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Les Europe des Européens

René Girault
Gérard Bossuat

Les « Europe » des Européens ou la notion d’Europe

Philip Bell et Peter Morris

Texte intégral

1Note: The following reflections follow the questions set out by René Girault to guide the deliberations of the colloque held in Paris on 15-16 May 1992. It seems best to leave the headings as they stand, because they provided the framework for discussion, and were frequently referred to by all the contributors.

1. The geographical definition of Europe; its actual limits; and the recognition of different zones in Europe

2In Great Britain, the assumption at virtually every level of discussion is that there exists a geographical entity called the Continent of Europe. It is delineated in all kinds of atlas, from the most authoritative (like The Times Atlas) to the few pages of maps provided in pocket diaries. Its boundaries are defined as being the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains and the Urals, and then by way of the North Cape to Iceland. Important dividing lines are drawn at the Straits of Gibraltar and the Bosphorus; in the latter case, the name «Turkey in Europe» to describe the area round Istanbul is significant. This geographical definition has held good for the whole of the twentieth century, and for the nineteenth century as well. For example, the large areas of the Balkans which formed part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s were treated for purposes of map-making as being part of Europe; and a map of «Russia in Asia» dating from the 1850s starts at the Urals.

3There is thus a straightforward and generally-accepted convention for the geographical definition of Europe, which forms a simple but useful starting-point for discussion.

4The phrase «actual limits» (limites véritables) raises more difficult questions. In British thought and instincts, there have been in the twen tieth century a number of zones of uncertainty, of very unequal significance.

5One which is just worth mentioning, though it implies no more than a slight shade of doubt, concerns Spain and the Iberian Peninsula. Travel books and historical works sometimes claim that «Africa begins at the Pyrenees». The reference is sometimes to the Moorish legacy in Spain, and sometimes to the hot and arid nature of the Peninsular climate. Even those who use it would not argue that it conveys anything more than a partial and figurative truth; and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Spain and Portugal form part of Europe. The phrase, though it deserves mention, need not detain us.

  • 1 H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe (revised edition in two volumes, London, 1943), vol I, p.4.
  • 2 Chris Cook and John Paxton, European Political Facts, 1918-1973 (London, 1975) consistently includ (...)

6The second area of uncertainty is much more important: Turkey in Europe, which at the beginning of the century meant the Ottoman Empire in Europe. In the period before 1914, the Balkan territories within the Ottoman Empire were often regarded as a sort of no-man’sland, where ancient European peoples and cultures had been subjected to a prolonged period of Turkish predominance. At that time, and for some years afterwards, the dividing line was seen as religious: an Islamic culture was not considered as being properly European. H.A.L. Fisher, in his widely read and influential History of Europe (first published in 1935, and rapidly and frequently reprinted) wrote of «The acceptance of the Christian test as a mark of European fellowship», which had determined the relations between Europeans and various Asiatic peoples which had at different times settled within the Continent1. When the present boundaries of Turkey in Europe were drawn after the First World War, and Turkey became a secular state, these questions lost much of their urgency; but the issue still remains of whether the cultural boundary of Europe (using the word «cultural» in its widest sense) coincides with the geographical boundary in this area2. More importantly, the implications of this apparently narrow geographical question are farreaching. If Fisher’s «Christian test» were still to be applied, where would the cultural boundary of Europe be found in (let us say) Bradford?

7The case of Russia and the Soviet Union provides a third zone of doubt. Is Russia part of Europe or not? Dœs Asia begin wherever the frontier of Russia may be found at any particular time? These questions are common in historical and cultural debate in Britain, and doubtless elsewhere. The discussion arises, and is constantly renewed, from within Russia itself, in the long-running disputes between Slavophiles and Westernisers. In our own day, the writings and the personality of Solzhenitsyn have confronted us with the question in particularly sharp and emotional terms. The break-up of the former Soviet Union and the re-emergence of a Russian state may well renew the issue, but change its geographical terms: will the frontier of Asia coincide with the borders of Poland and the Ukraine?

