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Too big to fail, too vague to succeed (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Too big to fail, too vague to succeed (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Clifford Orwin

Too big to fail, too vague to succeed Add to ...

Europe’s fiscal woes grind on, and so do the analyses of economic pundits. I claim no such expertise, however, so I’ll speak of a different crisis. It’s that of the very idea of Europe, increasingly the victim of its own emptiness.

The builders of the New Europe have always had a clearer notion of what they wanted to avoid than of what they were trying to achieve. In the 1950s, Hell was still a vivid memory, and Never Again the guiding principle. As it was among nations that madness had raged, the perceived remedies were supranational. The project of integration began with the European Coal and Steel Community, which continentalized the resources crucial for modern warfare, and went on from there.

At the same time, the Cold War was under way. While averse to Soviet domination, Europeans also prided themselves on their spiritual (if not political or military) independence from the Americans. So the negatives of Europe’s self-conception multiplied: Europe, the un-Fascist, un-Communist, un-American place.

The Soviet empire crumbled, and Europe’s bonds with the U.S. slackened. European integration accelerated, with “constitutions” as thick as phone books to prove it. But it took a Eurocrat to find the new arrangements inspiring. Others chafed under this dominance of bureaucracies and tribunals, seemingly non-political entities with an arcane politics of their own, swathed in a smog of non-transparency.

So Europeans began to bemoan their “democratic deficit,” aggravated of late by the massive fiscal one. French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently warned that the sea of red ink may sweep Europe itself away. Fears of this kind reveal another deficit: the European identity itself.

Just what does it mean to be a European? Two generations have now been educated to prefer their European identity to their respective national ones, yet no one has pinned down that European identity.

For centuries, what separated Europeans (nation, region, sect, language and class) far outweighed whatever may have united them. Nothing in their modern history supported the elevation of their political allegiances to a continental plane. Quite the contrary: For five centuries, they’d been in flight from earlier transnational pretensions.

Ever since the Middle Ages, when the universalistic ambitions of the Catholic Church clashed with those of the Holy Roman Empire, plunging Europe into chaos, politics had evolved in the direction of the nation-state. For all its many problems, the nation had enlisted its members’ highest aspirations. Recall the vanished European currencies, so rich in images of towering figures of political and artistic greatness. These geniuses had belonged to the world but first and foremost to their respective nations. Then consider the vacuous euro bills and their empty symbols of a generic Europe. These bills faithfully mirror the supposed European identity – striking mostly for what’s missing from it.

Yes, Europeans have grown more alike, just like everyone else. Globalization will do that to you. They travel more, study abroad more, intermarry more (and not just with other Europeans). But globalization isn’t Europeanization. There’s nothing notably European about Thai fusion cuisine. Where particular local identity is concerned – even one as diffuse as that of Europe – globalization doesn’t add, it only subtracts. And the weakest identities are the ones most vulnerable to it.

The old national allegiances stand muted, expressing themselves only in soccer stadiums. Yet, they still trump the European one in a pinch. To many ordinary people, Europe remains a meddlesome abstraction embodied in an all-too-concrete bureaucracy. Where there’s a vital national interest, who wants to sacrifice it on the altar of Europe? German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the high priest of the European idea, urges Europeans to cultivate “transnational solidarity.” Unfortunately not even he can answer the question, Solidarity on the basis of what?

There’s a final twist. Much of what today’s Europe claims to be rests on a massive repudiation of the authority of the European past. Dependent for its economic viability on high levels of immigration, the New Europe increasingly follows North America in defining itself by multiculturalism. It abjures not just colonialism but its alleged seed, Eurocentrism. It sounds less proud of its history than apologetic for it. This has taken the negativity of the European ideal to a new level.

As Francis Fukuyama has argued, it’s a risky strategy. So self-deprecating a notion of Europe may lack the robustness either to command the loyalty of its own young or to integrate the very newcomers it seeks to accommodate. Nor, of course, has it sufficed to counter the very real discrimination that immigrants face.

So Europe presents a confusing picture. National identities have grown weaker, but without the European one having become proportionally stronger. The European Union may persist; marriages of convenience often do. But Europe as an ideal will continue to flounder in vagueness.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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