On one level, this is the easiest myth of all to disprove. All one has to do is ask when Europe was last united.
Charlemagne? A very limited union achieved by conquest and dissolved upon the great man’s death? The Holy Roman Empire? Again, somewhat limited and, as Voltaire said, neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. In fact, as he did not say, an unholy mess.
Napoleon? Hitler? Each one achieved by conquest for a very short time with few lasting effects.
On another level, however, the idea of a single European entity, a single European culture is very insiduous and can easily be translated into harmful political ideas.
The great historian of the Renaissance, Sir John Hale, opens his monumental study, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, with the discussion of the concept of Europe and its emergence in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
When in 1623 Francis Bacon threw off the phrase ‘we Europeans’, he was assuming that his readers knew where ‘Europeans’ were, who they were, and what, in spite of national differences, they shared. This was a phrase, and an assumption, that could not have been used with such confidence a century and a half before.The concept of Europe grew up as Europeans travelled further and further abroad and found themselves dealing more and more with other political and cultural entities. It was a concept that gradually, though as Hale shows, very slowly surpassed the concept of Christendom.
However, what it never did was to become a clear political concept of a single state. Quite the opposite: the concept of Europe included the idea of a patchwork of pieces, small and large, that may have had certain similarities and certain common notions but these notions were often more divisive than uniting ones.
Ah yes, I hear some of the European integrationists say, that is the problem: Europe has been consumed by endless fighting and warfare and it is time to put an end to it. To this there are several replies, the most obvious being that divisions and competitiveness do not necessarily involve fighting and warfare. It is merely the opposite of a huge, centralized entity, which has never been part of European history for any length of time.
There is a basic contradiction in the integrationists’ arguments. Let us look at what the preamble to the draft EU Constitution says:
Conscious that Europe is a continent that has brought forth civilisation: that its inhabitants, arriving in successive waves from earliest times, have gradually developed the values underlying humanism: equality of persons, freedom, respect for reason.Really? So why does the Laeken Declaration say:
For centuries, peoples and states have taken up arms and waged war to win control of the European continent. The debilitating effects of two bloody wars and the weakening of Europe’s position in the world brought a growing realisation that only peace and concerted action could make the dream of a strong, unified Europe come true.There are clearly two separate entities at work: there is Europe, which has had all those wonderful, liberal, humanist, peaceful, civilised forces at work and there are the peoples and states of Europe, who keep fighting each other and stubbornly refusing to unite. Therefore, Europe must be built up and protected from the peoples of Europe in opposition to their history.
A unified Europe, thus, has little to do with the history of the peoples and states of Europe. Indeed, the idea of a unified Europe is the direct opposite of what Europe, the Europe Francis Bacon understood and we understand, is really about.
The recent argument about whether to include the idea of Christian values in the Constitution demonstrates the problem. It opened up the deep fissures in Europe, called attention to centuries’ old conflicts and undermined the whole notion of there being one set of European values.
It reminded us all that those European values are not all about sweetness and light, though they are, frequently, about swashbuckling curiosity and advancement in political, social, economic and intellectual matters – all of which is alien to the European Union with its prattle about European values.
The great dividing lines in post-Classical European history have been religious. At present, only one of the EU member states is Eastern Orthodox (as well as a former part of the Ottoman Empire), Greece, but certain problems in outlook have already been apparent.
There is a secondary dividing line and that is between Catholic and Protestant countries. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the various denominations have learned to live in peace (nothing to do with the European Union and everything with historical and economic development) but some attitudes remain different. It is noticeable that all the countries that signed a letter asking for an inclusion of Christianity in the Constitution were largely Catholic. For various historical reasons, the largely Protestant countries are shying away from the idea.
But there are other factors that make the European experience more varied than is admitted by the integrationists. A couple of years ago one newspaper published a list of the 100 greatest military commanders in history. Lists of that kind are enormous fun and, as usual, there were many satisfying rows and discussions about those included and not included and the placings.
One letter writer objected to Prince Eugene of Savoy being ranked above Marlborough. How could this be so, wrote the author indignantly, when Marlborough was the commander in chief.
The letter writer was talking about the French wars. Prince Eugene’s achievement was to turn back the Ottoman advance, thus liberating Central Europe from Turkish occupation and ensuring its “European” development.
The point is that the crucial historic experience for many centuries in the east of the Continent was the constant war against one Muslim invader or another. The crucial experience in the west was the ongoing wars between Catholic and Protestant countries, which evolved into a national struggle between Britain and France.
That may well have influenced the different attitudes to the war against terror. Or the difference arose from another, equally important distinction. Twentieth century experience was incomprehensibly different in the two halves of Europe. The liberation from the Nazis in 1945 was the prelude to a half century of peaceful, democratic development in the west, while the east was abandoned to another brutal totalitarian regime.
The divisions and differences can be enumerated endlessly. This does not prove that there is no basic understanding of what being European is about. Just as Francis Bacon knew so do we know. But there cannot be a Europe reunited where no true union has ever existed or can ever exist.