  • 3 Speech at Columbia University, quoted in The Memoirs of Sir Anthony Eden: Full Circle (London, 196 (...)

8Last but no means least, in British eyes the status of their own country presents another area of doubt. The sense that Great Britain is geographically within Europe, but culturally, historically and instinctively not of Europe has persisted throughout the twentieth century. It was stronger at the start of the century than it is now, and was expressed at that time in the phrase «splendid isolation» – an isolation supported by sea power, immense industrial and commercial strength, and an empire on which the sun never set. The realities behind the phrase were growing doubtful even in 1900, and have now vanished; but the sense of separation from Europe, though doubtless weaker, has by no means disappeared. It was in January 1952, to an American audience, that Anthony Eden made his famous remark about suggestions that the United Kingdom should join a federation on the continent of Europe: «This is something which we know in our bones we cannot do3». Forty years have passed, but the sentiment still awakens echœs. The matter is one of instinct and feeling, and therefore difficult to define; but it is none the less real for that. There is, for example, a strong tradition of popular historical writing, extending from Macaulay in the nineteenth century, through Arthur Bryant to Paul Johnson, whose history of England in its first version was entitled The Offshore Islanders. Ail these, and other writers of lesser fame and smaller sales, have presented English (and British) history as being significantly separate from that of Europe. This concept was long embodied in the syllabuses for school and university examinations, where there were different papers for British and European history.

9The commonly agreed area of geographical Europe is customarily divided into different zones, which are presumed to have their own characteristics. Scandinavia, eastern Europe, the Balkans, central Europe (or sometimes the Danubian states), Mediterranean Europe, western Europe – these designations have long existed in British thinking about the continent, though the precise definition of their boundaries is not always easy. (For example, Greece is at once Balkan and Mediterranean; and there is some doubt as to whether Finland is a Scandinavian state or not.) For the period between the end of the Second World War and 1989, the most obvious distinction was between western and eastern Europe, divided by the Iron Curtain, which could be seen on the ground and which appeared regularly in spy novels, films and television programmes.

2. Europe as a single civilisation, and the description of that civilisation

10For approximately the first half of the twentieth century there prevailed among educated circles in Great Britain a well-established idea of European civilisation. Its classic expression is to be found in Fisher’s History of Europe (cited above, n.2), which had a wide general readership and was much used in schools and universities. Fisher himself was a product of the classical and liberal traditions of the nineteenth century, and carried them forward into the present century as a Liberal Minister of Education under Lloyd George, and Warden of New Collège, Oxford. His History begins forthrightly: «We Europeans are the children of Hellas». The opening paragraph concludes thus: «There is an European civilisation. We know a European when we meet him. It is easy to distinguish him from a native of Pekin, of Benares, or of Teheran». The inheritance of classical Greece devolved upon the Roman Empire, and was then penetrated and influenced by the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. Here was the great trinity which provided the foundations of European civilisation: Greece, Rome, Christianity.

  • 4 These quotations are from Fisher, pp. 1-2, and see the whole of the Introduction.

11Fisher pursued his magisterial way. «Our civilisation, then, is distinct: it is also all-pervading and preponderant». The political influence of Europe and the gifts of modern European sciences prevailed throughout the world. «It is hardly excessive to say that the material fabric of modern civilised life is the result of the intellectual daring and tenacity of the European peoples4».

12This view prevailed in Britain as long as there existed an intellectual elite whose education was based on the classics (Greek and Latin) and the Bible; that is, the form of education provided by the independent and grammar schools, and by the universities, in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. This education was common to much of Europe; and those who received it knew that European civilisation existed, and that even in their offshore island they belonged to it. They were also confident in its superiority over other civilisations.

