Who are Europeans?
Who are Europeans?

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Who are Europeans?

1.3 Being in Europe, being European

1.3.1 Europe and the EU

Is there a Europe beyond the EU? This is a question that becomes more and more difficult to answer. It is quite common for example to hear of such or such a country wishing to ‘join Europe’, when what is meant is that they wish to apply to join the EU.

The criteria for joining the EU were laid down in the summit of Copenhagen, 21 and 22 June 1993. Candidates must have reached an institutional stability that guarantees democracy, legality, human rights, and the respect and protection of minorities; they must have a functioning market economy and the ability to withstand the competitive pressures and forces of the Union market; and finally, candidates must be able to fulfil the economic, political and monetary obligations of the Union.

Turkey's desire to join the EU provides an interesting case study. Different Turkish governments have pursued, at least since the 1960s, the objective of being a part of first the EEC and later the EU. Not until 1999, however, did the EU give the green light to Turkey to start negotiations with a view to joining the community. (At the other end of the spectrum, the UK joined the EEC in 1973 but a variable part of the intelligentsia, politicians and public opinion still see themselves as non-European and against the idea of an EU, unless it is limited to a pure common market.)

To many Western observers Turkey is, if anywhere, on the margins of Europe. It is envisaged as an Islamic country that traditionally, in its Ottoman incarnation, was the fiercest and most important adversary of Western Christendom. The Ottoman Empire was characterised by extreme cultural heterogeneity, incorporating many ethnic groups. The sense of belonging, however, was based not on nationality but on religion, and more specifically the Muslim idea of umma or community of the faith. Within the Ottoman Empire the Turks were the ruling ethnic group, although they had no interest in spreading their culture throughout the Empire because Islam already cemented its fabric.

By the early nineteenth century, and in the context of European philhellenism, the romantic movement that favoured Greek independence, the Turks were vilified. The foundations of a reactive and invented Turkish nationalism were laid by the end of the nineteenth century. After the First World War modern Turkey made its appearance. Led by Kemal Attaturk, the new republic was meant to represent a clean break with past authoritarianism; it was meant to be a progressive, secular and popular-based republic, in which the state would still have the economic upper hand. An important political blunder was the idea that all those people who lived within the Turkish border were ethnically Turks, while in fact there were many ethnic groups (the Kurds being the most numerous one).

In the context of the Cold War, Turkey became a staunch American ally and the pillar of NATO's south-eastern flank. Turkish relationships with Western Europe were friendly, at least until the Greco-Turkish dispute over Cyprus tended to poison them in so far as Western countries sided mostly with Greece. Because of its Ottoman past, the perception that it is an Islamic country, its poor human rights record and the issues of Kurdistan and Cyprus, Turkey was seen as a non-European country. However, the Turkish elites, both left and right, have long seen themselves as modernisers and failed to understand why the EU rejected them for such a long time. They also argued that the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey was partly the result of the European community's failure to accept them as a member (Keyder, 1993).

In December 1999, at a meeting in Helsinki, the EU decided to accept Turkey as a candidate for membership. However, accession was conditional on Turkey satisfying a number of tough conditions. Another twelve countries, from Central and Eastern Europe, are also negotiating access to the EU; most of the countries could become members between 2004 and 2010.

Accepting Turkey as a candidate raises the issue of how far the EU can extend itself. Russia also has a foot in Europe and could, in due course, apply for membership. If the only criteria are those decided at the meeting in Copenhagen in 1993, could not Morocco, or Israel or Lebanon become members as well in the future? Geographically they may not strictly be in Europe, but are not also Britain and Ireland detached from the continent? As to their past, North African countries were influenced by Greece, saw the birth and spread of Judaism and Christianity, and were part of the Roman Empire, and so on.

Any approach to the study of European unity and diversity must tackle the issue of what exactly is this entity called ‘Europe’ – how should we conceptualise it, and what are the distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from other regions of the world? However, we have also seen how difficult it is to delineate the external boundaries of the continent, to the point that the officials of the EU have given up this endeavour.

