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Celebrating Europe! - 50th Anniversary of the Treaty of RomeSkip language selection bar (shortcut key=2) 01/02/2008
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Imagining Europe

Imagining Europe
Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philosopher – Birthplace: Beni Saf, Algeria


Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philosopher - Being European is not about steamrollering national differences into an artificial unity, nor about replicating national ties. It is a mindset which transcends frontiers by celebrating law, tolerance, secularism and humanity.

I wouldn’t begin with culture…We should always begin with what Europe should not be doing, if it is to do things well. Being one more nation state, for example.

An extra nation, a nation squared.

A sort of large nation to add to the small ones, adding some frills or even replacing them, and contenting itself, albeit at a higher and more visible level, with reproducing their characteristics, their tasks and their misdeeds.

Willing Europe and building Europe means breaking with all this.

To feel oneself European is a sense of being which, now, bears no relation to the ties born of national traditions.

What is the point of Europe if its mission is to give birth to a larger, more modern form of national allegiance which is essentially the same and whose only advantage is to be better adapted to meeting the particular challenges of an era and a moment in history?

What is the point of trying to live as a European of French origin rather than as a Frenchman or Frenchwoman (or German, or British or Italian or Luxemburger, whatever) if the whole object of the exercise isn’t to do away with the national framework, model and mindset?

Redefining patriotism

I am familiar with French patriotism (or German, or British or Italian or Luxemburger). I don’t know what European patriotism is, nor do I want to know, as that would spell the end of the project. Or perhaps I do want to know, or at least its homonym. Let’s keep the name, if we must, but use it to describe a different reality. A patriotism, stretching the definition, but ‘constitutional’ in the sense in which Dolf Sternburger uses it, then Jurgen Habermas and, before them, Julien Benda in his Address to the European Nation. To be European is to invent that new idea which, in Europe, is love not of a place but of a narrative; not of a land, but of a law; not of roots or, worse, of a race, but of a universe of principles and ideas put to the service of all. I am European in order to finish once and for all with the national and nationalist scheme of things.

Rethinking identity

A people has an identity. At least, it believes it has one. And in it lies its collective passion – its religion, literally, with all the fanaticisms that attend it.  Europe, though, has no identity. Or if it has one, or believes it has one, it needs to be disabused, to have its belief throttled and, literally, to be stripped of its identity.

Unite Europe? Would unity bring strength to Europe, as it does anywhere else? Yes and no. Not necessarily true, in a strict sense. And in any event not a unity born of fusion, or that benevolent universalism which operates like a bulldozer, flattening individual characteristics, liquidating individual names, gathering up all the diversity of the European world into a mass under a common flag – a mass all the more liberally shared out for being vain and empty of content. There is an essay by David Hume, published in 1742, entitled Of the Birth and Progress of the Arts and the Sciences which says exactly that. On one side China, he explains: a vast empire, one common language, with one common system of law and even one way of life. On the other, Europe with its customs, and its laws, irreducibly, jealously, definitively varied and unique. Well, says Hume, it is in Europe that we see progress. It is in Europe, he insists, that we find invention. Because it is Europe and only Europe which has produced this miracle of one community which can overcome irreconcilable differences.

We can call such a community ‘undeclared’ or ‘imaginary’ or ‘paradoxical’. We can, according to taste or our personal perspective, give the name that we like to its intrinsic restlessness. But it is still the case that the community that is Europe is not a source of identity. It is still the case that its organising principle is not to be found in sameness or in uniqueness. To be European is to be conscious of an indefinable coming together, where that which lends difference is as keenly felt as that which ties.

Repudiating borders

All human communities have a border. All have a territorial limit which literally defines every one of them. With the exception of Europe.

Only Europe has freed itself from that fatal obsession which earlier communities of men and women had with frontiers. And it has freed itself as a matter of principle and policy, for the very reason I have given – because it is an undeclared, inorganic, virtual community; because it draws its source from our minds rather than from our shoes; because it is that uncommunal community – atheist, sceptical of that which normally sanctifies communities and gives them meaning. It can only be a stranger to the language of borders… No homeland, no border.

No identity, no demarcation and no frontier; is a European someone who recognises himself in a certain idea of a shared life, of law, of the limitations of theology-politics, of secularism, of tolerance? If so, it becomes impossible to draw a line in the sand. Impossible to lay down once and for all who is inside and who is outside. Impossible, for this Europe which is now defined by humanity even more than by geography, to say ‘Here is my limit and this limit defines my continent’.

Revaluating homelands

The Greeks knew this. This is why Greek inventors of the word ‘Europe’ gave the name of Europa to a goddess and why they made that goddess the symbol not of a land but of a journey – effectively an illicit flight – and, most literally, the symbol of the crossing of a sea joining one land to another. (It is the reason why, incidentally, there can be no objection in principle to the accession of a Turkey which would pledge allegiance to the founding principles of European identity.)

Let Ankara align herself with the Rights of Man. Let her confront the genocidal ghosts of memory. Let her put a  definitive stop to the black tide of recrudescent anti-Semitism. Then Europe would have no reason – unless she wishes to deny her very self – to exclude Turkey from her metaphysical space and, therefore, her physical one.

Let me distil all this. If Europe is not a homeland, if she has neither a border nor an identity, it is because she is a political entity. A curious entity to be sure. A new entity, unknown in bestiaries or treaties, an unidentified political entity – a chimera, literally – which it now falls to us to construct.

But what is certain is that it is a political project – a project completely different from that ‘civilising mission’, murky and intellectually dubious, which faux-Europeans tiresomely advocate. If we were starting all over again, I would definitely not begin with culture.

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