Europe doesn’t exist

Only the European Union – as a collection of laws useful to citizens – is real, argues Dutch philosopher Hermand de Regt. To believe that we can move the Union forward by thinking on the question of Europe’s identity could well be a disastrous mistake.

Published on 29 May 2009 at 15:03

With their “no” vote in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution, The Netherlands have, through the intervention of Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, given up on the idea of a European identity. And so much the better. Instead of trying to figure out what Europe represents, we would be better off re-examining, in the spirit of Monnet and Schuman, what the European Union needs to do in order for people to actually notice its “existence”, in order to drive home to them what needs to be done to maintain peace and prosperity in their region – whatever the size of that region.

Minister Verhagen has proposed focusing more on “Europe in practice” than “Europe in principle”. It’s a good thing to focus on the founding idea of the European Union: the security and prosperity of the Member States’ inhabitants. To say Europe does not exist has no concrete consequences, whereas to say the European Union does not exist is quite simply stupid: there very well does exist a set of agreements and treaties between its Member States.

Of course intellectuals try to make us believe in “the identity of Europe” (as George Steiner does in his equally playful and masterful essay The Idea of Europe (Nexus Institute, 2005)). They allude to the milestones of history: the emergence of democracy in Greece and science in Italy, the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France or the treaties concluded in the aftermath of World War II.

They talk about the “European school”, a European mentality based on a canon or on the discovery of a specific relationship between religion, the State and science. As persuasive as that may appear, however, I don’t buy it at all. Europe does not exist as something tangible. But the European Union does.

As the Turkish question has demonstrated, the very search for “the quintessence of Europe” can have a paralysing effect. Many people stress that Turkey does not share our “European” way of viewing the world, e.g. on the issue of human rights. Others contend that Turkey has not learnt the European lessons of history. But in reality, it does not matter much. After all, the European Union has nothing to do with any supposed “essence of Europe”, whether grounded in philosophical or historical reflection.

The European Union is a means, discovered in pain by a certain number of nation-states, of coping with certain problems, particularly the risk of war and economic crises. Hence, the object of the European Union is not to embody Europe in the most “essential” way. The EU is quite simply a pragmatic circle, with a set of conditions for admission.

In the aftermath of World War II, the big question was: “What to do with Germany?” So the French minister of foreign affairs, Robert Schuman, called in Jean Monnet, a French statesman and businessman, to give form to a “united Europe”. This initiative culminated in 1951 in the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), whose goal was to raise the standard of living in “Europe” and give it military and political stability. Everyone who espoused this idea (peace for economic prosperity) could take part.

To think one can advance the cause of the European Union by continuing to meditate on what truly defines Europe could prove a catastrophic mistake. Catastrophic in the sense that the European Union could see a decline in the standard of living across the board or, still more ruinous, the circle could fall apart and its members take up arms again.

So national politicians should see about finding new ways to explain the importance of the European Union to its citizens. For no-one can blame us for leaving the club if it has nothing to offer us. Fortunately, the campaign for the 4 June European elections would seem to offer plenty of occasions to explain once again what the European Union can do for its inhabitants. So, Politicians, make the most of this opportunity!

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