Belonging to Europe: Some Historical Reflections on Europe

Shortly after I arrived in Cambridge, England to start graduate studies in late 2010, the recently elected Conservative-led coalition government decided that it was high time to take care of its ‘immigration problem’. One of the first acts of the Conservatives was to revise the citizenship exam. More British history and tradition, less advice on how to successfully order a pint of beer seemed to be the solution. In hindsight, revising a citizenship exam was never going to mollify a rising sense that something had changed since 1973, the year Britain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the European Union (EU). But revising the exam was only the first step, if a feeble one. As aggressive administrative tinkering ratcheted up over the course of the coalition government and throughout the subsequent general election campaign of 2015, Conservatives increasingly felt pressured by their right wing to entertain a renegotiation of their relationship to the EU, on whose doorstep had been laid the blame for the demographic changes of the last three decades. Small efforts to emphasize the history, culture, and customs of Great Britain or to reform employment contracts and work benefits were no longer sufficient.

Goaded on then by their radical counterparts in the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Conservatives opted for a more drastic measure: the British people would be given the opportunity to vote to remain or to leave the EU. Affectionately known as ‘Brexit’, the British people voted to exit the EU at the narrow margin of 52-48%. The ultimate form of Brexit remains unclear – will it be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’? Will the UK leave the EU altogether? Stay in common market? Allow EU passport holders to work in the UK? Nevertheless, the message has been sent that Britain will no longer belong to the EU in the way it once did.

Britain’s vote was, at the time, puzzling. Did they not know what they were giving up? Well, no, in some cases. One of the most popular search terms in the UK after the vote was ‘what is the EU?’ For the past decade, however, the view from the White Cliffs of Dover has not been what Americans hoped it might be. American progressives in particular have envied Europe’s universal health insurance, five weeks paid vacation, and lower overall social inequality. But in the last year Britain has observed the emergence of an increasingly permanent security state in France, confiscation of immigrants’ property in Denmark, and violence targeted at refugees in Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. These events all re-enforced Britons’ suspicion of the Brussels Bureaucrats who decide what size of pillows they could sleep on and how many liters their shampoo bottles could be. Petty and one-off are these examples, sure, but they came to symbolize the dangers and fears of belonging to Europe.

Beginning in 2004 with the enlargement of the EU to include formerly Eastern Bloc countries, the EU underwent a concatenation of events, which magnified and hastened a deeper unraveling of the European idea. It was not too long thereafter that the Great Recession was felt on the Continent. The 2008 financial crash, which spiraled out of the control of any one EU finance minster, was only beginning to be resolved in the summer of 2015, when refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North and Central Africa began to arrive en masse on Europe’s shores. These events have tested the often lazy and superficial rhetoric of Europe’s openness to all. Indeed, the arc of history was supposed to bend toward a Europe without borders.

History, however, rarely arcs so elegantly. Far from being the hope of cosmopolitan liberal democracy, Europe is experiencing a reemergence of the national identities and antagonisms that European values and the union they were meant to form were supposed to prevent. The idea of Europe was thought to be a future where everyone belongs. The beating heart of Europe is, however, an argument over what constitutes belonging itself: who belongs, to what one belongs, and how one might simultaneously maintain several loyalties. The EU isn’t an answer to these questions, but rather the latest forum and format for debating them. The history of European identity might give some indication of whether the EU could possibly give birth to a shared sense of belonging that transcends the strictly secular alternatives between the national citizen and cosmopolitan models. In the last five years we have become aware that Europe lacks substantial unifying bonds. But we have yet to come to terms with what kind of bond has emerged in the meantime, and what would be required reform a shared sense of belonging to and in Europe.

An Ever Closer Union?

In 2004 EU member states voted to admit ten new countries – the so-called ‘A10’ countries of Cyrpus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, most of which were part of the former Eastern Bloc. While this was celebrated in the capitals of the new member states, in the restaurants of Brussels, and in the halls of universities, foreign ministries, and media firms across the North Atlantic, it was begrudgingly accepted by many of those living in pre-2004 EU member states. Grudges could in some cases morph into bigotry, but prior to the 2008 economic crash these new members were accepted as one accepts the death of an elderly parent or grandparent: its inevitability provided momentary strength to endure. In 2007 a well-trained Euro-watcher could have told you about the growing unease in Europe’s working and middles classes, but not that the European project would start to unravel.

