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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

The Future of Europe

Colm Toíbín

Texte intégral

Europe is a word whose meaning is loose, whose
connotations are diverse and various. No one is sure
where it begins or ends.

1It is very difficult to make generalizations about Europe and the European heritage. There are too many differences in our historical experiences: the Renaissance occurred mostly in Italy; the Reformation took place in some areas and not in others; the Inquisition happened in Spain but not elsewhere; the Enlightenment had a distinct influence on public and private life in some countries but not in others; the Industrial Revolution did not occur in certain part of Europe; some counties plundered their colonies, others not so much; some were deeply influenced and greatly enriched by their own colonies, others not so much; some parts of Europe were changed by the rise of nationalism and the rise of fascism and the rise of communism, but each in a different way.

2Europe is as diverse as European languages are different. There is no such thing as a set of European values; there is no such thing as a common European identity.

3I cannot talk about the future of Europe, since I do not know what Europe is. Neither can I speak about its past, since its past is various and many aspects of its past are beyond my understanding.

4In the European countries now, I believe, we possess two identities. One is bound up with memory, family, community, and personal experience. We may call it home if we like, but some people are in exile from it. The second identity centers on a nation, a state, an imagined community larger than neighbors and friends and family. This can have single name with no complex or gnarled heritage; or it can come with many hyphens and uncertainties. Thus we may feel French in France with no uncertainty; or Lithuanian in Lithuania; or we may feel British in Northern Ireland with a great deal of uncertainty; or Russian in Estonia; or Turkish in Germany; or Jamaican in England.

5None of us, is, however, capable of developing a third superidentity as European and feeling this with the same emotional strength. The other two identities are too strong, too essential, no matter how strange and complex they have become. I believe that Europe is too large a term to mean much to most Europeans.

6I feel easier when the word Europe is replaced by the two words — European Community. I know what that is. I have views on its future. My views on its future, however, are inevitably bound up with my views on the discrete and undefinable nature of the European experience and the increasingly complex heritage of people who live in Europe which I have briefly outlined above.

7I was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1955; thus I was eighteen when Ireland joined what was then called the Common Market. In the decade or so before joining, Ireland must have seemed a very backward place to those who came from the more developed European mainland. All our secondary schools were fee-paying and run by the churches, for example, until 1967, when the fee-paying part was abolished; there was draconian censorship of books until 1966; the death penalty for capital offences was still on the statute books when we joined the Common Market; there was no divorce; contraceptives were illegal; abortion was (and still is) illegal; women did not sit on juries; homosexual acts between men were illegal. Ireland was an agricultural country, Catholic and conservative, repressive, with a very basic infrastructure. And its constitution had a bellicose claim against some of the territory of its nearest neighbor. That is, without any recognition in international law, it claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

8The slow liberalization of Ireland between then and now came from many directions, from the spirit of the time perhaps more than anything. But a number of momentous changes to the society came directly from its membership of the Common Market.

9In 1973, the same year as we joined, we elected a new government, and this government was unusual, certainly the best educated, most liberal, most forward looking government we have ever had. Very quickly they were faced with a crisis. Women in state jobs had always been paid less than men, and had been forced to retire on marriage. Brussels ordered the Irish government to change this. The Irish cabinet, despite all its liberalism, did everything it could to avoid making the change, claiming poverty. Brussels insisted. The change was made. Thus ideas of equality began to take root in Ireland.

10In 1979, to take another example, a Dublin academic, David Norris, appealed to have the Victorian laws against homosexuality, which had remained on the Irish statute books, declared unconstitutional. He lost in the Irish High Court and then also in the Irish Supreme Court. His lawyer Mary Robinson took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 1988 instructed the Irish government to change the law. The government did not do so. It was instructed again in 1989. And again in 1990 (the year Mary Robinson was elected President). Again in 1991. Again in 1992. Although the Court is not a function of the European Union, the Irish government, involved in serious negotiation over structural funding with Brussels, felt embarrassed enough to change the law in 1993. They emptied the chambers of parliament, and passed the legislation without a debate. Even the most liberal politicians did not wish to speak on these matters. It is fair to say that without the ruling of the Court of Human Rights it would have taken them another twenty or thirty years to change the law on homosexuality.

11These are merely two examples of how being a member of the European Community has served the interests of liberalization and modernization in Ireland. The relaxation of the interstate customs controls in 1992 also eased tension between north and south in Ireland by removing the customs posts from the border. I could offer many other examples, including directives on the environment and on other forms of equality. I do not believe, however, that this influence has made Irish people, even the most liberal, feel more European, merely that the institution known as the European Community has come to serve our interests, and thus the institution is viewed with sporadic affection and loyalty. But this could easily change should it no longer serve our interests.

