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The Idea of Europe From Antiquity to the European Union Review


Europe is unique among the continents in that it is a purely cultural concept. There is no geographic reason for why Europe exists, no real line which separates it from the mass of Asia. Voyagers crossing through Russia have asked where the great line of the Ural mountains is, that separates Europe from Asia - and they have been told that they have already passed it, and not even noticed it. Europe was created, in the first place by the Greeks with their division of the world into three continents, Africa, Europe, and Asia, and since then it has been given flesh and blood by its inhabitants, so that it took Europeans to make Europe. This story of the construction of the idea of Europe, of it as a cultural and ideological project, is the focus of The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, a compilation of a wide range of articles. It has some excellent historical articles, but unfortunately many of its modern articles on the European Union don't quite live up to the standards of these formative pieces, but still is an interesting read which provides some fascinating concepts about European identity and European history.

An attempt at portraying Europe as a woman: note how the picture tries to minimize the attachment to Asia.

An attempt at portraying Europe as a woman: note how the picture tries to minimize the attachment to Asia.

The introduction to the book, by the editor Anthony Pagden, is a lengthy one, both mentioning the various contributors, but also looks at the current European project and some of the basic ideals which Europeans have seen as "theirs' in contrast to other civilizations, and which drove a worldwide colonial project which European states have had to repudiate, while simultaneously defending the principles which animated it. Europeans have consistently struggled for internal peace and presented projects and schemes for this, from Kant to Sully: It also discusses the principle of modern Europeanism, focused on tolerance and designed to enable this drive for peace to be fulfilled. For the European project to succeed, it will require a reconfiguration of identity and an abandonment of the link between the cultural and political nations.

Chapter 1, "Europe: Conceptualizing a Continent," again by Anthony Pagden, discusses the initial origin myths of the very name Europe, built on separation from Asia which represented the birth of Europe, but one which Europe had to separate itself from. From this point onwards it discusses the European self-ideal, based on its sense of political uniqueness and superiority, with the European ideal of autonomous individuals and autonomous cities forming the basis of a civilized way of life. It was also potentially universal, but which was bounded by the territory of first the Greeks, then the Roman Empire, and finally Christendom, and a territorial definition which constantly changed in the South under the attack of the Muslim powers, and in the East with the question of whether Russia could be considered European. Law, property rights, civilization, and ultimately science would come to be defined as the cornerstone of what European is.

Chapter 2, "Some Europes in Their History," by J.G.A Pocock continues on with the concept of the geographical expanse of Europe, created out of the Mediterranean world view of the Greeks. Modern Europe came from the Medieval West, Charlemagne's Empire, and its expansionary project which brought it to the British Isles, to the East in Poland, and briefly into the Southeast in Palestine and Syria, in the Crusades. At the time this civilization could not claim itself as the sole Europe, and Byzantines referred to them as Celts, in contrast to them, the Romans. The Enlightenment narrative took the foundation of modern Europe with the constitution of the concert of Europe in the 1700s, with as Voltaire referred to it a great Republic of states, united in commerce, trade, and mutual customs and laws, even if they quarreled and warred: this is a story focused on Western Europe, and which ignores Eastern Europe, with its military empires that partitioned Poland and ruled by the sword.

Chapter 3, and my personal favorite chapter, “Europe” in the Middle Ages" by William Chester Jordan explores the cosmopolitanism of Europe in the era between 1050 to 1350, with a universal high language, Latin, a universal church which united loyalty to a broader notion of Christendom, and with a movement of peoples which enabled Italian priests to become British bishops, as an economic boom and growing transport links enabled trade and communication all across the continent. This propelled ideas too, and produced a triple echelon of identities, local, national, and Christian/European, with their own tensions and disputes.

Chapter 4, "The Republican Mirror: The Dutch Idea of Europe," credits the Dutch with the creation of the idea of Europe as an economic ideal, one defined by free civic societies which focused on trade, commerce, and which preferred an interest-based internal political structure, one of free citizens without inculpation of moral virtue or authoritarian republicanism.

