Daily Archives: 28 November 2022

Whither Europe Now?

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 283-284:

Once again, the ground is moving silently under our feet, as city- and region-states grow in importance and a neo-medievalism sets in. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the British historian Mark Greengrass (echoing Denys Hay) explains, the concept of Christendom was gradually replaced by that of Europe. Though Christendom had in the course of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages come to represent a geographical concept, it remained at root a religious identity, whereas Europe was at root all about geography. Europe’s subjugation of Christendom was complete when Christianity stopped being a political identity and became merely a private religion having to do exclusively with the soul. Given that Europe replaced Christendom, are we now in a transition period in which some concept will replace Europe? And if it does, where does identity finally settle—at the national level, at the regional level, the level of the city or town? Or will Europe revert to a religious identity, a neo-Christendom of some sort, to psychologically wall off Muslims from the Middle East? Or might Europe itself simply fade as a concept, as it dissolves into Afro-Eurasia and identities within the continent become, as I’ve speculated, increasingly local? Greengrass traces the destruction of the concept of Christendom over an arc of 131 years. So it is quite likely that the real substantive changes that are occurring now will not be apparent inside the strictures of any news cycle.

The late British-American historian Tony Judt provides a somewhat alternative view; or rather, a view focused on the immediate future rather than on the middle-term and distant one. As he explains, the integration process that culminated eventually in the European Union was in part an accident born of the realpolitik of politicians who each needed a predictable economic framework for their own national aims. To wit, France needed German coal, but at the same time needed to contain German political power; and Germany needed to hide its own national interests within a larger community in order to regain legitimacy in a post-Hitler era. The context for this realpolitik was a just-ended Second World War that was “peculiar,” in that countries were often divided among themselves and “almost every European participant lost.” Thus, everybody wanted to forget about what had just happened, so that defeatism, pacifism, and ahistoricism reigned. At the same time, the Cold War had enforced unity in the western half of the continent. It was defeatism and unity that gave birth to this new Europe. Yet, because the combination of these and other factors (e.g., the Marshall Plan) was specific to a certain moment in history, they could never be repeated in the same way, and so the European Union could not simply go on as it had indefinitely—for other factors must eventually intrude.

What is particularly impressive is that Judt published this analysis in 1996, when few troubles loomed on the horizon and Europe was dull and happy. He then goes on to expose Europe’s “foundation myth”: that it must keep expanding to the east in order to improve not only Europe but the world, or else the current success would merely indicate an amoral utilitarian arrangement. Of course, as we know, Europe’s eastward expansion following the end of the Cold War occurred under different historical circumstances and so the result has been complex and not altogether a triumph. Judt concludes his 1996 essay noting again, presciently, that with postmodern life hollowing out the communal functions of family, church, school, the military, and even political parties and trade unions, all that is left now is the nation. For it is the nation that embodies a common memory and a community within an “appropriately scaled frame”: larger than that of the city, but smaller than that of a nebulous pan-European or global identity.

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