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The Idea of Europe in Nation Building Processes, in «European Legacy», 2005, 7, pp.745-748.

by Carlo Scognamiglio

The idea of Europe and its position in the cultural and social context of the ancient continent constitutes an interesting “headache” not only for politicians, who make an effort to give a soul to the institution, but also for historians and intellectuals, who, with a less pragmatic but more scientific attitude, try to look for its foundation. First of all it should be pointed out that the question of the idea of Europe implies the one concerning the European identity, as it is easily inferred from the collection of essays edited by Anthony Pagden. While the economic unification proceeds quickly, and the politic one is rather slow, we are still a good way from the unity of identity. Undoubtedly, the uniting character of the various historical identities witch represent the foundation of today’s Europe is the idea of freedom, considered both related to individual choice, and as the possibility to be defended by a universal system of laws. It is certainly too difficult to build a continental identity after only sixty years from the conclusion of a conflict that opposed European States very strongly, but it is necessary, just on the base of the elaboration of that tragedy. In the volume edited by Anthony Padgen, we can find a set of contributions related to different moments of theorization of a European identity, from antiquity to Middle Ages, to Napoleon’s enterprises and up to our days; in this book the relationship between European society and Islam is also analysed, and the reference to great philosophic reflections, such those of Max Weber and Immanuel Kant, proves to be very interesting. None of he essays can or pretends to offer a consolidated vision of the future, but we can find in these pages a good analysis of some problems about the past and present of the idea of Europe. William Chester Jordan for example observes that in the High Middle Ages there was a strong and creative tension between cosmopolitan values and local concerns, universalism and parochialism. In this context it is possible to see how in the twelfth century a European style in architecture (Gothic) emerged. The same we can say about painting. In her essay Bianca Maria Fontana (The Napoleonic Empire and the Europe of Nations) shows how in the eighteenth century there was an idea of European supremacy. The article “Europe” from Encyclopédie, written by the Chevalier de Jacourt, stated that Europe was the richest and most civilized continent. Among the most interesting essays the one by Luisa Passerini (From Ironies of Identity to the Identities of Irony) stands out together with that of J. G. A. Pocock (Some Europes in Their History), who analyses the question really sharply. Luisa Passerini explains how important and complex in contemporary society the discourse on European cultural identity is. He explicitly reveals a sound scepticism, and thanks to it he expresses a succession of pertinent objections to the concept of Europe, also criticizing the geographic correctness of that concept. In the end, Pocock discusses the cultural notion of Europe, remarking how complex it was during the Siècle de lumière. He describes ways in which the word “Europe” has been used and «how those ways have grown and spread until the word has reached the point of being used to denote, first, a continent and, second, a civilization» (p. 56). Pocock characterizes himself as a Euroskeptic, but in this collection of essays we can find other ideas of Europe too.
An interesting philosophical contribution in this volume is the one given by James Tully. In fact he analyses the Kantian idea of Europe (The Kantian Idea of Europe: Critical and Cosmopolitan Perspectives) showing a new lecture of Kantian works. Tully reveals how the Kantian idea of Europe and the world is not as cosmopolitan as Kant intended it to be. The author explains in his essay the relationship between “cultural imperialism” and cosmopolitism, by means of the analysis of the works of Immanuel Kant and Jürgen Habermas.
Despite its main interest projection in current events, the historical approach is not absent in the essays collected in the volume edited by Mikael af Malborg and Bo Stråth, who choose as their favourite object of study the role of the idea of Europe in the processes of national construction. The historical character derives inevitably from a fluid and contextual dimension of European identities: the volume therefore, intends to give itself a recognition of “multi-identification”. Undoubtedly, the French image of Europe, founded on the illuminist upsetting of the catholic notion of Europe, seems to have developed in the opposite direction to that one matured in the Austrian culture, deeply influenced by the Habsburg role in contrasting Osmanic Empire’s expansion. So much disputed and closely fought the relationship between the idea of Europe and the form of Russian nationality is, that for a long time it has been swinging between an inclination to the western model and the idea of a Slavic historical destiny. It is also very interesting to observe how the characters of modernity, prosperity and pluralism have constituted the outline of the idea of Europe that, with all its