13That situation no longer exists. Fisher’s History of Europe is still in print, and is sold in paperback; but it must be doubtful whether its basic assumptions are now shared by most of its readers. During the past forty years, there has been a diversification (sometimes amounting to a fragmentation) of the content of education as prescribed in school and university syllabuses. These are now much more heterogeneous than formerly, with a larger number of subjects available for study, and a wide degree of choice of elements within those subjects. The earlier common ground of the classics and the Bible has largely disappeared; and with it the viewpoint from which Fisher and those like him comprehended European civilisation. At the same time, there has been a sharp decline in the old belief in European superiority, which has been under attack from both without and within. There has also been a rapid growth of a wider consciousness of the world as a whole, arising from greater speed in travel and almost instantaneous communication by radio and television. Phrases like «the global village» and «the shrinking of the world» have become commonplaces; and the idea of a separate Europeanness has been absorbed into a vague world consciousness, which has itself been reflected in educational syllabuses aspiring towards world perspectives.

14These changes have brought us to a paradoxical situation. The development of a movement towards European unity (in which Britain has shared, though with many reservations) has taken place at the same time as the disintegration of the idea of a single European civilisation. The former three-fold concept – Greece, Rome, Christianity – has largely lost its meaning, and has not yet found a successor. This state of affairs is not peculiar to Britain. Across much of Europe it is presumably the case that a superstructure of institutions is being raised at the same time as an important part of the foundation in a common civilisation is being eroded.

3. The other Community: The British Commonwealth

15The Commonwealth was for a long time a significant element in British self esteem, political influence and economic prosperity. As with the «special relationship» with the USA, reality and myth have become virtually inextricable so that what may reasonably be called the Commonwealth obsession deserves a brief examination. The following points are relevant.

16a. For a long time the old Imperial Preference system of tariffs and the sterling area as a means of organising foreign exchange played a vital part in British overseas commerce. It was, for example, in teh 1950s often the practice to calculate the balance of trade in terms of the sterling area and the rest of the world, as well as Britain and the rest of the world. To join the EEC threatened entrenched economic links with many Commonwealth trading partners. The case of New Zealand was the one that aroused sympathy in Britain though the Canadian prime minister Diefenbaker was the most aggressively critical of British membership of the Community.

17b. Empire-Commonwealth. This represented a continuons and influential thread in British politics. The movement for Imperial Federation began about 1900, and maintained an active life up to the Second World War. Between the wars, a group of considerable political and intellectual standing developed, including Leo Amery, John Buchan, and Lionel Curtis. Its guru, and almost its patron saint, was Jan Smuts, the South African statesman. Its journal was The Round Table. Chatham House acted in part as a vehicle for its ideas, publishing its Survey of Commonwealth Affairs, whose first volume was written by Keith Hancock, propagating his teleological view of the Commonwealth. Members of this group regarded the Commonwealth as the best and most promising form of international organisation, and thought that likeminded peoples (the Dutch, perhaps, or the Scandinavians) might be allowed to join.

18c. To many in the Conservative Party (the dominant political force in Britain throughout the 1950s) the Empire and then the Commonwealth remained potent symbols of British power and prestige. In 1942, in a speech directly targeted at the United States, Churchill had announced that he had «not become Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire»; the record of the governments that he and his successor, Sir Anthony Eden, headed after 1951 suggested that British conservatism remained committed to a reading of the international order in which Britain acted as a worldey wise Greece to the United States Rome and as a kindly guardian to the Commonwealth and Empire on which the sun continued to shine. Even after Harold Macmillan became leader of the Conservative Party in 1957 in the wake of the Suez disaster, the myth of Empire remained strong in sections of the Conservative Party. A senior minister, Lord Salisbury, resigned in disgust when Macmillan released Archbishop Makarios, the nationalist leader of Cypus, from detention in the Seychelles and the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook ran furious press campaigns against European entanglements that might threaten Commonwealth ties. Yet commitment to such Commonwealth ties was not the monopoly of the Conservative far right. The Conservative Party programme for the 1959 election was certainsly not «pro-european and neither did it propose an immediate programme of independence for British imperial possessions of Africa. A year earlier, Macmillan made a six week tour of the Commonwealth, travelling 35000 miles from India to Australia; it was the first (and last) visit of its kind ever made by a prime minister in office (Horne 83).