The American housing crash changed all that. The Eurozone crisis that quickly followed the 2008 recession weakened every EU member state. Precisely why and how it weakened the EU is important. On final analysis, the collapse of the Euro was not caused by too much sovereign debt, as many on both sides of the Atlantic have incorrectly concluded. Rather, it was occasioned by a sudden reversal of capital flows. In the years leading up to the 2008 recession, large amounts of capital moved into Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain from wealthier countries such as Germany, Great Britain, and France. The global financial meltdown generated a giant reversal in the flow of money. The wealthy investing countries ceased to pour money into investments in the poorer countries, leaving the private borrowers and banks in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain to fail, as they depended on a steady supply of fresh capital to service their debt. The defaults of systemically important institutions precipitated a spike in sovereign debt – the borrowers had to be bailed out – just as the United States experienced but with far larger margins. The problem for the EU was that it was unclear who owed what to whom.

Never letting a crisis go to waste, government officials who had been critical of countries with large debt-to-GDP ratios prior to the 2008 recession took the opportunity to instill some fiscal discipline in the now heavily indebted countries. Talk of bailouts immediately followed the news of bank failures, but tied to the debt relief were demands for greater austerity. The showdown in 2015 between Greece’s hip young finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and Germany’s stern conservative finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble could not have been better cast. The grievances of both parties were put on display, Varoufakis in black leather jacket and untucked shirt faced off against Schäuble in his sober suit and tie, the former arguing against the impossible demands of further cuts to pensions, the health system, and education and the latter for greater Greek responsibility for their debts. The Greek citizen felt oppressed by its big brother, and the German taxpayer scammed by its sibling’s prodigality.

Policymakers are always solving the last crisis, and Germany’s response to the Eurozone crisis is no exception. The reunification of prosperous West Germany and bankrupt East Germany directly informed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s management of the Eurozone crisis, and the success of reunification emboldened Merkel and Schäble to push for similar reforms among undisciplined southerners. ‘After all’, Ulrich Beck quips, ‘the Germans want only to help make Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians better able to cope with the world’s markets’. Neoliberal reforms – privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation and free trade – became the backbone of the reunification process in the early 1990s: The social welfare expectations of the newly arrived ‘Easterners’ and liberal agenda of ‘Westerners’ were accommodated in the new techniques of fiscally disciplined social democracy. Neoliberalism was indeed a Faustian bargain, but one that many Germans would make again.

The question running throughout the various stages of the Eurozone crisis was to what extent EU member states were really in a union. Did Germans have to bailout Greece in the same way West Germans had to rescue East Germans? Did Germans owe the Greeks the same sacrifice they owed their former and now present compatriots? There wasn’t enough time to resolve this issue before the wars in Libya and Syria and humanitarian catastrophes across Africa and the Middle East brought an unprecedented number of refugees to the shores of Europe. Greece, Italy and Spain were and continue to be overwhelmed by asylum-seekers of the ingenuous and disingenuous varieties. Very few of these migrants intended to stay in the Mediterranean countries, preferring instead the countries of northern Europe. And so Chancellor Merkel dutifully inaugurated Willkommenskultur in the summer of 2015, opening its doors to nearly a million refugees over the following twelve months. This prompted yet again the question of what Germany owed to others. Did Germany and other wealthy, largely northern countries owe anything in particular to those who arrived unannounced and to those southern countries who acted as Europe’s doorstep?

Many people in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden welcomed the newly arrived, but a growing minority saw the migrants as yet another instance of their prodigal brother sending his problems back home. The anger in countries that had weathered the Eurozone crisis energized right-wing parties to challenge Europe’s perceived open door. Marine Le Pen’s National Front party has garnered the most votes, with her France-for-the-French mantel that promoted the idea that their current malaise was produced by political elites who willingly sold out all that was good and right in France. But her party ultimately came in second to Emmanuel Macron, the 39 year-old who led the start-up party En Marche!. Macron promised labor market reform, pro-growth policies, and a France open to the world. Predictably, his poll numbers have steadily declined, for the election of Macron did not fundamentally alter the social and cultural anxieties of 21st century France.

