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What is Europe?
What is Europe?

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2.2 Europe as a sequence of ideas (continued)

Europe after the Cold War

The ‘Europe’ of the second half of the twentieth century (limited for much of that period to the countries of the democratic West, and then not to all of them) had been founded on values of peace and mutual security; this was in full recognition of the dire consequences of established patterns of European nationalism and nationality-based politics more generally. After 1989 this feature spread to the east, such that the ‘defining characteristic of Europe today is democracy on a continental scale’ (Rose, 1996, p.5). The observation that major changes in European value-structures since 1945 have indeed been identified tends to support the view that a new, more inclusive Europe emerged towards the end of the twentieth century (Therborn, 1995, pp.278–9). The very success of this transformation and relative stability in the character of the values promulgated over this period, however, carried its own drawbacks.

The ready acceptance of more peaceful values during the decades that followed 1945, and the strength of the European movement that developed on that basis, meant that younger generations were now less conscious of the direct relevance of those values and perhaps less committed to them as practical principles for the conduct of European affairs. The promotion of human rights on an international basis within the United Nations also tended to weaken any specific European connotation. What were once European values had now become globalised, although the European human rights regime is still distinctive in international terms as it is incorporated into the legal systems of the individual European states.

The principles of capitalism and liberal democracy that dominated the 1990s in the new spirit of post-communist triumph were also not exclusively European and in many ways were sharply criticised from specifically European viewpoints. The ideas associated with the much discussed ‘end of history’ (that is, no clear alternatives to capitalist democracy were present on the global agenda) accurately reflected this relative void in negative terms, although it was in fact the positive victory of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy that was being proclaimed. An ‘end of history’ was identified only in this context. It was nevertheless appropriate that one of the progenitors of this line of thought – the French Hegelian Alexandre Kojeve – went on to declare an equivalent end to philosophy and took up employment in the administration of the EU (Fukuyama, 1992, p.67).

The identity of Europe as the embodiment of a particular system of values at the end of the twentieth century thus remained somewhat problematic. There is also a clear continuing contrast between Europe's strengthening institutional structures and more intensive processes of governance (at least so far as the EU is concerned) on the one hand, and the relative weakness and uncertainty of the values that underpin it on the other. To this extent, organisation has tended to substitute for value. Europeans can now accept democracy (Mazower, 1998, p.404) because they no longer believe in politics. Indeed, one prominent tendency for much of the post-1945 period and during the Cold War division of the continent was the increasing appropriation of the ‘European’ title by the countries of a growing EU as representatives of a supranational organisation that spoke on behalf of Europe as a whole including the more modernised west. It is a claim that gained further conviction as the process of enlargement advanced and the EU came to include formally excluded countries, leaving a diminishing (but hardly insignificant) number of countries on the margin in the ‘other’ Europe.

Although the European Union as a legal entity only came into being after the agreements reached at Maastricht in 1991, we shall use the term EU more generally to refer to the association as it developed throughout the post-war period.

But this idea of a core Europe led by the countries of the developed west was rooted in the realities of the Cold War (see Judt, 1996). This view will be examined in greater detail in Section 4 of this course. It has become more problematic with the changes of 1989–1991 and the disappearance of a Soviet Union committed to keeping the two parts of Europe separate. In the absence of a repressed, Sovietised Europe to buttress the idea of a free and autonomously developing west, the basis of any common identity remains uncertain and the claims of the EU in terms of values that much more fragile.

Attempts to redefine a contemporary Europe in terms of its values have not been lacking. The standpoint of Romano Prodi, installed as President of the European Commission in September 1999, represents one such effort and refers to a ‘Europe of the spirit’ characterised by a number of related ‘basic values’ which include:

  • the dignity of the human being,

  • the central role of the family,

  • education, and the freedom of thought and speech,

  • the legal protection of individuals and groups,

  • the collaboration of all for the common good,

  • work as a personal and social good,

  • state authority subject to the law of reason and limited by basic rights.

The concept has not attracted great attention in any ‘debate over Europe’. Furthermore, Prodi's particular contribution was sharply attacked for its lack of credibility and the number of contradictions it contained (Times Higher Education Supplement, 15 October 1999). More important, it also expressed a profoundly Catholic outlook which, at the outset of the twenty-first century, might be judged either divisive in relation to a notional European whole or irrelevant to its largely secular society. The very attempt to outline a system of values in contemporary European terms is itself significant, though, as is the general lack of public interest such an attempt attracts. While ideas of European values and the notion of a regional identity are claimed to occupy a major place on the current agenda, they fail to attract much public attention. Greater passions have been evoked by debate over what Europe is not and, like many identities, that of Europe has often been more strongly defined in relation to a non-European ‘other’ whose values are judged to be alien.