The nature of Europe became one of my preoccupations through lockdown, in part for family reasons as my partner, Judith Herrin, finalised a history of its origins: Ravenna, Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe. Originally intended as a brief explanation of the unequalled concentration of the Italian city’s dazzling, early Christian mosaics, it took her nine years and turned into a reframing of the emergence of ‘West’ and ‘East’ between the fourth and eighth centuries.
As the arrival of page proofs and the correction of chronologies gripped our domestic life, the European Union confronted a far more important, indeed life or death moment. The impact of Covid 19 has intensified existing inequalities. It does so within societies and it is doing so between the countries of the EU. Under these circumstances, as President Macron was right to insist, should the EU prove incapable of becoming a zone of solidarity it would lose all justification and break apart. The stronger economies have to find a way to assist the weaker.
After five days of debate Europe’s leaders agreed that the EU should issue bonds worth €750 billion to assist member states' recovery from the impact of the pandemic – to be distributed on the basis of their need – but not to mutualize their separate debts. The experts responded in line with their predilections. Tim Garton Ash lauded German wisdom, Yanis Varoufakis was scornful of the deal, Ambrose Evans Pritchard foresaw a reckoning postponed, George Soros judged it inadequate, blaming the selfishness of the ‘frugal’ northern states. All agreed the EU had survived to live another day.
It struck me this part-success part-failure might be neither, and that Europe’s nature is to preserve not resolve the tension between the nations and the Union; that the continent thrives only when neither overwhelms the other.
If so, the familiar arguments are trapped in a false binary. Opponents of the EU, like the UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost, see it as sucking sovereignty out of democratic nations whose self-government we should “revere”. Advocates of Brussels like Guy Verhofstadt, who chaired the EU’s Brexit group, see its nations as unable to defend democracy in a “world of empires”. Both share the binary opposition – one wants nation states the other the EU to predominate.
But what if both are mistaken and Europe is about the coexistence of different cultures of authority and not the supremacy of one or the other? Judith Herrin’s study focuses on the centuries before 800 AD which first saw the emergence of a recognisable western Europe. It suggests that the tension between ethnic particularity and imperial unification is built into its origins.
But what if... Europe is about the coexistence of different cultures of authority and not the supremacy of one or the other?
The figure in her analysis who most gripped my imagination is Theoderic the Great. In the 480s this Gothic king led his people from north of the Danube to occupy Ravenna. It is a city on the Adriatic just south of Venice (which did not yet exist). From there he ruled all of Italy and Sicily, southern France, Spain and part of the Balkans. But he did so in the name of the emperor in Constantinople; the then capital of the Roman Empire where he had been trained and educated as a hostage.
For thirty years, Theoderic refreshed imperial administration while settling his Gothic followers and legislating for mutual toleration. An Arian Christian, he triggered a competing celebration of power and belief in the golden mosaics of Ravenna’s churches and palaces.
Another chapter in Ravenna is dedicated to a man, possibly a monk, known as the ‘Anonymous Cosmographer’. Working in what he described as the “most noble Ravenna”, he mapped the whole Mediterranean world and its outer regions – including “Britannia, which is in Europe”. That was in the late seventh century. He was a product of both Gothic and Greek influence, whose place names he knew, while writing in Latin.
Later, after 800 when Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome, he went straight to Ravenna to take its marble and its statue of Theoderic with him as he headed back to Aachen (in north Germany).
Judith Herrin argues that Charlemagne, a Frank, saw in Ravenna a purpose-built Christian capital to inspire his own, while on the walls of San Vitale he witnessed the famous mosaic of the Eastern Emperor Justinian, setting out the image of how imperial power should present itself.
Her history is carefully pieced together and free of my sweeping claims about the present. Nor is the picture she draws a peaceful one. But she sets out how, thanks to the overarching influence of what we now call Byzantium, when Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks and Lombards replaced the Roman Empire with their own energetic cultures they created a Latin Christendom that always combined different languages and cultures with shared belief in authority.
If this is the tap root of our present continent, then the five days it took the leaders of the EU member states to agree to the new bonds was not an inefficient waste of time but a confirmation of Europe at its best. Always frustrating but always worth belonging to.