Surprisingly, it was Germany not France where a far right party out performed expectations. Despite the fact that Germany maintained its culture of political consensus (and centrism) throughout the Eurozone crisis, the far right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) garnered 88 seats in the 2017 federal elections, suggesting that not all was well for progressive and dependable Germany. AfD was founded in reaction to Merkel’s statement that Germany had ‘no alternative’ but to bail out defaulting EU member states. Frauke Petry, who shifted the anti-Euro party toward an anti-immigrant focus, took advantage of Germans’ hesitation with Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, and introduced the first far right party to Germany’s Bundestag since World War II. Not surprisingly, Germans were and still are stunned by this development. Immediately after the vote, young Berliners gathered around AfD headquarters to denounce Nazism. As we have observed in the United States in recent months, 20th century-style protests can have the opposite effect in the 21st century: far from raising awareness of the evils of an organization or movement, a protest can be interpreted as yet another case of thought control by elites.

Petry and Le Pen, along with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Jimmie Åkesson in Sweden, represent a move back to a self-conscious nation-state with its strict lines between who belongs and who does not belong. Such developments are often reported as surrendering all the progress the European community has made since World War II. The newly confident nationalists of Europe harbor regressive, even racist, elements. But it’s an illusion to think that university exchange programs, a single currency and limited passport controls would create an ‘ever closer union’, as leaders in France and Germany have claimed. Even in the golden age of the EU between German reunification in 1990 and the beginnings of the financial crisis in 2008 political union was mostly a product of happy coincidence between steady economies and complacent politics. In one of those ironies that only crises can produce, the Eurozone-cum-migrant crisis revealed that an ‘ever closer union’ had inadvertently been achieved. Germany, France, the Netherlands and other wealthy members of the EU were in fact responsible for Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The ever closer union was, however, a relationship of co-dependency: it was too expensive for Germany to leave, and Greece had no other way to pay the bills. Is this really the ‘ever closer union’ that justified the European project?

Resurrecting Rome

Europe’s history is one of inadequate alliances. The conflict over how to belong has defined Europe culturally and socially since the early days of Europe’s efforts to unify itself, and the EU is simply the latest attempt to foster attachment amongst its inhabitants. It is in this respect that the EU is successor of the Holy Roman Empire. The persistent irony of European history is that it only ever discovers its mutual bonds through its attempted separations and divorces.

The challenges the EU faces are new in certain respects, but not unexpected if one considers the long history of European society. While complex foreign alliances and diplomatic theories and strategies have arisen from all four corners of the globe, Europe has consistently had to balance external alliances with internal politics. For most commentators, the seventeenth century’s Westphalian formula – cuius regio, eius religio or ‘whose realm, his religion’– which eventually provided the rationale for the warring principates of Europe to drop their weapons, is as far back as one needs to go. It is at this moment, we are told, that Europe – modern, sensible Europe, shorn of its Christendom trappings – began to emerge.

But the Westphalian socio-political structures and institutions, which we are beginning to see as outdated and even counter-productive for resolving 21st century conflicts, simply modified the terms of membership in the Holy Roman Empire, which is itself a modification of the political and social settlement instituted by the Ostrogothic kings of the Italian peninsula. The challenges to shoring up a unified identity for those groups of people who inhabit the European continent reach all the way back to the way in which the complex civilizations and language groups were brought into political relationship. Europeans have always dealt with a tangled web of common law, canon law, and Roman civil law, all of which required constant negotiation and balance.

The Western Roman Empire officially ended in 476 when the Gothic ruler Odoacer deposed the final Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus. The makings of this great event – nothing less than the Fall of the Western Roman Empire – began with the Germanic, Turkic, and Slavonic migrations of late fourth and fifth centuries, and did not find much stability until the Ostrogothic warlord Theoderic ‘the Great’ took a page out of Homer and slayed Odoacer at a banquet feast meant to commemorate their agreed upon cease-fire. Despite – or maybe because of – Theoderic’s ‘barbaric’ pedigree, the Ostrogopthic Kingdom (475-526) sought to salvage the legacy of the Roman Empire in the West.

