Europe: an identity against civil war

Josep Ramoneda
1 June 2005

In order to be assured of at least the possibility of becoming just another citizen in a world free from the spectre of blood and the bewitchment of horror, he could only anticipate the destruction of the existing world.

These are the words, slightly paraphrased, of Hannah Arendt. The citizen to whom she refers, the “man of goodwill”, is Franz Kafka. Kafka died in 1924 and thus did not live to see the collapse he foresaw; neither did he see the destiny that was in store for his city, Prague, doomed to linger for so long in suffering. Now that Europe is at last becoming whole, this evocation of Kafka helps to remind us that the great founding myth of Europe has been that of the taboo against civil war.

The “no” votes in France and the Netherlands over the proposed treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union demonstrates the enormous difficulty of progressing towards constructing a European cosmopolitanism based on shared experience. Yet this is the only possible way for Europe to overcome the contradictory impulses that challenge it: a flight into globalisation versus a retreat into nationalism (the latter being, as Olivier Roy has pointed out, the most serious risk Europe faces).

The injection of more democracy into the process of uniting Europe will encounter obstacles and diversions along the way – which the French and Dutch results can be seen to represent – but it is essential that Europe proceeds by devising a minimal framework that can accommodate but also go beyond the cultural exceptions of each nation.

The meaning of a taboo

If it is true that identities are defined in opposition to something or somebody, the identity of Europe has been defined in opposition to civil war. I say “civil” because, if we Europeans really wish to form a shared “demos”, then wars between Europeans are civil wars (perhaps it is significant that in China, what was first known as “the great war”, then as “the first world war” – the combat of 1914-18 – was long referred to as “the European civil war”).

Europeans have been killing each other for centuries. But it took the Nazi extermination of the 1940s, which went beyond all limits in the exercise of evil, for Europeans to realise the need to construct a Europe that would define itself in opposition to the massacre of Europeans, to industrial-scale genocide, and to the conversion of “crimes of logic” (Albert Camus) into state imperatives. Thus, after 1945 and taking shape from the early 1950s, the new Europe was born.

Civil war – a clash between members of the same community rather than between states – is the worst of war’s many horrors. Human beings inhabit spaces that are delimited by belonging, which slowly have been expanding: family, community, city, nation. From the moment that Europe becomes common territory, any war between European states will be at least in part a civil war. With the construction of the European Union, civil war in Europe became – and remains – unthinkable.

In order to establish this taboo, however, it was necessary to descend to the seventh circle of hell that the Nazi era represented. The European Union is, in its origins, a huge market (and it is difficult to make of it anything more than a market) but it also entailed from the very start a profound moral component: “never again”.

In the 20th century, Europe demolished the idea of limits. Totalitarianism started from the idea that anything is possible. Reason ceased being critical to become the legitimiser of the will to power, of systemic injustice. As accomplice to extermination, reason died. When the reality of Nazi genocide came to light after 1945, the idea that this could never be repeated took root in the consciousness of citizens. If the European Union has any meaning today, it is precisely this: the taboo against civil war.

The lesson of Buchenwald

The sense of the European demos that is now under construction was already present in 1945, in Albert Camus’s Letters to a German Friend.

When Camus wrote “we”, he did not mean “we, the French” but “we, the free Europeans”; when he wrote “you”, he did not mean “you, the Germans” but “you, the Nazis”. This “we” of Camus is the origin of the new European demos whose identity and legitimacy have emerged in opposition to total evil, to civil war, and is therefore inextricably united with the defence of freedom.

Jorge Semprún describes how he understood for the first time what Europe was when a prisoner in the in Buchenwald concentration camp. There, a handful of Europeans struggled for survival against Nazism. That group was Europe itself.

Among them were young people from the Soviet Union, in particular Ukrainians. Those who endured the camps and returned home were suspected of being accomplices of the Nazis for the mere fact of having survived. The great majority ended up in Siberia, where they continued to resist the Stalinist form of totalitarianism. In other words, they continued, albeit unknowingly, to construct Europe. It would be enormously unjust to deny them the right to be Europeans. This is why Europe was incomplete until the countries of its east began to join; it is also why (though it may seem paradoxical), although Europe cannot be unlimited, it must attend to all countries that knock at its door.

The Balkans failure

Europeans have not lived along the same timescales. In the east, the descent into hell was prolonged. For millions of citizens, “liberation” in 1945 simply meant changing from one form of totalitarianism to another. Now, they have started to come together again in the Europe to which they always belonged.

The peaceful course of the revolutions of 1989 shows that east-central Europeans too had begun to internalise the taboo of civil war. But a Europe returning to itself was shadowed by persistent scars, above all the Balkans. The savage wars of a disintegrating Yugoslavia from 1991 saw the triumph of ethnic cleansing, internationally endorsed.

This failure of Europe is a reminder that nothing is ever achieved definitively: not even the taboo against war. Each time that Europe has surrendered its principal weapon, critical reason, to the service of the will to power (in the name of fatherland, class, ethnic group, religion, or technology) the way has been opened up for civil war and disaster. The Balkans are Europe, and Europe needs the Balkans. We must not look away again, nor keep the region at a distance, as if it was some kind of potential reserve of base passions.