12Over the past few months, both in Ireland and in the wider European Union, there has been a debate on enlargement, and this debate has been haunted by a specter, and this specter is called Turkey. The opposition to Turkey’s entry has offered many reasons: its underdevelopment; its large population; the readiness of its workers to migrate; its record on human rights; the fact that most of it is not even in Europe; its natural hinterland in Asia; its dangerous neighbors; its fragile democracy; its attitude to Cyprus; its relationship to Greece.

13Some of these arguments could have been used against Ireland in 1973. It, too, was underdeveloped. It, too, had a fractious relationship to its nearest neighbor. Its workforce, on each economic downturn, left for Britain and the United States. It, too, had a political culture which was not based on the principles of the Enlightenment.

14Some of those who argue against Turkish entry are prepared to spell out another reason why the Turkish application has been viewed with little enthusiasm; others merely hint at it. Turkey is not a Christian country. That, for many people in Europe, both in the political elite and among ordinary voters, is the issue. Turkey equals Islam; Europe has stood as a bastion against Islam since the Crusades, the argument goes. Europe had a Renaissance, a Reformation, a Counter-Reformation, an Enlightenment, an Industrial Revolution. Islam’s development has been slower and stranger. Islam will always be dangerous and alien.

15The counterargument is easy to make. While Christianity gave us the great Romanesque and Gothic churches and the religious paintings, it also gave us the cruelty of the Inquisition, the cruelties of colonization, and, in our last century, it gave us the basis for murdering almost the entire Jewish population of Europe. What cruelties has Islam inflicted compared to these cruelties?

16I think, however, that these arguments miss the point of what has been happening in Europe over the past fifty years in which the European Union has been an essential tool. First of all, it is hard to describe Europe as having a Christian heritage at all, because the word Christian here covers so much and took on so many different guises and had so many different impacts in European countries. I do not mean simply that the Protestant and Catholic divisions in Europe make it difficult to talk about a single Christian heritage. I mean that each place in Europe seemed to allow its religious spirit to develop as a mirror image of the place’s own needs or qualities. Local conditions shaped the tone and tenor of Christianity. Thus Slovenian Catholicism differed from that of Croatia; thus Scottish Presbyterianism differed from the Church of England; thus Lithuanian Catholicism differed from that of Poland; thus Catalan Catholicism differed from that of Andalusia.

17There was no single heritage; there was diversity. Progress often came from dissent rather than from doctrine. And there is as much dissent and humanist debate in contemporary Turkey as there was in Ireland in 1973. Islam also has many mansions. And over the past thirty years the European Union has been a great secular, and secularizing institution, so that to talk now about excluding Turkey from the Union because it is not a Christian country is to miss the point of what has happened in Europe, and will go on happening, and is to couch what might be base racial prejudice in terms that are lofty and meaningless.

18To talk about Christianity as the governing factor in our political identity is to ignore how much difference the thinking and writing in Europe which opposed or ignored Christianity has made to that identity; it is to ignore the contribution to our heritage of both the Islamic and the Jewish population; it is also to ignore the vast population living and working in our countries who are not, neither in their faith nor their heritage, Christian.

19Europe, then, like Christianity itself, is a word whose meaning is loose, whose connotations are diverse and various. No one is sure where it begins or ends. Its culture cannot be endangered because it does not have a culture. Any time in the past it set out to define itself in terms of single and definable racial, cultural, or religious origins and aims, it caused havoc.

20What is Europe then? It is a name for a set of interests, organized into the European Union. It is a word open to interpretation, full of associations, floating freely. It is not a culture and not an identity. It is a word we should set about undermining further as time goes on.


Further Reading:
The South. Penguin USA, 1992.
The Heather Blazing. Penguin USA, 1994.
The Story of the Night: A Novel. Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1998.
The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel. Scribner, 2001.
Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature. Scribner, 2002.

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Born in 1955, Colm Toíbín is today one of Ireland’s bestknown writers. For many years he edited cultural and political journals and published In Dublin. Then he wrote several non-fiction works on contemporary political and cultural matters. He published his first novel, The South in 1990, while his fourth and most recent novel, The Blackwater Lightship, appeared in German translation in 2001. Colm Toíbín’s works have won several awards, including the Encore Award (1992) and the E. M. Forster Award (1995).

© Central European University Press, 2003

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