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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Intersecting and Overlapping European Cultures

Rainer Baubock

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1In 1882 the historian Ernest Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne on the topic ‘What is a nation?’ in which he stated laconically: “A customs union is not a fatherland.” The European Union of today is more than a customs union, but certainly less than a fatherland. It also does not aspire to be, or to become, the latter. But it is assigning to itself ever more tasks whose completion had in the past required national solidarity. The basis of such solidarity has always been a sense of belonging to an imagined community of shared history and culture.

2The Reflection Group on the spiritual and cultural dimension of Europe puts forward a diagnosis that resembles Renan’s: “Markets cannot produce a politically resilient solidarity.” And the group’s reflections also start from the premise that “new sources of energy must be looked for and found in Europe’s common culture.” This raises several questions: What is the content of Europe’s common culture? Where are its boundaries? How can it become a resource for political solidarity?

3Many will have expected the Reflection Group to identify the roots of European culture or to proclaim a catalogue of essential European values. The group was wise enough to avoid this trap. On the one hand, any common list of historical roots (such as Greek democracy, Roman law, Christianity and the Enlightenment) is always meant to demarcate and exclude (e.g. Judaism and Islam). On the other hand, no catalogue of universal values (such as liberty, peace, the rule of law, democracy and solidarity) can claim to be European, not only in its origins, but also in grounding a specific European identity for the present and the future.

4Instead of taking this much-traveled road, the concluding remarks published by the Reflection Group suggest that the questions “What is Europe?” and “What is European culture?” can never be conclusively answered. Europe’s identity and borders are “something that must be negotiated by its peoples and institutions.” European culture cannot be defined in contrast to either particular national cultures or religious beliefs. It is instead the culture of a civil society in which the public role of religion is also publicly recognized.

5I agree with all of this. Yet there is something that is conspicuously absent. This is the theme of linguistic diversity. We should remember that, for modern nationalism since the French Revolution, the political community has been conceived primarily as a linguistic, not a religious, one. Europe, however, is multilingual to an extent that completely rules out any similar process of linguistic homogenization within the Union. In this respect it is different even from multilingual democracies, such as Canada, Belgium, Switzerland or India. India may have a greater number of languages than Europe, but in each of the countries mentioned there are no more than two or three official languages that are recognized within federal institutions.

6The European Union today has already twenty such official languages. This language regime is costly—translation and interpreter services make up the largest part of the EU administrative budget— but it has so far not created a major obstacle for political integration. This is quite remarkable and illustrates the general insight that political unity in Europe—in stark contrast with national unity—does not require cultural unity with regard to either religion or language. The new Europe is instead a successful model for overcoming cultural conflict through recognizing diversity. And this is exactly the reason why any attempt to demarcate the cultural boundaries of Europe must ultimately endanger its unity.

7Yet this seems to undercut the core thesis of the Reflection Group: that for the future tasks of the Union a shared culture will be the most important source of European solidarity. How is this common culture to be forged in the absence of state instruments for cultural homogenization that are unavailable at the European level? In the context of past nation-building, the perception that historically contingent borders of states coincide with stable cultural communities could only be made plausible through the coercive assimilation or ethnic cleansing of minorities, through establishing hegemonic national cultures in public education systems, and through geographic mobility in linguistically standardized labor markets.

8The former two of these three means of nation-building are clearly excluded for the purposes of European integration. As far as the latter is concerned, there is some empirical evidence for the emergence of a new European elite that identifies with the integration project mainly because its members project their own career plans into this wider geographic space. For the great majority of Europeans, however, the continent with its multiple linguistic borders is a house in which each citizen feels at home in only one of its many rooms. Geographic mobility is a commodity that needs to be imported. While native middle classes remain largely immobile and distrustful of Europeanized elites, immigrants from third countries provide a mobile economic force whose job biographies and social networks create new transnational spaces. It is quite ironic that those who are still perceived as cultural aliens in Europe’s nation-states could turn out to be the true Europeans of the future.

