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In the midst of history towards an active Europe

Bo Stråth
30 January 2002

“We have cows in Finland, too” argues Henrik Stenius – and if the statement is a bid for attention, it undoubtedly succeeds. It could have been more explicitly formulated: but it is implicit in his article that Europe is a discourse.

The concept is so diluted that it means anything and nothing. Europe is not essential. Its only meaning is as a contested political project, which must continue to be contested. The danger arrives when the questions cease.

Europe cannot be defined, for, as Nietzsche argued, what is definable has no history. This condition is not a weakness but the strength of Europe. Against this backdrop, the European café is a much better metaphor than the European fortress…

The same goes for entities like “British” (in Richard Kearney’s formation), Scandinavian (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) or Norden (Scandinavia plus Finland and Iceland). They are geographical concepts, which become contested as soon as they are given political meaning. Each must be seen as a community whose borders and content are permanently redefined, in processes of social and political bargaining.

Nevertheless, I read in Stenius’s interesting contribution a tendency not only to give essential proportions to the North, but also to idealise it in opposition to Europe. His critique of Barrington Moore over the latter’s contempt for small nations is no doubt justified. However, the American sociologist could be criticised on further, more fundamental grounds. In his view, developments are inscribed and pre-programmed in social and economic structures. Histories are pre-determined.

A closer look at the Nordic example, far from confirming any kind of essential or teleological view, suggests that histories emerge in contingent processes of continuous bargaining or violent strife. Borders and political content are ceaselessly redefined.

The so-called development trajectories are only discernible in retrospect, constructed in the light of what happened, through our ordering of events and facts. ‘Norden’ has no more inherent direction than ‘Europe’.

Let me demonstrate.

The Nordic model as history and stereotype

Norden is as indefinable as Europe. Since early modern times, Denmark and Norway constituted one kingdom; Sweden and Finland, another. This situation changed dramatically in the wake of the Napoleonic turbulence. Finland became a Grand Duchy under the Russian Tsar; Norway and Sweden constituted a monarchy; and Denmark was alone.

In the mid-nineteenth century, liberal nationalist dreams merged with conservative dynastic ambitions in a movement for Scandinavian unification, leaving Finland in the Russian shadow. (There were also voices who wanted to include Finland).

Scandinavianism collapsed as a project in the face of the Prussian/German show of military and political strength. The Norwegians broke away from Sweden in 1905. During the First World War a co-operative trend developed between the Scandinavian polities – whereas Finland entered a traumatic civil war.

This co-operation continued in the 1920s, while Finland identified increasingly strongly with its Baltic neighbours, with which it shared the experience of newly-won independence after the First World War.

The League of Nations was one important arena for Scandinavian co-operation. Scandinavian Social Democrats were active participants in what was perceived as a new, politically progressive, and peaceful Europe. They placed much more faith in international co-operation at this stage than during the Second International prior to 1914, sharing the same spirit that inspired German Social Democrats to speak about a United States of Europe in their Heidelberg Programme of 1925, or the spirit drove Aristide Briand and Edouard Herriot to their federalist visions.

Arthur Engberg – editor-in-chief of the Swedish Social Democrat organ Arbetet, and Swedish delegate to frequent meetings in Geneva – returned to the League of Nations in countless of his columns. The very idea of the League was, according to him, designed to “stretch a state organism over the international relationships, an international state”, which would gradually expand and strengthen its authority vis-à-vis the member states in order to “bring the anarchic conditions of international society under state order”.

In such formulations, Engberg indeed comes close to Jean Monnet’s vision and the creation of the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) more than twenty years later – but only, of course, after another world war. In calling for an organisation with “power and authority to guarantee the observance of international law” however, he also drew on a traditional current in Swedish political culture which emphasised state authority.

Confronted by the developments that took place to the east and south of Scandinavia in the 1930s, Social Democrats were forced to reconsider their hopes and political dreams. Instead of the Scandinavian states becoming members of a progressive Europe, as one strand of a European ‘Us’, Europe emerged in the 1930s ever more as the ‘Other’ in Social Democratic strategic thinking.

In this self-image constructed in the 1930s, a Protestant, progressive and labour-oriented Scandinavia emerged, juxtaposed against a ‘xenostereotype’ of a Catholic, conservative and capital-oriented Europe (‘the Continent’). Even today, this self-imposed demarcation has a certain force. Much of the popular resistance against the European unification project in contemporary Scandinavia must be seen in the light of this distinction between ‘Us’ and ‘Other’, constructed in a specific historical situation.

