europe’s greatness, this very diversity should be reinforced and celebrated. The forging of a new European identity as a complex, hybrid invented tradition calls for the recognition of the ineluctably multiple identities from which “Europeanism” might be designed. There is, of course, an element of wishful thinking here: multilayered identities should allow for the simultaneous celebration of local, national, and continental elements. It should not be impossible to be at the same time Catalan, Spanish and European. Basic allegiances need not be exclusivist allegiances.
    Alas, the current strategies of the ongoing negotiation on the shape and character of “Europeanism” are to a large degree guided by a profound distrust of particular and national identifications. Such distrust may be understandable, but it is epistemologically unacceptable in a globalizing world in which “Europeanism” is itself but a particular identity. That is why it is impossible to fashion any common ground of shared European identity if one is forced to eschew fecund local and particular markers. If one shies away from the troublesome dialectics of particular and general, the only sustained answer will necessarily remain abstract and, ultimately, noncommittal. If one willfully avoids engaging the relevance of the cultural habits and values of the various nationalities of Europe, one’s “Europeanism” will end up looking hollow, simulated, and insubstantial. Neither the authority of the European Commission nor the civic and ethnically blind character of Europe’s supranational bodies possesses the ability to inspire citizens; these institutions are too hollow for any social mobilization and too immaterial to spark spontaneous affection, as John Keane has eloquently stated.
    As I tried to calm down my excited children on the terrace of the Saint Francis Hotel in Assisi, I vaguely deliberated on this topic, as much as one can on a hot August afternoon. If my deliberations were disjointed and fragmented, a moment of truth was nonetheless approaching. As the dignified and reserved waiter brought the bill, “Europeanism” revealed itself in its full, miserable, and abstract nature. When I tried to pay with a bunch of new, hardly used euro banknotes, the waiter turned them down politely but firmly, just as he had undoubtedly learned to turn down suspicious-looking checks and bogus credit cards. More important than my annoyance at this inconvenience was the realization that there is, indeed, something artificial about euro banknotes. They are—if we look at them closely—completely lacking in character. To put it bluntly, they resemble a “Europeanism” imposed from above.
    What visually distinguishes the five-euro bill is a picture of a vaguely ancient viaduct that could have been erected anywhere in the Roman Empire. The ten-euro bill boasts a Romanesque portal and bridge, while the two-hundred-euro bill, which I did not offer to the waiter, bears a less-than-clear image of a glass door and some kind of iron bridge. Unlike national currencies, the euro is too timid to show a face and too reticent to suggest a biography, to give pride of place to any story. Not a single human being appears on these crisp banknotes. Incapable of inspiring any sense of recognition, of de te fabula narratur, these notes are abstractions, ideas suggesting little, if any, tangible or familiar sensual quality. In vain one searches for portraits of such figures as Erasmus, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mickiewicz, Velasquez, Newton, Goethe, Andrić. The columns and arches on these notes suggest ruined empires, transformed into a nostalgia for connection and community, something lost in the sands of the irrecoverable past. This past is irrecoverable because it has no foundation, no recognizable landscape. The banknote imagery of the euro visually represents a no-man’s land without historical memory. Currency can serve as a kind of collective I.D. card, which tells people they belong to a nation’s imaginary community. What we must sadly infer from euro banknotes is that post-Maastricht Europe is a land with no founding event, destiny, or battle for independence—with, in fact, no real independence, if one considers America’s increasingly reluctant security guarantees for the grand European experiment.
    In this regard, Europe’s weakest point, as I see it, is that it cannot offer enough transnational ideas that would function integratively and at the same time not rely solely on the laws of the free market. This failure concerns me not only in regard to the fragmentary cultural conditions of “Europeanism”; there are even more sinister effects. In the vacuum created by the lack of integrative works of the common imagination, many offshoots of political populism can flourish, since they are adept at using such simplistic and easy-to-understand metaphors as “a full boat” and “Fortress Europe,” as Jean-Marie Le Pen has done in France and Jörg Haider in Austria, to mention but two notorious examples. These right-wing political metaphors have one goal in particular: to mask economic interests with ethnic slogans. These rhetorical appeals to an exclusivist concern for one’s own ethnic community seek to cover up the effects of globalization on the distribution of wealth and the erosion of the important European tradition of the social state. Since the political elite cannot deal critically with transnational corporations, on which its survival increasingly depends, the simplest way to solve the problem is to make a scapegoat of foreigners, immigrants, and the Eastern masses (to say nothing of the third world). An enlightened segment of public still recognizes these outbursts of “fascism with a smile” as aberrant and unacceptable political behavior. The key issue, however, lies elsewhere. Expressions of chauvinistic populism, indeed, cannot be simply reduced to deviations from the norm but are, rather, a constituent part of an integration process that concerns itself exclusively with the freedom of the market, which, in turn, ushers in the corporate homogenization of everyday life. The hidden handshake of solidarity once guaranteed by the social state and its safety nets has gone by the wayside.
    In this context, one notices even more painfully that awareness of the need for a comprehensive, inclusive, and pluralistic grand narrative is articulated only in very vague terms. This vagueness, of course, is intimately linked to the willed, rational, and deliberate construction of such a grand European narrative. I have no illusions whatsoever about the “natural,” “everlasting,” or “stable” nature of founding narratives, which are always the provisional outcome of ongoing negotiations over the choice of constitutive elements and their constellation. It is essential, however, that we agree on this: the construction of Europeanism must be based on the entire field of cultural and ethnic traditions. The difficulties of reaching such a consensus present a series of practical impediments to the project. Even more important than the undoubtedly large practical impediments is a poorly reflected basic presumption, which I have described as “metaphysical.” It derives from the ambiguous use of the term “Europe”—and the corresponding public perception—which reserves the term for Western Europe or the European Union alone. The danger of such coterminous usage in political parlance was appallingly well revealed in the wars of Yugoslav succession. The shameful role and calculated inactivity of the E.U. in the Balkan conflict very bitterly exposed the fragile nature of the existing “European” grand narrative. For the longest time, the conflict was either dismissed as “tribal,” “ethnic,” and “primitive,” or discussed solely in terms of humanitarian aid. It was not, by and large, viewed as a “European” conflict.

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