Is There a European Identity, Is there a Europe?

PRAGUE - Do Europe's peoples truly regard themselves as ‘Europeans', or is this a fiction which attempts to transform geography into a ‘state of mind'. This question is often posed in connection with debates concerning the amount of sovereignty that nation-states can, or should, transfer to the European Union. Many say that if national affiliation is pushed into the background too fast in favor of an unfamiliar, perhaps chimerical, concept of European affiliation, it might not end well.

When I ask myself: ‘To what extent do I feel European, and what links me with Europe?", my first thought is a mild astonishment at the fact that it is only now that I ponder this question. Why didn't I think of it long ago, in those times when I began to discover the world? Was it because I regarded my belonging to Europe as a surface matter of little significance? Or did I take my European linkage for granted?

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My entire background was so self-evidently European that it never occurred to me to probe my thoughts. Not only that – I have a feeling that I would have looked ridiculous if I had written or declared that I was European and felt European; or, in fact, if I professed explicitly a European orientation. Such manifestations would have appeared pathetic and pompous; I would have regarded them as a haughtier version of the kind of patriotism that I dislike from national patriots.

Such hesitation apparently holds true for most Europeans: they are so intrinsically European that they are unaware of it. They do not call themselves Europeans. When asked in opinion polls, they show mild surprise that, all of a sudden, they should declare their European affiliation.

Conscious Europeanism has little tradition, so I welcome the fact that European awareness is rising from the indistinct mass of the self-evident. By inquiring about it; thinking about it; by trying to grasp its essence, we contribute to our own self-awareness. This is immensely important – especially because we find ourselves in a multi-cultural, multipolar world in which recognizing one's identity is a prerequisite for co-existence with other identities.

If Europe, until recently, paid so little attention to its own identity it was because it incorrectly saw itself as the entire world; or, at least, considered itself to be so much superior to the rest of the globe that it felt no need to define itself in relation to others. Inevitably, this had deleterious consequences on its practical behavior.

Reflecting on Europeanism means inquiring into the set of values, ideals and principles that characterize Europe. It entails, by definition, a critical examination of that set of thoughts, followed by the realization that many European traditions, principles, or values may be double-edged. Some of them – if carried too far or abused in certain ways – can lead us to hell.

In this effort of reflection, emphasis must be placed on the spiritual dimension and the underlying values of European integration. Until now, European unification, and its meaning in the wider context of civilization, has been hidden behind technical, economic, financial and administrative issues.

When unification began after WWII, democratic Western Europe was faced with the memory of the horrors of two world wars, and with the threat of Communist totalitarian rule. Back then, it was unnecessary to speak about the values to be defended, because these were self-evident. It was necessary to unite the West in order to prevent the spread of dictatorship, as well as the danger of a relapse into old national conflicts.

So, in its infancy, the European Union held much the same attitude that I held toward my European background. Europe's moral justification was self-evident; it did not need to be professed. Because Western Europe was defending something equally self-evident, there was no need to describe or analyze it. It was not until the physical threat to Europe disappeared a decade ago that Europe was prompted to engage in profound reflections upon the moral and spiritual foundations of its unification, and what should be the objectives of a united Europe.

The basic set of European values formed by the spiritual and political history of the continent is, to my mind, clear. It consists of respect for the unique human being and humanity's freedoms, rights and dignity; the principle of solidarity; the rule of law and equality before the law; protection of minorities; democratic institutions; separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers; political pluralism; respect for private ownership and private enterprise, and a market economy; and the furtherance of civil society. These values mirror countless modern European experiences, including the fact that our continent is now a multi-cultural crossroads.

In defining what it means to be ‘European', a crucial task is to reflect upon the double-edged nature of what we have gavin the world, to realize that Europe not only taught the world about human rights, but also introduced the Holocaust; that we generated spiritual impulses not only for the industrial and information revolutions, but also to plunder and contaminate nature; that we incited the advance of science and technology, but also ruthlessly ousted essential human experiences forged over several millenniums.

The worst events of the 20th century – World Wars, Fascism, and Communist totalitarianism – were mostly Europe's doing. During the last century, however, Europe also experienced three auspicious events, though all were not exclusively European accomplishments: the end of colonial rule; the fall of the Iron Curtain; the beginning of European integration.

A fourth great task lies ahead. Through the manner of its being, a unifying Europe must demonstrate that the dangers generated by its contradictory civilization can be combated. I would be happy if the people of my country, who are Europeans, could participate in this process of reflection, of defining a European identity, as Europeans fully recognized by Europe.

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