19The Conservatives remain the «patriotic party» and their conferences are full of nationalistic rhetoric, flags and songs. The Falklands War revived interest in Britain’s imperial triumphs. But interest in, and affection for, the Commonwealth as a symbol of national greatness has unquestionably declined. English nationalism is now based on insular rather than imperial identities and its most articulate exponent, the former Conservative minister Enoch Powell, rejects the Commonwealth as much as he dœs the Community. The entry of the newly independent African states meant that the Commonwealth’s political – and racial – complexion changed in ways that many Consevatives found distasteful. The readiness of the Commonwealth to criticise British policy over the illegal declaration of independence by Southern Rhodesia in 1965 and over trade and defence links with South Africa infuriated the nationalist base of the Party. But it also irritated two figures who have dominated British Conservatism since the mid-1970s, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. The hostility between these two is legendary and attitudes towards the European Community play a great part in explaining it. Yet one of the few things they had in common as Prime Ministers was a refusal to be «bullied» by the Commonwealth and a readiness to challenge the myth of its moral authority. A recent sign of the declining interest of government in the heritage of the Commonwealth was its willingness to contemplate the impoverishment of the Royal Commonwealth Society.

20d. The attitude of the Labour Party to the British Commonwealth was for a long time extremely, and perhaps surprisingly, positive. The innate anti-imperialism that gave rise in the 1950s to the League for Colonial Freedom was accompanied by a sense of pride in the Commonwealth as a free, and above ail multi-racial, organisation that rtanscended the rivalries of the Cold War. The achievement of the Attlee government of 1945-1950 in maintaining an independent India within the British Commonwealth was a source of great satisfaction to the Labour Party. Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963, expressed vehement opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community in the name of the moral internationalism represented in the Commonwealth. For socialists like Gaitskell, the Commonwealth gave Britain an entry into the community of the Third World, which is one of the reasons why they reacted with such hostility to the 1962 legislation restricting Commmonwealth immigration into the United Kingdom. Personal ties also counted for much in labour sympathies for the Commonwealth ideal. Gaitskell’s father had been a high minded administrator in India and many Labour politicians had connexions with the nationalist elites who came to power in the newly independent Commonwealth states of the 1960s.

21Particularly interesting is the case of Harold Wilson, Gaitskell’s successor as leader and prime minister from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976. As party leader, Wilson preached a futuristic gospel of socialism through science and technology and criticised what he saw as the outdatedness of British institutions. He might thus be expected to have been pro-European Community and to have regarded the Commonwealth as an irrelevance. Yet in fact the Commonwealth played an important part in his modernising vision of Britain. Shortly after becoming prime minister he came out firmly against devaluation on the grounds that it would be a betrayal of the Commonwealth, many of whose members held sterling balances. And in the debates over the future course of British policy that resurfaced with the economic, and monetary, difficulties of the mid 1960s, Wilson’s attitude was significant of a widely held, if imprecise, commitment of the Commonwealth. Ben Pimlott writes in his new biography of Wilson that «the prime minister had an attachment to the old. Dominions which went back to his youth; in addition he had a liberalsocialist, and internationalist, interest in the Third World, which he had acquired in Oxford Nonconformist circles (...). Many new states in Africa and Asia had only recently become independent, and were still quasi-democratic, as well as socialist-inclined. It was possible to see the Commonwealth, not as a sentimental association, or even just a trading area, but as a multi racial community and potential force in the world, and one in which there was a post-colonial role for Britain, guiding the development of poorer regions» (Pimlott pp. 433-434). It was this perspective that led Wilson to respond so vigorously to the 1965 unilateral declaration of independence by the settler regime of Southern Rhodesia.

22The policy implications of Wilson’s Commonwealthism did not survive the economic crisis of July 1966, which led to the second application to join the EEC; the growing indifference of public opinion to the constitutional crisis in Southern Rhodesia; and the growing sensitivity of immigration which led the Labour government to introduce further restrictions on the entry of Commonwealth citizens. Wilson remained, as the said at the time of the 1975 referendum on British membership of the EC, a sentimental «Commonwealth man» and it is significant that the leadership of the Party did not condemn the principles behind government policy during the Faklands crisis. But the immediacy of the Commonwealth has decrened: it is significant that the Commonwealth is not mentioned in the section of the Pimlott’s book dealing with Wilson’s second ministry of 1974-1976. The British Left defines itself in part in terms of its destination for the South African regime and admiration for Nelson Mandela. But its anti-racism and Third Worldism are no longer based on a commitment to the Commonwealth.

