3rd Dec 2022


Europeans: a theoretical identity

We may not have a European demos and, consequently, find it hard to create a European democracy, but we do seem to have something called a European intellectual.

Foremost among this is the German, Jurgen Habermas, described as a second-generation Frankfurt School philosopher. The Frankfurt School, founded in Germany in the 1920s was largely Marxist, though its members concentrated not on Marx’s historical and economic theories (which have been at the root of most of the twentieth century’s catastrophes) but on using a Marxist analysis of consciousness to subject social and cultural phenomena to criticism.

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On the whole, this, too, is an outdated way of thinking and analyzing but Habermas has used his aura of being the heir of such thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno to become Germany’s leading "public philosopher".

Habermas has teamed up with the leading French philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, to produce a manifesto on the new European identity. This was published simultaneously in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the left-wing French Libération.

Other European notables joined in, not so much debating the subject, as musing about it: from Italy Umberto Eco and Gianni Vattimo, from Switzerland Adolf Muschg and from Spain Fernando Savater. Jan-Werner Müller, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, a founder of the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin and the editor of a recently published tome, Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past, writing about this intellectual development in the European Voice, commented that "[a]pparently, not a single intellectual could be found in Britain at the time…".

A civilising counterpart to the US?

According to the theoreticians of the new European identity, it was born on February 15 this year in the many-million strong marches across the continent against the war in Iraq. Disregarding the demonstrations outside Europe and the fact that few of the demonstrators had any clear idea of what they were marching for, as opposed to against, Habermas called this the day on which a common European consciousness came into being.

Inevitably, this consciousness has taken on the role, unasked but necessary, of being a "civilizing" counterpart to the United States and is particularly suited to that role because of the painful European historical memories. It seems that recent European history, which has included wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, massacres, concentration camps, totalitarian systems and the Holocaust, has given the Europeans a peculiar capacity for recognizing and accepting differences.

A further aspect of the "civilizing" role of the new European consciousness, according to Habermas and his co-theoreticians is the Europeans’ ability and desire to trust the premier agent of secularization – in itself a welcome aspect of this new consciousness – the state. Americans, on the other hand, they imply, not having gone through all the horrors of the last century, do not trust the state and, therefore, presumably, do not accept fully the "civilizing" process of secularization.

Moreover, all the various horrors of European history have given the Europeans a stronger sense of threats to personal and bodily integrity.

There are many problems with this, as any other, definition of a common European consciousness and, particularly, of a new common European consciousness and Jan-Werner Müller in his article picks up several. In the first place, as he does not mention, a manifesto reeks of the early twentieth century when all sorts of parties, political movements, artistic and literary groups, all produced manifestos, most instantly forgettable, others entertaining, yet others, as it turned out, sinister in intent.

Intellectual turmoil

One cannot help feeling that to some extent Habermas and Derrida are harking back to that seductive period of intellectual turmoil around the First World War and are trying to impose its structure on the twenty-first century. Müller picks other holes. He points out, as many critics have done that the "new European consciousness" is little more than the old German social-democratic consensus and adds that it would be easier to produce counter-examples to the rather fuzzy vision of the supposed solidarity in existence.

Then there is the problem of anti-Americanism, surely a large and unattractive part of this supposed European commonality. It is notoriously more difficult to have a positive vision of identity than a negative one. We always know or think we know who we are not and, even whom we dislike; we do not always understand so clearly who we are and why.

Nation state

But Müller also adds other criticisms and this is perhaps where there may be a need for a British voice in the debate. Müller notes that the European Union is being endowed with all the conventional aspects of a nation-state, including its power to build a nation where none exists. This, he thinks, is completely out of date. Identity can no longer be decreed from above and, therefore, European intellectuals should stop agonizing about that. In fact, he points out, most of the discussion about the Union and its various aspects has been conducted in nineteenth century terms. Noticeably neither he, nor other European intellectuals mention the most important nineteenth century terms: democracy and liberty.

Instead of all this outdated terminology, Müller suggests, "Europe needs … a debate about the special nature of the political and economic instruments it has created – not least its ‘post-national’ modes of political coordination and its recipes for economic integration in the aftermath of a devastating conflict."

This, too, is questionable and outdated. What was created in the immediate aftermath of a terrible conflict does not necessarily accord with European or any other consciousness half a century later when most of the political and economic structures created at the same time are either under severe pressure or have disappeared. Why must we assume that certain structures created at a certain point of history are the final and ultimate ones? Surely that sort of historicism has been disproved both in theory and in practice many times over?

Then there is the question of those "special … political and economic instruments". Economic integration is not precisely a new idea and neither is a customs union. The political structures of the European Union are, to some extent different from most of the earlier ones but their future existence and development depends on rather old-fashioned ideas of legitimacy.

It is quite clear both from the negotiations that surrounded the Convention on the Future of Europe and from the agonizing intellectual mind games being played out in the various European publications that the new and special structures have no future. To preserve them in any way old-fashioned ideas of cultural identity and legitimacy have to be brought into play.

Inconvenient political ideas

Our political terminology has not changed much in the last two hundred and fifty years. What the European Union has tried to do is abandon the inconvenient political ideas: liberty, constitutionalism, democracy, precisely defined rights and duties and relationship between the state and the individual, as well as more detailed ones like accountability. Instead, it aims to introduce a political structure which is largely managerial – greater efficiency and transparency rather than political accountability and definition of various responsibilities are the much discussed phenomena. The cultural commonality, so dear to the heart of the European philosophers who pronounce on these matters, clarifies nothing and merely surrounds the reality of the new state that is being created with cloudy and vaporous imprecision.

Surely we do need a debate – a very open debate, which will deal not with un-argued assumptions about the "special nature" of the new structures and political tools, nor with badly defined European "civilizing missions". All that is grist to the mill of those bureaucrats who are trying to create what is, indeed, a new state, whose politics will be managerial and whose supposed cultural base will have little real content. The debate must concentrate on political ideas and the need for precision in definition. We must start defining what exactly the European Union is and, only when we have done so, can we start discussing – not assuming but discussing – whether this is precisely the way we want to be going.

Let me throw out the first question: what precisely is the point of what has become a new ideology, European integrationism? Over to you, European intellectuals.

HELEN SZAMUELY - a writer and researcher on political affairs, based in London and an occasional contributor to the


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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