But Theoderic inherited not a unified empire – if such a thing ever existed, it was long since dead – but a loose collection of communities, whose indigenous forms of belonging had been transformed by nearly a century of immigration of Gothic tribes from the north and emigration of Romans to the east. Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, southern Gaul, and the Iberian peninsula were Roman in ideal, but tribal in everyway that otherwise matters. Theoderic’s great success was in discovering how to do empire by cajoling, urging, reprimanding, hectoring with the well-tested but ultimately self-defeating methods of paranoia, coercion and violence. Theoderic died in 526 and with him evaporated the first attempt to salvage the Roman Empire. In 554, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian waged a short-lived reconquest of Italy. But the effect of the Justinian’s invasion was self-defeating: it set Europe on its course toward a set of small units, the relations between which would hover somewhere between unified empire and isolated principalities.

What eventually would be named the Holy Roman Empire in 1512 had always been misnamed: it was never really Roman nor even imperial. Far from being a single, undifferentiated unity, it evolved as a collection of alliances, treaties, and accords that were only kept in place as long as they were mutually beneficial for all parties. In fact, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800 in gratitude for saving his head from the Romans. But greater geographical and economic forces would conspire to keep the Pope in the Emperor’s lap. By the late eighth century, present-day France and Germany had emerged as the center of Western power. Stretching from the Pyrenees to the Elba, the Frankish Kingdom, which Charlemagne painstakingly built through a series of military campaigns and alliances, placed Europe in a centripetal force field that Otto I would use to establish himself as Charlemagne’s successor and the first ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Every subsequent Holy Roman Emperor had to maintain or recreate these alliances. Inevitably, some were more successful than others.

The Holy Roman Empire was thus not a political unit in the way that one thinks of the British Empire. The metaphor for the British Empire is often a rimless wheel, where all the spokes are connected to the hub but not to each other. Conversely, the Holy Roman Empire is a hub-less wheel: all the spokes are connected to the rim without (necessarily) passing through the hub. The function of the Imperial court was, in effect, to embody a transcendental ideal that could provide the basis for a web of bilateral relations between its members. Like Theoderic during his better days, the Holy Roman Emperor equally had to resort to cajoling, urging, reprimanding, and hectoring to keep his principates in alliance. Sometimes the Emperor did this from a position of strength, other times he did it from a position of weakness. This political formation lasted an unprecedented length of time – a little over 1000 years.

The Westphalian Juggernaut

The Holy Roman Empire was not always the wealthiest or most innovative or most ‘free’ (whatever that could have meant). But it endured. While it was formally dissolved in 1806, when Napoleon established the Confederation of the Rhine, the Holy Roman Empire had ceased to be a functioning authority during the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Treaty of Westphalia, which Henry Kissinger has infamously described as the ‘sole generally recognized basis of what exists of a world order’, emerged as a direct rebuke to the Holy Roman Empire. But as magisterial as it was as a diplomatic feat, the plenipotentiaries of Westphalia could not change the facts on the ground: Europe was a subcontinent whose climatic and geographic endowment allowed its populations to shift and change with the waxing and waning of migratory patterns. As in the fourth and fifth centuries, new populations would emerge to contest the Westphalian status quo.

The Westphalian settlement is often celebrated as the basis for world order. However, if we demand something more than the crass realism of international relations theory, it could be seen as that which actually prevented and continues to prevent Europe from forming mutual ties across regional, linguistic, and economic difference. While settlements like the Treaty of Westphalia are significant steps towards peace, they cannot be the terms for mutual belonging. The Westphalian principle – ‘whose realm, his religion’ – found its success by fracturing the common Christian identity that made it possible to legislate across cultural, linguistic, and economic frontiers. While the ‘peace’ of Westphalia made it less likely the Europe would be a place for war in the short-term, it inadvertently cut off the major resource for forming and maintaining a shared sense of belonging, that is, a common Christian identity.