The Second World War impacted very differently on the Scandinavian countries, destroying the Scandinavian dream of a protected realm for progressive politics, and leading to a range of outcomes in the context of the new world institutional order after 1945.

Denmark and Norway became members of NATO, where the US guarantee of security was much more decisive than ideas of European solidarity. Sweden became neutral, as did Finland with its special situation in the geopolitical vicinity of the Soviet Union.

So when Henrik Stenius conjures up the image of a Nordic model, we have to ask: what is this model? Basically, it is a Social Democratic model of egalitarian societies built on consensus projected onto Scandinavian developments from Germany, Britain and France in the 1950s and 1960s. (When the international post-war order collapsed in the 1970s, a Japanese model similarly emerged as a projection of European dreams.)

Thus Nordic self-understanding began as a stereotype projected outside Norden, probably saying more about its authors than anything about the peoples in the North – although, of course, there was some empirical ground for the projection. These authors saw what they wanted to see and left out other elements in the selected field of vision. But over time the values of this projection came to be incorporated into Nordic self-understanding.

Any detailed historical analysis will reveal something more complex than the inexorable emergence of Social Democratic consensus societies. This is the complexity which it is important to emphasise, if we want to use ‘the North’ as an independent category in the European debate.

Beyond Norden: the dialectic of agreement

What values would I like to see promoted in a European debate? I share Stenius’s criticism of attempts to create a converging Europe based on the construction of a shared history and of common symbols. Cris Shore has convincingly and eloquently demonstrated how fragile, not to say ridiculous, elite attempts to construct political community easily become.

Here, in many respects, Stenius is battering at an open door. However, he briefly touches upon the real alternative when he talks of our need to agree on those things of which we disapprove. Here, in my view, is the key to the European debate.

The case of Jorg Haider, leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, was the first real sign of the emergence of a European public space. His rise to power was seen less as an Austrian than as a European threat.

A decade earlier, any critique of the Austrian government would have been regarded as interference in the affairs of another state, and therefore never uttered. The fact that the sanctions against Austria took an unconstructive form does not conceal the major change that had occurred.

This exercise was not repeated with the election of the Berlusconi government in Italy, but there is no doubt that the media magnate is seen as a European as much as an Italian concern. A European public sphere is about to emerge.

In Norden, as in Europe, the decisive point is not that its values are contested, because they are, but the framework in which these values, and this contestation, emerge. The process of integration and its institutional developments produces values, as well as the other way round.

In these hesitant reactions to a ‘European threat’, we see the slow emergence of a new European framework. We should recognise and exploit this framework. The political struggle, as in any democratic nation-state, itself cements the very arena in which that struggle takes place. This is how the European public sphere is built – out of strife.

An understanding of this is precisely what is missing from the recent debate about a European constitution, prompted by Jürgen Habermas’s model of a German Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional patriotism). German experience is simply offered as an exemplum for European construction.

Here, the risk is that the Holy Grail of a European constitution offers a kind of escape route from all the real problems which Europe is facing: ‘Let us write a constitution which will automatically create citizens’ commitment and a new patriotism which, in turn, will overcome all the problems…’

The European Council in Copenhagen in 1973 launched itself on the quest for a similar blueprint. But we must ask: what would it take to turn this quest into a reality? As Habermas himself emphasises, German constitutional patriotism was based on a social citizenship and a state guarantee of welfare provision in the framework of the soziale Marktwirtschaft (social market economy). Thus, a social Europe must come first in order to promote commitment to a European constitution.

If this is the case, how is the EU placed? The present trend is to regulate the euro and EMU with hard law and the rigidity of the Growth and Stability Pact, leaving the social dimension to be regulated through soft law and what might be referred to as a gentlemen’s agreement: a very fragile construction.

A much more robust, hard law regulation – a Social Pact as rigid as the Growth and Stability Pact – would be the necessary precondition for the kind of European social guarantee which could sustain a constitutional commitment among Europe’s citizens.

So I agree with Stenius that, in the construction of a European public space, it is really necessary to reach a deeper agreement on what we rule out of court. But when it comes to the wider question of ‘Otherness’ and its connection to our own democratic future, his argument that we must let Otherness remain Otherness is far too general, static and simplistic.