Chapter 5, "The Napoleonic Empire and the Europe of Nations," by Biancamaria Fontana looks at the Napoleonic project of European unity under France before examining the opposition to the Napoleonic Empire, whose speakers argued for the individual genius, creativity, and autonomy of European nations. This was largely ignored for strategic concerns at the Congress of Vienna, helping the concept of Europe to pass into the political realm.

Chapter 6, "Homo Politicus and Homo Oeconomicus: The European Citizen According to Max Weber." by Wilfried Nippel, lays out famous German sociologist Max Weber's view of the evolution of European urban citizenry over time, and particularly how the Middle Ages saw the rise of a bourgeois guild citizenry who were focused on economic matters, compared to the military role of ancient citizens. Both were for him however, notably distinct from non-European cities, which lacked this autonomous role and their citizenry.

Chapter 7, "The European Self: Rethinking an Attitude," by Michael Herzfeld, argues that individualism, ostensibly a quintessential European trait, is used, interpreted, and viewed very differently, using the example of Greece where the stubborn individualism of people to hold onto many of their traditional cultural practices is stereotyped as being "eastern," based on Turkish cultural imports, and reveals a tension in Greece about the European project as a whole. Greek artisans who defend their traditional practices are thus simultaneously standing against Oriental homogenization and for Western craftsmanship, through their individualism, and yet also standing against modernization and thus are backwards, and thus Eastern.

Chapter 8, "European Nationalism and European Union," by Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia traces the development of European nationalism, in the interests of a European federation and the protection of Europe against non-European forces, throughout history. After 1848, it assumed an increasingly anti-national form, which ultimately became its most decisive strand following the World Wars with the urge to constrain nationalism to promote the common welfare. Since modern developments have rendered state power and state sovereignty increasingly tenuous, which requires a variety of measures to make the European Union their full successor, which the authors lay out.

Chapter 9, "From the Irony of Identity to the Identities of Irony," by Luisa Passerini discusses the formal process of a definition of a European identity, from the Copenhagen Declaration, to the actual reality of how contradictory European identity is.

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Chapter 10, "Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?" by Talal Asad argues that the conception of European nationhood and European identity is fundamentally incompatible with Islam, long conceived as the historical other, so that even long-rooted groups such as the Bosnians are not perceived as fully European, and Islam's own connection to European civilization denied. For Europe to be fully capable of accepting its Muslim minority, the necessary reformulation of identity would be for there to be no more majority/minority divide, but rather for every group in a nation to become a minority.

Chapter 11, "The Long Road to Unity: The Contribution of Law to the Process of European Integration since 1945" by Philip Ruttley analyzes the treaties which established the European Union and the establishment of a European judiciary, and how the French-influenced nature of the European Union has created a distinctly different legal structure than that found in the Anglo-Saxon countries. This legal structure has been one which has interpreted and worked in favor of European integration, alongside the wide political grouping supporting European construction.

Chapter 12, "The Euro, Economic Federalism, and the Question of National Sovereignty," by Elie Cohen discusses the structure of the European Monetary Union and the reasons behind its creation and its characteristics. The EMU was an attempt by France to attempt to favorably win influence in the new European monetary system, compensating for the loss of its financial sovereignty with the de-facto creation of a Deutsch Mark zone threatened otherwise. The paradox (still existing today) was the continued lack of a fiscal union to go with the monetary union.

Chapter 13, "Identity Politics and European Integration The Case of Germany" by Thomas Risse and Daniela Engelmann-Martin discusses why, despite major German public attachment to the Mark, there was nevertheless no real political development of this Deutsch Mark patriotism which could have undermined the adoption of the Euro, as all political parties stood for the new currency. It also covers the development of German Europeanism and how this created structures which led to the German political willingness, indeed determination, to adopt the Euro.

Chapter 14, "Nationalisms in Spain: The Organization f Convivencia" by Andrés de Blas Guerrero looks at the historical development of Spain and the present situation of Spanish regional nationalisms attempting to reinterpret Spain as a purely political, governmental project; to in effect denationalize Spain; but also the simultaneous continued viability and importance of the central Spanish state.