differences, has arisen in Italy and Spain. Italians in particular have a positive attitude toward European unity. In his essay Mikael af Malborg (The Dual Appeal of ‘Europe’ in Italy) remembers the Italian Risorgimento, and specifically Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), the most prominent Europeanist. The latter saw the unification of Italy as a part of a spiritual (and not only) renaissance for Europe. For this reason he founded in 1834 the organization Giovine Europa, hoping for a European federation. The fascist years in Italy were instead a political process against Europe. Fascism transformed nationalism into imperialism, in an optic of colonial competition, as the capitalistic phase of the period asked for. The Italian post-war debate was centred on the European question, and a lot of intellectuals tried to see the unification process as a new Risorgimento. For this reason also today the Italian “yes” to Europe comes, in the opinion of Mikael af Malmborg, from the heart as much as from the brain.
In this book we can find a complete panoramic of national ways to intend European identity. In England for example, “Europe” is used as synonymous with “continental”: Europe means a geographical area which does not include the British Isles. Undoubtedly this debate is today alive in the English political context, but, as Piers Ludlow writes in his essay (Us or them? Europe in British Political Discourse), «Britain’s fundamental uncertainty about whether or not it is part of Europe, geographically, culturally or politically, has certainly given the British debate about Europe a distinctive twist» (p. 122). The truth is that twentieth-century history demonstrates that the idea of Europe must remain on the centre of Britain’s political debate. Iver B. Neumann (From the USSR to Gorbachev to Putin: Perestroika as a Failed Excursion from “the West” to “Europe” in Russian Discourse) instead explains the Russian conception of Europe. The author distinguishes two traditions in the Russian debate: nationalism and ‘westernism’. In spite of this discussion, the real problem for today’s Russia, Neumann says, is that in a situation where the EU and NATO are hegemonic political forces in Europe and post-sovereignty is the name of the game, Putin’s representation of Europe, that consists in a system of sovereign states in the balance between conflict and cooperation, is a solitary one.
There are no other countries that have a similar oscillating collective identity and corresponding European orientations, as Germany. With these words Willfried Spohn opens his contribute (Continuities and Changes of Europe in German National Identity). This is perhaps the most interesting essay in this volume, because German history is really rich of events that determined decisive phases of European history, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Holocaust and the unification process after the second world war. German history is deeply explored by Spohn, with a particular attention to the German Reich (1871-1945), when the German people lived a complex period between a European Nation State and a Germanic Europe. In the last years, the reconstruction of German national identity, after the “catastrophe”, has been accompanied by a through change in the meaning of Europe. Fore some intellectuals and politicians, as Joschka Fischer, today’s German federalism can also became a model for EU. Indeed this conviction is accepted also by other small European states, but opposed by France and Britain that want to exclude a new German hegemony in Europe. The author concludes with these words: «The contemporary meaning of Europe in German identity and identities has decisively shifted from being that of a Germanic Europe to that of a Europeanized Germany» (p. 306). It seems predictive that the last essay is on France conception, if we consider recent events about the EU constitution. Robert Frank (The Meanings of Europe in French National Discourse: a French Europe or an Europeanized France?) writes that in French minds, for a long time, there was not much difference between Europe and the World: if Europe was the centre of the World, France was the centre of Europe and of civilization. Also this essay possesses all the elements of an historical analysis, and shows how today France searches in the unification process a new French identity. But the conference in Nice in December 2000 revealed the “arrogance française” toward the small states. It’s evident today how complex the problem of hegemony on European Union is, in the debate of all these great states, and how difficult it becomes to search for a convergence in a politic and economic model really alternative to the United States of America.
From the reading of these two books we have an exhaustive analysis of the difficulties and potentialities of the construction of a European identity, which never remains an abstract problem, but grafts itself on the concreteness of the political and cultural development of the national states. Different historical experiences determine different “europeist” prospectives; that’s why we can find a lot of different expectations and guide-ideas, whose main objective remains a progressive and satisfactory integration.


Carlo Scognamiglio

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