Europe and Others in a two-way mirror

In such dynamic processes nothing remains as it was. The global world at the beginning of the twenty-first century is different from the world of nation-states in the twentieth century. And central to our identities are images of others.

The idea, for instance, of a European identity, necessarily contains a demarcation from the non-European. This is inherent to all distinctions. They are both inclusive and exclusive. Europe can only be realised in the mirror of Others.

These projections will say more about their producers than about the targets they construct. However, ‘Others’ then often incorporate – even appropriate in their own self-identification – the stereotype projected upon them. This was my argument concerning the emergence of a ‘Nordic model’.

Of course, it is also the thrust of Edward Said’s thesis on the role of Orientalism: that it is not only an instrument of Western understanding of the Orient, but also something incorporated into Oriental self-understanding.

What currently could be more pressing than to acquaint ourselves with the impact of Islam in the construction of Europe; and its inverse, the many ways it impinged on the building of religious and modern discourses and institutions in both Europe and the Middle East? Images of Europe and images of Others intersect and reinforce one another.

So if Europe does not exist without non-Europe, and non-Europe does not exist without Europe, the great challenge is how to make this the starting point for bridge-building, not for demarcation. Earlier static concepts of strictly separated and self-entrenched civilisations (‘Europe’, ‘the West’, ‘the Orient’, ‘Islam’) must be superseded by more dynamic understandings of the potent meaning-producing processes that construct such entities.

Symbolic and geopolitical boundaries between these entities must be urgently reconsidered, and seen as historically and discursively shaped, rather than naturally given. Doing this would contribute to more transparent, less norm-laden interpretations and applications of concepts such as ‘civilisation’ and ‘modernity’.

This amounts to a research agenda, which would replace the idea of clashing civilisations with one focusing on multiple modernities – an idea first developed by Shmuel Eisenstadt. It would further concentrate on continuous processes of drawing and altering cultural and civilisational boundaries, where (as violent clash or peaceful competition) different civilisations emerge in historical processes through dense transcultural intersections.

What images of Europe and of the Other, in particular the Orient, would transgress established images of separated civilisational camps and promote intercultural dialogue? How can new preconditions for intercultural dialogue be established?

An active Europe: debate becoming demos

A tentative first answer to this question would go in the direction of a more active Europe. Not active in the old sense of propagating one specific European or Western development standard as the gauge for the rest of the world, but a new active Europe as a mediator and a bridge-builder in a global world.

The Enlightenment quest for improvement and mastery, with a fundamentalist and totalising core, would in this ‘new activism’ scenario be transformed into a communications specialism, based on a preparedness to listen to other views and promote dialogue among them.

Slogans like ‘cultural diversity and a common heritage’ or ‘unity in diversity’ would expand from terms used in a European self-reflection to take on a global dimension. In the long run the intercultural dialogue should rather become a transcultural dialogue transgressing established boundaries.

This active Europe would be an alternative to a militarily-active Europe. Of course, the politics of ethnic cleansing, genocide and terrorism must be condemned and if necessary prevented by force.

But why, for instance, did the intervention in Kosovo come when it did and not earlier? Why did the EU wait until it suited President Clinton to launch an intervention? The intervention in Afghanistan was more understandably an American concern – but Kosovo?

The Kosovo and the Afghanistan wars provoke a number of uncomfortable questions which – ambiguous, unclear and potentially divisive as they are – must be openly debated.

These wars have demonstrated that the former colonial powers of Britain, France and Germany constitute the core of the European Union, and that Italy has pretensions to belong to this core, pretensions less successful under Berlusconi.

This European structure in itself is hardly surprising, since the administration of Europe would be virtually impossible without these ‘big power’ experiences. The problem emerges when ‘big power’ experiences are, without reflection, transformed into new forms of ‘big power’ aspiration, both within the European Union and in relation to the Others outside it.

In what respects is the new wave of moralism different from the old colonial/imperial gunboat diplomacy? The current trend in international relations towards the guarantee of moral and human rights goes hand in hand with a Wild West mentality.

Are there any differences between the USA and the EU in terms of values, and, if so, what? The debate forum is open. This is one field where the Finnish cows remain in Finland, but where hesitant citizens in Finland and other countries must raise their voices into contention towards the development of European values.

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