Chapter 15, "The Kantian Idea of Europe: Critical and Cosmopolitan Perspectives" by James Tully examines in detail Kant's ideal of a European federation, expounded in his work Perpetual Peace of 1795. This was an enlightenment project with strong tents of European superiority, and its detractors have argued for cultural pluralism. Furthermore, there is substantial discussion of the Kantian ideal of free and independent citizenry under Republican constitutions and various philosophers' engagement with this.


Publishing a book about the ideal of Europe which discusses contemporary themes is a dangerous exercise, since contemporary visions and concerns about Europe are in constant fluctuation. The European Union is a political project, and politics inherently, particularly in the present day, are far more unstable than a cultural project, and the remit of the articles covering it are far less expansive and profound than those articles covering the historical foundation of the ideal of Europe. Furthermore, 2002, when the book was published, places it into a peculiar time in the vision of Europe, and gives it an odd look in retrospect, a blind spot, because it was located in a vision of European borders which have been shaken.

Events since 2002 have cast its assurance about the Western frontiers of Europe dramatically in doubt: Britain has left the European Union, and the old tensions of Britain against Continental Europe have been reanimated. This is only dealt with in the shortest length in the book, but clearly Britain, just like the Muslim states of the South-East (most notably Turkey in the book) and Russia in the East, represents another challenge to the conception of what being European is. Presumably, this is based upon its differing conceptions of trade, economics, its global role - but perhaps just as importantly, upon an identity which has prided itself upon its role as an island nation, capable of keeping the continent at a distance. In what other European country could the idea of "splendid isolation," be possible? Even in Switzerland, the idea doesn't quite fit. British identity has marked itself out as different on the basis of victory in the two world wars, identified itself with the Anglo-Saxon colonial nations of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and embraces its cultural distance from the continent. But these are just my general observations, and it would have been fascinating to have the book deal with the British question in its own chapter. Perhaps The Idea of Europe will serve in its own way as a time capsule, looking at the brief period when people could tell themselves that Britain was European like any other country, before the internal contradictions of British involvement with the European tore its project down.

The mediocre modern articles left aside, there are some excellent chapters on the older period in the book. The chapter on the universalism of the European middle ages between 1050 to 1350 is a particularly great article, which shows that even in what we would think of as a relatively "static" period in history, where not much changed, there was in fact tremendous evolution in the relationship between locality and the broader European Christian civilization, with some of the same tensions that exist today between local regions, nations, and the broader European union. In this age it was completely possible for Italian priests to rise to become bishops in England, and there was a cosmopolitanism which existed that is striking to us - but with again, tensions just like today. William Chester Jordan's chapter is a fascinating one for a different look on cosmopolitanism and localism and how the idea of nations, localism, and Christendom interacted. Similarly, there are excellent sections on the political conception of Europe, by Pocock, showing the long roots of European exceptionalism and the belief of European civilization as itself being the only one to truly be a political, self-aware, free people.

What makes the later chapters less interesting is that they assume that the idea of Europe must automatically imply a European Union and European unity. This very well may be true with the development of the European Union, but it is not in any case inevitable: and yet the book segues into it without a real look at the interface between the two. It is again a reflection of the era when the book was published, with the belief that there was no alternative to ever closer union: it is easy to see why skeptics about the European project are convinced that their beliefs are sidelined. Articles like chapter 8 seem like the height of this: trying to explain away "the false sacralization of the nation," the academic way of trying to simply write out fervently held beliefs as incorrect, and thus capable of being ignored or disqualified.

Overall, there are some insightful chapters, and some excellent ideas covered, but the book as a whole could have been much improved concerning the ideological ideas behind modern Europe, Its later chapters either become difficult to understand and read, or they lack the same wide relevance and import of early ones. It is still a good book, one which deals with interesting concepts and history, one which deserves to be read and carefully thought about, but which could have been better.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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