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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Does Europe Need a Cultural Identity? Ten Critical Remarks

Ute Frevert

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11. The starting point is accurately described: After World War II, Europe was destroyed, materially and mentally devastated. The German National Socialists’ (and the Italian Fascists’) plans for Europe were bankrupt. They left behind a field of ruins and inflicted on every nation wounds whose scars have not healed to this day. The almost immediately ensuing Cold War added new injuries and divided Europe into two hostile halves, each armed to the teeth. With massive American financial assistance and political support, the countries of Western Europe managed to achieve economic and political stability. The economic dimension stood in the foreground: growing affluence and its broad distribution were regarded as the foundation of a viable democracy, and as the best protection against communist adventures.

22. To strengthen Western Europe against the emerging Soviet bloc, the USA pushed for intense cooperation and coordination, including military and economic resources, in order to minimize internal conflicts and solidify resistance against the Eastern bloc. The approach was pragmatic, not ideological. Instead of invoking European values and proclaiming a European identity, the founding fathers of the EU concentrated on the underpinnings and construction of Western Europe’s close economic interaction. France’s security policy interests and West Germany’s desires for political integration furthered the project. Memories of the ruinous consequences of the European political order installed by the Versailles Treaty served as a warning.

33. But the Western Europe of the early postwar years did not consist solely of members and institutions of the European Coal and Steel Community or the EEC. There were also economic associations like the European Free Trade Association, which no one mentions anymore because it did not survive competition with the E(E)C in the mid-term. And there were (and are) European institutions like the Council of Europe, which saw its task as “to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realizing the ideals and principles which are their common heritage” (Art. 1 of the 1949 charter). The states joining the Council of Europe in 1950 agreed to the Human Rights Convention, which invoked the “common heritage of intellectual goods, political traditions, respect of freedom and authority of law” (“das gemeinsame Erbe an geistigen Gütern, politischen Überlieferungen, Achtung der Freiheit und Vorherrschaft des Gesetzes”). Despite this value-based agreement, the Council of Europe remained institutionally weak and politically toothless. It developed most of its energy within the politics of symbols: the blue European flag with its yellow stars is now familiar to everyone. But it did not become ubiquitously visible and present until the moment when the European Union adopted it.

44. Since the 1970s at the latest, it became ever clearer that, in competition with Western European institutions, the E(E)C would be victorious. Precisely its exclusive concern with economic problems enabled it to apply its powers to the shaping of federal political decision- making structures. These are proving to be a stable foundation for integrating and Europeanizing additional areas of politics. All this came about without the necessity of invoking European values and traditions. Even the “Document on European Identity” worked out in 1975 spoke only marginally about a “common heritage;” the focus was on the European Community’s “world-political obligations.”

55. This has changed dramatically in recent years. Now we hear ever more about the need to define European identity by emphasizing common roots and traditions. Such recourse to one’s self is not new; it already experienced a boom in the 1920s among those associated with the numerous magazines and initiatives focused on “Europe.” During and after World War II, various groups struggled for the power to presume to speak ideologically/visionarily for Europe; conservative Catholic proponents of “the West” competed with Socialist protagonists of a “Third Way.” Why such thought has now become socially acceptable within the bodies of the EU, which had thus far kept a fastidious distance to it, demands critical appraisal. The authors of the Europe Paper have two lines of argumentation. First, they assert that the initially effective cohesive forces of the pan-European project (anti-Communism, overcoming the results of the war) have since been dissipated. And second, they maintain that the new ambition to transform the European Economic Community into a political community demands strongly value-based, cultural underpinnings.

66. But do these explanations, which are simultaneously meant as justifications, really hold up? Does Europe really face its end if it does not elaborate its “mental and cultural dimension” more clearly? Is the moral-visionary rearmament everyone bandies about really needed? Doubts are in order. Politically, the EU seems to be firmly in the saddle, and no alternatives are in sight. Certainly, the dramatic devastation of World War II is behind us, and the Cold War is now history as well. But many old fears are still around, and populous and economically potent (even if badly listing) Germany still attracts skepticism and distrust. Knowing it is integrated in the time-tested architecture of the EU has a calming effect, especially on its immediate neighbors. Beyond that, the economic attractiveness of the EU is unbroken. Even if the sum to be distributed may shrink in coming years as economic data decline, while the policy of massive extension feeds growing desires, the coordination offices and redistribution funds in Brussels will lose nothing of their sex appeal. This power of attraction, incidentally, inheres in more than just agricultural subsidies; the EU has extended its grasp to other areas, such as, for example, being active in research policy.

77. It is a European tradition and characteristic to undervalue such material and institutional factors of political cohesion. In contrast to the USA, which (so far) is oriented more in terms of pragmatic considerations, Europe always wants everything based on intellectual ideals. The problem is only that the realm of ideas, values, and ideals is generally conflictual. Consensus is hard to reach here; interpretational battles are probable and are more divisive than unifying. The founding fathers of the European Community showed profound understanding of history and sure political instinct when they avoided this minefield, trusting instead to the integrating power of institutions. Now the authors of the Europe Paper are also having a difficult time defining a “European order of culture and values.” Although they believe this is of overriding importance in constituting Europe as a “political subject” and in guaranteeing the cohesion of Europeans, they shy away from naming the ingredients of this “common European culture.” Nevertheless, they seem to know what the issue is: common “institutions, ideas and expectations, habits and feelings, moods, memories, and prospects.” These are brought together and presented; this culture, it is said, is the basis for the feeling that Europe belongs together.

88. This is doubtful. If anything, it is the vision or dream of a “civil society” that unites the various regions of Europe. But visions and dreams are by definition indistinct. There is no agreement on what constitutes a civil society. Not everything touted under its name can be reconciled with democratic societies’ promises of freedom and tolerance. In addition, the practices generally identified with a civil society are mostly carried out in small, surveyable spaces. Those seeking forms of active solidarity and self-organization find them primarily locally; even the nation-state is already too big for them, not to mention the level of “Europe.” There is no “European civil society” and therefore no political union can be based on it.

99. But what does exist are local initiatives transcending borders and bringing Europeans together—city partnerships, for example, and cooperation projects between hospitals, universities, veterans’ associations, and youth groups. In these networks, which the EU supports but cannot control, concrete solidarity develops. Here people learn to listen to and talk with each other. Here they discover common orientations, as well as separating memories. Here people can work on strengthening what they have in common and on enduring what divides them. Here a Europe based on living experiences, rather than on a mummified canon of values and ideas, is arising.

1010. But this Europe must be, and remain, open; it must not hunker down and isolate itself behind its new borders. It is not clear why Europeans’ solidarity should be directed primarily to Europeans. The idea that doctors in Novgorod deserve less support (though they may need it more) than doctors in Krakow is more than dubious. A “Fortress Europe” would serve no one—Europeans no more than non-Europeans. Efforts to define Europe culturally—even if only as a “culture of civil society”—raise suspicions that they foster such a siege mentality. Strengthening external boundaries to create internal cohesion was a trusted means that 19th-century nation-states employed to cement their “identity.” Already at that time, this kind of policy endangered the peace and hindered transnational communication. The European Union should not repeat the same mistake.


Ute Frevert is professor of German history at Yale University. Member of IWM’s Academic Advisory Board. Author of Eurovisionen. Ansichten gutter Europäer im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt a.M., 2003.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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