A decade ago I would not have emphatically expressed my love of Europe. But things have changed. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise in parts of Europe, Brexit has happened, austerity policies have ruined the fabric of society especially in Southern Europe, people have died in terror attacks, xenophobia is widespread and refugees are detained on Europe’s borders, a shocking breach of the Geneva convention. All that is reason for sadness and shame, and these are feelings I regularly have when checking the news. But perhaps because so much freedom and dignity is in danger, love is what I feel foremost.
My father, who taught classics in secondary school, once told me how he saw teaching Greek humanism as his calling. He had experienced war as an adolescent and like many of his generation he wanted to contribute to a Europe free of war. Keeping alive history and tragedy written on both sides of the Mediterranean thousands of years ago was his personal answer to the horrors of the war. I did not often listen to my father’s lectures, because he spoke too much, but his calling stuck in my mind. And my father’s love of the French language and landscape made us go to the beaches of Brittany or the gorges of the Dordogne during long summer holidays. So probably some of the love of Europe that I feel has been nurtured in me since I was a child, and I realize the privileged conditions.
My feeling of love for Europe thus lingered in me subliminally until recently. I liked to see myself as a world citizen, rather than a European. But in the current situation it feels there is something to stand up for. In his book A Heart for Europe, sociologist Dick Pels details the backgrounds and reasons for what he calls Europatriotism. A drawing of a princess Europa, holding a surprised and silly looking bull above her head figures on its cover. For Pels, this image captures Europe’s horizon: “it anticipates the taming of the bulls (or bullies?) of this world by a strong woman called Europe, the attractive heiress of European freedom, democracy and prosperity”[i]. This surely is an attractive image, and it does convey a power that is both firm and gentle.
I gladly embrace Pels’ Europatriotism, also its civilizational ideal of “democratic virtues such as openness, modesty, curiosity, self-critique and tolerance, and learn[ing] to resist absolutism, authoritarianism and xenophobia”[ii]. But there is one aspect of his Europatriotism that bothers me. That is Pels’ assertion that it is necessary to “draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’”[iii], because it would somehow be ‘naive’ not to draw a line. Since there is already so much ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this world, would it not be wiser to be looking for common ground while building on the civilizational ideal? Is it necessary to focus on differences and demarcations to enact a firm identity? Pels himself presents the sociological insight that identities can be layered[iv] and the political insight that ‘the people’, also the people of Europe, is a collection of minorities[v]. If Europe’s soul is a normative ideal, a never ending project, rather than an objective essence[vi], could we not live with some indeterminacy on where it begins and ends? Perhaps we could say the people who died in Ukraine on the Maidan waving the European flag died as Europeans. Perhaps becoming European is a life-long challenge for all of us.
[i] Dick Pels (2016) A Heart for Europe. The Case for Europatriotism Bristol: Good Works Publishing Cooperative, p. 25
[ii] Idem, p. 105
[iii] Idem, p. 19
[iv] Idem, p. 20
[v] Idem, p. 76
[vi] Idem, p. 16