9Since strong cultural unity in Europe can be brought about neither through state coercion nor through economic incentives, the only feasible and desirable goal is to strengthen the weak force of unity in diversity. If we drew a Venn diagram of European cultures, we could interpret the meaning of a shared culture in two different ways: either as an intersecting core shared by the various national, linguistic, secular and religious cultures, or as the “union set,” i.e. the total ensemble formed by all these overlapping cultures.

10For Eurosceptics, the intersecting set is too small in relation to the assigned task. I would, however, contend that the problem is just the opposite. In this core there are exactly those values listed above that may be European in their historical genesis, but that are universal in their content, and global in their contemporary reach. This core is quite strong and it is indeed of decisive importance for the political integration of Europe. It would be either naive or disingenuous to claim that these values are actually shared by all European citizens, but they clearly manifest themselves in the political institutions and constitutions of both the Member States and the Union. The problem is that it is exactly the universalistic and institutional nature of such values that make them hardly suited as building blocks for a particular European identity that generates solidarity between its citizens.

11As an alternative—or rather supplement—we must therefore consider the idea of an overlapping union in which the cultural diversity of Europe is understood as a connecting bond. When we take this second step, “colorless” European values will be tied together with a “colorful” identity. This identity will manifest the required traits of particularity, since it relates to the historically grown cultural differences within Europe. Such unity in diversity is not sufficiently expressed in the formula adopted by the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty: “The Union shall respect the national identities of its Member States.” Cultural diversity could only become an anchor for European unity when it is no longer misinterpreted as a mosaic composed of monochrome nation-states.

12Instead, Europe must learn to embrace the diversity within and across its internal political borders. One indicator of the distance that separates Europe from this goal is the fact that the Copenhagen criterion of respect for and protection of minorities has so far only been applied to accession candidates, but not to those who are already members of the club. Old Member States who regard this as their purely internal affair would block any move towards a pan-European regime of minority rights today. Developing minority rights standards has therefore been a task the Union has left to the Council of Europe, whose powers of enforcement are much more limited. This is another European cultural deficit that is, unfortunately, not considered by the Reflection Group.

13Affirming universal values and diversity will not yet help to resolve the puzzle of Europe’s borders. These can be fixed neither as natural nor as cultural ones. As the western peninsula of the Eurasian continent, Europe does not have any natural eastern borders. The Bosphorus is in this regard certainly no more natural as a divide than are the Ural Mountains. And any attempt to draw a boundary along linguistic or religious lines must conflict with the already existing diversity within present borders. Those who maintain that the strongly secularist Turkish state cannot belong to Europe because its societal culture has been shaped by Islam do not merely question shared European principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state; they also deny the rights of approximately 15 million Muslims in the present Union to equal respect and access to full citizenship.

14Yet every democratic polity needs borders, and so does Europe. If these are, as the Reflection Group suggests, a matter of negotiation, then the debate about their permeability for immigration and their openness to enlargement remains on the agenda. In deciding these questions, Europe will need to consider, on the one hand, consequences for European integration and, on the other, the legitimate expectations generated by past policies and promises towards particular groups of migrants and countries that want to join. As far as I can see, both considerations do not support policies of closing the doors either to Turkish accession or to future immigrants and refugees.

15The bonding forces of European culture are in no way comparable with those unleashed by past and present projects of nation-building. But the supranational and multinational European project is also of an entirely different kind. It is still an open question whether the— admittedly weak—resources of universal values and openness to cultural diversity can mobilize sufficient solidarity for this project. But our experience over the past fifty years justifies at least the attempt to carry on.


Rainer Bauböck is political scientist, member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Research Unit for Institutional Change and European Integration. Recent publication: Europas Identitäten. Mythen, Konflikte, Konstruktionen (co-editor with Monika Mokre and Gilbert Weiss), Frankfurt a.M., 2003.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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