To say that Europe is at the same time one and diverse is a truism. Many things unite Europeans – a common civilizational heritage, the attachment to liberal-democratic values and the will to overcome past conflicts. However, the construction of Europe cannot ignore the national diversities of culture and language. Europe can only move forward if the different peoples that constitute it do not sense that they are being railroaded into becoming identikit Europeans. Furthermore, as the EU expands further east, to include even Turkey, its own identity will have to be redefined, becoming more inclusive.

In the past, one way of looking at what united Europeans was to consider who they were fighting against. Historically, Islam was the classical enemy. In the twentieth century, it was the struggle first against fascism and then against communism. At present there are three main factors which some authors maintain unite Europeans: increased economic relations between the different European states, increased information exchange through the mass media, and personal contact through tourism, study, work and so on. At the same time, it is also the case that these exchanges are intensifying at a global level. So perhaps the most significant factor to apply to Europe specifically is the increasing integration at a political level through agreements and treaties, and an increasingly vigorous drive toward legislative and institutional standardisation, particularly within the EU. So, will increased integration within the EU act as a catalyst to greater homogeneity within Europe or will it exacerbate differences between EU members and non-members?

What, then, is the extent of the differences within Europe today? The general consensus is that with the collapse of Soviet communism after 1989, market economies and liberal democracy are the dominant principles of organisation for Europe as a whole, independently of how long it might take for some of the Eastern economies to implement these principles. However, this begs the question of whether these changes will eventually result in significantly levelling Eastern and Western Europe and making for a more homogeneous whole. A persistent factor of differentiation within Europe is the socio-economic level of development as expressed not only in the per capita GNP but also in what is usually referred to as ‘quality of life’ (standard of living, level of education, state of health, access to cultural facilities and so on).

At the cultural level there are also important historical differences, although there are some indications that these may be, if not fading away, at least attenuating. For example, with respect to religion it is possible to distinguish three major historical religious groupings: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, we can isolate three major groups: the Romance, Germanic and Slavonic languages. Up to a point a correlation can be established between religion and language group, with the consequence that on the whole there is an overlap between Catholicism and Romance languages, between Protestantism and Germanic languages, and Orthodoxy and Slavonic languages.

As the historian Hugh Seton-Watson (1985) has noted, the word ‘Europe’ has been used and misused, and interpreted or misinterpreted from so many different perspectives, that its meanings appear to be both legion and contradictory. What is particularly interesting to note, both historically and sociologically, is the way in which the ‘idea of Europe’ as a political ideal and mobilising metaphor has become increasingly prominent in the latter part of the twentieth century. Much of the catalyst behind this has undoubtedly been the growth of the EU which has rendered even more urgent and problematic the question of defining Europe. One effect of this, which increased with the advance toward the millennium, has been a growing number of speeches and books by European leaders setting out their ‘visions’ of Europe. The Treaty of Rome states that ‘any European country is eligible for membership to the EC’, yet it fails to specify what ‘European’ means. Given the perceived economic and political advantages of membership, it clearly matters to some governments on which side of the ‘European/non-European’ divide their country falls.

To some extent, therefore, ‘Europe’ might be considered an example of what Victor Turner called a ‘master symbol': an image that succeeds in embracing a whole spectrum of different referents and meanings. The boundaries of ‘Europe’ change according to whether it is defined in terms of institutional structures, historical geography, or observed patterns of social, economic and political interaction. In each case, a somewhat different ‘core’ area emerges. In spite of that, Europe can be defined as a distinctive civilizational entity, one united by shared values, culture and psychological identity. Guibernau stated that it is possible to point to Europe's heritage of classical Greco-Roman civilization, Christianity, the Renaissance, the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the triumph of science, reason, progress, liberty and democracy as the key markers of this shared European legacy. Significantly, these are all features which EU officials emphasise as being particularly representative of ‘the European idea’ as they see it (Goddard et al., 1994).


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has nearly 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus