The definition of Europe has been both exciting and uncertain
cPRAYER, THE it is not a single continent united under a moderately effective form of multinational government. English speakers may call Europe “the continent”, but that’s because their language grew on an island off its coast. In fact it is only a complex peninsula of Eurasia. This poses a puzzle for geographers: where does Europe end? The eastern boundary is particularly obscure. The current consensus holds that it runs through Russia along the Urals, becomes obscure for a while and then follows the mountain water of the Caucasus to the Black Sea. That leaves demi-Europeans not only Russia, Turkey and Georgia but also Kazakhstan and possibly Azerbaijan. It puts Armenia outside of Europe, although many Armenians would not agree.
Clearly, Europe is more than just a geographical concept. But other interpretations also lead to confusion. If Europe is wherever European powers gain influence, colonialism has ensured that it covers the globe. Cross the westernmost land border of the Netherlands and you will step directly into France, as you are on the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean, which separates them. Define Europe culturally, meanwhile, and you’ll notice that polka music is more like Mexico north what Spanish flamenco is like, and that Greek ouzo and Lebanese arak are the same drink. Stick with political values and you’ll find that many democracies outside of Europe qualify, while some semi-dictatorships inside may not. Use religion or race, and you’re in for a disaster – today seen as un-European.
All of this might seem academic, if it weren’t for the fact that the question of what defines Europe is crucial for countries that want to join the European Union. Of the current main candidates – six countries in the Western Balkans, plus Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – most sit well within the physical continent . They still haven’t gotten into the EU because they did not meet the acceptance criteria. But these criteria themselves are partly the result of centuries of debate about what it means to be European. And EU Voters’ sense of who the club belongs to is shaped by history.
The idea of Europe began with the ancient Greeks, who opposed a despotic, barbarian Asia. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the dream of reuniting Europe resurfaced from time to time. In the Middle Ages that meant the unification of Christianity against Islam. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as religious and imperial wars escalated, secular ideas were launched. In 1712 the Abbé de Saint-Pierre called for a “European Union”, and in 1795 Immanuel Kant proposed something similar to the “Perpetual Peace”. Unfortunately the man who was busy trying to unite the continent at the time used more bloody methods, until he was stopped at Waterloo.
The Enlightenment sense of who belonged to Europe depended on the rationality and cosmopolitanism of the Europeans. The 19th century added to the idea of fundamentally European cultures and peoples – or, dangerously, races. Such nationalism meant more wars and, as a result of their crime, demands for European unity. The new European movement began after the first world war. Some of the founders saw it as a way for Europe to compete with America and the Soviet Union. That meant that Russia could not join. Some did not think that Britain could not, which celebrated more with its empire than with Europe. (They were right that this was an issue.)
When a proto-federal European government finally arrived after the second world war, its mission was political and economic: to make Western Europe too united for its states to fight against each other again, and rich enough to stop communism. Membership was governed by cold war conditions, not philosophical concerns. Community leaders did not get around to defining their “European identity” until 1973. They included “the cherished values of the legal, political and moral order” and vowed to “the rich diversity of their national cultures” reservation Because the values were universal (democracy, rule of law and so on) and the cultures were different, there was no principled reason to exclude Eastern Europe after the fall of communism from each other. Enter the EU it became, in theory, a matter of technical criteria.
But the institutions were really unifying that went along with the EU he began to revive departments. Free movement required the French (and the British, for a time) to accept unlimited numbers of Poles and Bulgarians. Monetary union forced the Germans and Dutch to budget together with the Italians and Greeks. European law meant that when Hungary packed its courts, it was a problem for everyone. Ancient fissures were exposed: Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox; Gallic, German and Slavic. After the euro crisis of 2010-12 and the migration crisis of 2015-16, few Europeans were keen on new members.
Finishing the job
Europe’s leaders have recently re-enthusiastic about expansion. To understand why, it helps to consult the greatest European philosopher of the 20th century: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Austria once believed that language must refer to certain things in the real world, and that philosophy should aim to get it right, like science. Later he came to the conclusion that this was nonsense. Words cannot be defined precisely; they have odd edges. Their meaning lies in the way people use them to achieve things.
So also with the word Europe. European feelings about who owns the EU depending on what problems they are talking about. Monetary union and disputes over the rule of law are issues of institutions and culture, and they focus attention on the different identities and histories of Europeans. But the biggest challenges today – the war in Ukraine, competition with China, increasing migration across the Mediterranean, dealing with climate change – are geopolitical. This has turned Europe’s attention back to geography. The French and Albanians may not completely agree on what civilizational traits they share, but they know that they are bound together on the same piece of Eurasian rock. At the moment, that seems more important. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
Europe’s conservative populists pit migrants against babies (September 20)
Meet Matus Vallo, Bratislava’s top hipster architect (September 14)
The rotating EU presidency should be scrapped (September 6)
Also: How Charlemagne’s column got its name