What does Europe mean to you?

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with Stefaan De Rynck

“Lack of leadership is how many have characterised the European Union over the past years. Europeans reacted too slowly to the Euro crisis, it is argued, and kicked the can down the road as their divisions prevented them from defining a sound economic policy.” Divided leadership in the biggest world economies?

The German elections are over, and Angela Merkel has secured a historic third term. It will take a while still for German coalition negotiations to be concluded, but what the rest of Europe awaits are the German-French launch of an initiative to save the European project.

The centennial of 1914 approaches, but although Europe is no longer what it was one hundred years ago, the similarities between the Europe of today and that on the interbellic years are too many for comfort. Namely, the rise of the extreme far-right in so many European countries.

This is a worrying development. The UK Independence party and Germany’s anti-euro Allianz für Deutschland are mild embodiments when compared to Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik or France’s Front National. The xenophobic politics of the French Front National cannot be underestimated in this context either, nor can Europe ignore groupings such as the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Finland’s The Finns party – formally True Finns, the Danish People’s party, and so-called Freedom parties in Austria and Holland.


Europe stands at a crossroads.

To understand what united and divides Europeans, we need to look into what Europe in itself comprises. Considering its frequent use in inter-state politics, ‘Europe’ is a surprisingly ambiguous concept.

Following the establishment of the European Union, ‘Europe’ and the EU are often used interchangeably. To join Europe stands, at least in the British parlance, for joining the EU. Nonetheless, the Europe of the EU is not the sole existing Europe.

The idea originated in Athenian democracy, where it developed from the myth of Europa and at first it designated only Thrace, the Greek mainland, growing ever larger northwards and westwards as travellers ventured both inland and out at sea.

Many more Europes have existed and have come into being since antiquity:

  1. the Europe of geographers – the two extreme western peninsulas of the Asian land mass,
  2. the Europe of Byzantium,
  3. industrial Europe and agrarian Europe,
  4. capitalist” Europe and “socialist” Europe,
  5. the Europe of the Great Powers,
  6. the Europe of Woodrow Wilsonian self-determination,
  7. the Europe of self-styled national states and of disaffected national minorities.

Many of these dichotic Europes continue to coexist, separated by the degree of development and wealth, opposing ideological and economic structures, and hierarchies of power.

The fact that Europe cannot be defined with exactitude as far as geographical, political, cultural and historical boundaries are concerned, makes it difficult to ‘think’ Europe as a single unit, even if diverse in its sub-cultures.

This geographical ambiguity also poses some important questions in terms of cultural geography and territorial symbolism. National identities benefit from the existence of fixed boundaries within which the repetition of cultural values, symbols and myths finds a safe-haven. A Europe sans frontiers has to construct its unifying identity within a fluctuating geographical spectrum. Its boundaries are historical assertions, rather than geographical facts.

Keeping Europe united is a tough ask in view of the socio-political and economic challenges facing the region today. The onslaught of the far right aggravates matters further for a European leadership that, while by no means as weak and confused as the pre-WWI amalgam, is yet to reach a decision on how to address both the financial rut and the European disunity it triggered.


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