23Two other points should be noted. The Monarchy takes the Commonwealth ideal very seriously indeed. The Queen attends the summits of Commonwealth leaders and in her determination to do so in the early 1980s was prepared to clash with her then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She makes an annual broadcast to the Commonwealth and never fails to refer to it in other official speeches. More generally, there exists an extensive network of family ties linking Great Britain with the old White Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand – and also South Africa). Kinship ties are probably less extensive than they once were – and it is certainly the case that «expatriatriates» are likely to be found in the Dordogne as well as in Durban. But most British families probably still have relatives, however distant, in one or other of the countries of the (significantly named) White Commonwealth; British citizens originating in the «new Commonwealth» countries maintain similar links; and cultural exchanges of all sorts remain substantial right across the Commonwealth.

4. Concepts of internationalism up to the Second World War

24As far as the Empire-Commonwealth, discussed above, two other forms of internationalism made a significant impact on British concepts of internationalism.

25a. The Second (Socialist) and Third (Communist) Internationals. The British Labour Party, and its fore-runners, took part in the Congresses of the Second International, and Keir Hardie was a fairly prominent figure within it; but the relationship was of a semi-detached kind, lacking the degree of commitment and involvement present in continental Socialist parties. The influence of Comintern was markedly smaller, because although the British Communist Party was part of with the International, the party itself was of little political significance. Neither of these bodies was strictly European in membership, and both aspired to world-wide rather than European status.

26b. The League of Nations. Between the wars, the League was the greatest embodiment of the international idea in Britain. It was formally supported by ail the main political parties, and by the monarch. Its prestige, and the emotional commitment which it attracted, were such that hardly anyone dared to question or oppose it in public, whatever individuals might think in private. It was not, of course, a European organisation, though its principal members were European and its headquarters were in Geneva.

27The only group which was thoroughly European in outlook, and ardently aspired towards European unity, was Federal Union, small in numbers but prolific in articles, pamphlets and books on the subject of European federation. It achieved its greatest prominence during the period of the phoney war, when federalism emerged briefly as an attractive war aim. John Pinder has remained its standard-bearer, and has become its historian.

28With this exception, the main currents of internationalist thought and sentiment in Britain up to the Second World War were not strictly – or sometimes at all – European in outlook; a fact of some significance for the penetration of European consciousness in the country.

29For the «classical» view of Europe discussed in the above pages, see H.A.L. Fisher, History of Europe (3 vols, London, 1935, rivised ed., in 2 vols, 1943. For widely read and influential histories of England which emphasised differences between England (and Great Britain) and the continent, see G.M. Trevelyan, English Social History (London, 1944, first published in the USA and Canada in 1942), and Keith Feiling, History of England (London 1950). A much respected view of the Commonwealth as seen at the end of the 1950s may be found in Nicholas Mansergh, The Commonwealth Experience (London, 1959); and compare H.C. Allen, The Anglo-American Predicament: the British Commonweath, the United States and European Unity (London, 1960. Some more pratical and immediate aspects of British attituds to the continent may be traced in R.J. Lieber, British Party Politics and Europan Unity (Berkeley, Calif., 1970).


1 H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe (revised edition in two volumes, London, 1943), vol I, p.4.

2 Chris Cook and John Paxton, European Political Facts, 1918-1973 (London, 1975) consistently includes Turkey among European states, without feeling the need to offer any explanation. This is a standard work of reference by experienced writers. To include the whole of Turkey as a European state, if generally accepted, would mark a considerable change.

3 Speech at Columbia University, quoted in The Memoirs of Sir Anthony Eden: Full Circle (London, 1960), p.36.

4 These quotations are from Fisher, pp. 1-2, and see the whole of the Introduction.


Université de Liverpool

Université de Nottingham

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1993

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