Ever since the end of Christendom, Europe has struggled to find a basis for its union beyond vague generalities. There is no reason to expect a resuscitated Christendom would be desirable or even achievable. The failed attempts in 2004 to recognize Europe’s Christian past in a European Constitution are illustrative of this reality. But what should be taken from this legacy is not the fact that Christianity was once dominate and unifying for Europe’s inhabitants, but rather that Europe’s Christian heritage provided a substantive sense of belonging that allowed its rulers and inhabitants to negotiate, disagree, part ways, come back together, and form alliances to address trans-regional challenges.

Belonging in 21st Century Europe

Europe has always been a multicultural land. The Christendom project was but one highly flawed way to unify different cultures, languages, and people groups that are always changing and influx. Since the end of World War II, the gamble has been that the widespread desire for economic growth could kick-start a movement toward union. But it is hard to imagine that a proper shared sense of belonging could emerge from the gross inequalities in access to employment that exists between Germany and Greece. The parts of the middle class threatened by the crash, the youth without prospects for meaningful employment, and the elderly whose pensions have been reduced have increasingly experienced life as precarious, not necessarily impoverished but always aware of poverty’s imminent possibility. We were led to believe that economic cooperation would lead to a reckoning over a political and democratic deficit at the heart of the European project. But this assumed that the realism inherent in intra-European relations was possible without a shared sense of belonging that transcended the material.

Europe’s centrists have taught us to imagine the European crisis as a clash between idealistic nation-state politics that led to two world wars and a practical European community that has not gone to war with itself since 1945. For the cause of peace, we are told, we must limit democracy. Often spoken of in the hushed tones of the cultivated civil servant, this ‘democratic deficit’ elicits furrowed brows and technocratic responses that evade the most basic criticism: who actually voted for the Brussels-based leadership or their policies? When offered at all, the response to the criticism of the European Union as undemocratic draws upon the deep emotional well of ‘never again’. Accepting the invitation to the European Union meant setting one’s face against war. European nation-states were invited to give up some of their sovereignty in exchange for membership in a community that put them on the road toward cosmopolitan Europe. The nation-state structure was out of date, and besides it’s an unreliable bulwark against the irreparable damage of all-out war. The stability and safety of non-aggressive neighbors should be worth, Europeanists argue, the loss of some sovereignty.

The nation-state’s sale-by-date is purportedly fast approaching. However, we are seeing signs that the fungible collectivities known as nation-states still have some life in them: the British voted to leave the EU, Austria has effectively re-asserted border controls, and Greece has continued to flout the EU’s debt-to-GDP requirements. The fragmentation has even made it to the sub-national level. In 2014 Scotland narrowly voted to stay in the United Kingdom (though a second referendum would likely pass), and the Catalonian region voted to secede from Spain in October 2017. Local allegiances and loyalties are on the rise. The failure to ratify the European Constitution in 2005 should have been warning enough.

The vicissitudes of the Eurozone-cum-migrant crisis have sufficiently revealed that the arc of history wasn’t bending as expected. The effect of this new nationalism, which is emerging from both the right and the left of the European political spectrum, is that people are not accepting this ironical co-dependency that has emerged over the last decade in the place of a shared sense of belonging. The challenge for Europe is not to simply seek out local sources of identity, but rather ‘to create’, as Rowan Williams has suggested, ‘a set of loyalties that are not exclusively communal and local in order for those local and communal identities to speak to each other and argue without fear or panic’. As has become evident, secular citizenship and Westphalian-style settlements are not up to the task.

In previous eras, a Christian identity, however weak, superficial, or fungible it might have been, was able to bind Europe together in such a way that local and communal identities were not excessively challenged. Today this is no longer a viable option for Europe, not least because it would be unacceptable to the millions of non-Christians living in Europe. But Europe’s history suggests that it can find its way. When viewed in the longue durée, Europe’s political order is precisely a working out of this. It is not a settlement or even a form of governance. Europe’s politics constitute rather a realm of creative engagement. European history is thus replete with examples of union and fracture. What it has meant and will likely continue to mean to be European is to live with, and in, the recurrent swings between national and transnational identities and allegiances.