The lie of the land
Europe is united only by its contradictions
Even snobs who think that the mud-and-vodka belt is inhabited by barbarians would have to admit that anything that excludes Switzerland and Norway isn’t complete. The label is meaninglessly elastic. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development stretches to include such unlikely Europeans as Turkmenistan and Mongolia. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has (thankfully) a strong American presence.
So “Europe” means nothing geopolitically. Nor does it make sense in internal politics. The Belarus autocracy is “un-European”? Hang on: Belarus is the historic core of the late lamented Grand Duchy of Lithuania, once the largest state in Europe, an early modern superpower that was multicultural and multi-confessional before its time. Calling Belarus “un-European” is like calling Virginia “un-American”.
If only the Belarusian regime were more “un-European”. The idea that “Europe” means deeply-rooted multiparty democracy and strong institutions is fanciful, even if you look only at the past 15 years. Try finding a common political theory that encompasses Britain, Serbia and Belgium over that period. Look back over a century, and Europe is better termed the cradle of totalitarian dictatorship and mass murder.
What about the European Convention on Human Rights: surely that embodies the European ideal? Not a bit of it. Countries outside Europe (mostly, but not only, former British colonies) uphold those ideals better than some European countries that have signed up to it.
“Europe” means equally little when it comes to economic models. It is dirigiste and free-market, flexible and calcified, low-tax and high-tax, celebrating both private property and its confiscation.
“Well, what about creativity”, the Europhiles whinge, “surely the common European tradition is the wellspring of world culture?” True: there were at some points some common trends across the continent—the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, perhaps.
Thereafter, though, such trends were not European, but products of their time. They stretched across oceans to the Americas and India and beyond. European languages such as English and Spanish, when they reached other continents, produced great literature there too.
For those who use “European” as a term of approbation, surely faraway Canada and New Zealand are much more “European” than, say, Albania. But the map doesn’t lie. Albania is between Greece and Italy, the historic hearts of everything the Europhiles count their own.
Maybe distance doesn’t matter—maybe Vladivostok is a European town on the Pacific, and Tirana is a Levantine city in the heart of Europe? Fine, but then the European argument becomes even weaker. If Europe means anything at all, it is a place on the map, stretching from the Atlantic to the beginning, middle or far end of Russia depending on your outlook and upbringing.
In short, there are too many exceptions inside the definition, and too many outsiders who share the same qualities. If “Europe” means “tolerant”, “modern” or “civilised”, then say so—and be prepared to meet many “Europeans” who are anything but.
The more you think about it, the harder it is to find any meaningful use of the words “Europe” or “European” and anyone using them is probably trying to sell you something. Be particularly alert if they are used by someone from the rich west, talking to the ex-communist east. What they mean is “we got here before you”. To which the answer—especially if you are from the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania—should be: “No you didn’t”.