Europe as critical reason

A mean-spirited dialectic seems to be confronting the countries that were in 2004 incorporated into the European Union in the form of a fidelity test: either Europe or the United States. This is an absurd game, fostered by people who have an interest in debilitating Europe. What is so strange about people, who have lived for so many years with Russia as a constant threat, feeling a special admiration for the prime enemy of their oppressors: the United States?

The evolution towards authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s regime (with the assent of certain European governments that suffer from paralysis of their democratic reflexes whenever they are anywhere near Moscow) is hardly reassuring. Yet the destiny of these countries is Europe. And only if Europe should fail will it be different.

What might be the failure of Europe? Two things: the inability to extend to everyone the social cohesion that has so far been attained; and the breaking of the civil war taboo. The “Europe of 25” raises short-term problems of economic, financial and social adjustment but in the long term its strength depends on a key area: that of education and culture. The ability to invent, create and seduce (viral power) must be the distinctive hallmark of Europe.

Europe presents herself as a bearer of human rights. But if, as erudite people claim, the basic principle of humanity is reason, human rights are universal and not the exclusive property of anyone. It would be ethnocentric to believe otherwise.

Europe developed curiosity (the driving force of knowledge) in the interests of both conquest and science, deploying critical reason to advance beyond other nations that remained bogged down in their own glory. Europe has come to grief every time it has abandoned critical reason. In our present-day society of risk, Europe will once again undergo the test critical reason presents.

Europe cannot remain a prisoner of its own impotence in international relations; neither can it respond by dispersal its energies in new conflicts. Europe must define its own model without fear of being different or being led astray by dogmas of economic growth as the foundation of all progress.

Europe must defend its secularism and institutional neutrality as territory that is common to all: those who are here now and those yet to come, without detriment to the beliefs of anyone. If it abandons critical reason and comes under the sway of truths that solidify in the brain (to use JM Coetzee’s expression), if it takes the path of security at any price, if it gives way to community fragmentation in the name of false relativism out of fear of the newcomer, or if it forgets the centrality of the human individual (a notion that has dominated its culture since the Renaissance), instead of growing Europe will shrink.

The recently incorporated countries (and those still on the waiting list, like Romania and Ukraine) have emerged from an experience different to that of modernity, and they come with renewed energies after tremendous change. Europe will be at once denser and more open as a result. Some people stress the economic weakness of the new arrivals, but it is more intelligent and forward-looking to highlight their great educational and creative potential.

An identity without enemies

An identity against civil war is exactly the opposite of units of destiny in universal terms. “A civilisation is an anti-destiny”, writes Andre Glucksmann; it unites “against what destroys it”. The peculiarity of the European identity is its nature as an open or transcendent identity, one not defined by exclusion of the other, but rather by the incorporation among ourselves by all those who reject civil war, independently of their origins or where they might be coming from.

Europe must demonstrate that, contrary to Carl Schmitt’s doctrine, it is possible to engage in politics without any need to point at an enemy. This is why it is an error to believe that the European identity will be constructed in opposition to the United States. There are and will be conflicts of interests with the United States, but it is absurd to think of Europe’s relations with the US in polarised ways. This is a trap set by American neo-conservatives; only those who suffer from the childish ailment called anti-Americanism will fall for it.

The European identity is always projected beyond Europe – with the risk of being suspected of identity imperialism – in keeping with the enlightened requirement that obliges Europe to act in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative: “as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.....” And, precisely because it was founded in the experience of evil, it is a vigilant identity, one that is alert to threats of destruction and self-destruction.

If closed identities have been and are (as in the Balkans) the standard-bearers of civil conflict among Europeans, the identity that will arise to oppose this conflict will naturally be open. The only condition for including the “other” as one of “us” is rejection of civil war and acceptance of the framework agreed for the rules of the game.

Like any process of de-territorialisation, this generates crises and fissures. There will always be somebody who reacts fearfully when borders and certainties are blurred. A few seek shelter and protection under the wing of the strongest party (like the Atlanticist front that clustered around George W Bush during the war in Iraq), while others lose themselves in the time warp of closed societies (like the nationalist front that rejects the processes of globalisation).

It is natural that, when faced with the uncertainties that come hand-in-hand with change, more conservative people want to reaffirm the values of tradition in the founding documents of the new Europe. They should not forget that Christianity is, in Europe, both Catholicity (another form of universal vocation) and diversity, and that the splits within Christianity represent a step towards freedom; as Voltaire remarked, “if there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism; if there were two they would cut each other’s throats, but there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness.”

An open Europe

Why is the identity constructed against civil war an open one? Because the lowest common denominator is rejection of fraternal destruction. And beyond that, all ideas and positions are amenable to being presented and discussed on the European stage. As George Steiner has noted, being a European means seeking to reconcile, morally, intellectually and existentially, the incompatible ideals, claims and praxes of the city of Socrates with those of the city of Isaiah.

The proposed, contested European constitution has dispensed with the erroneous category of “the people”, a category designed to snare individuals in the cobwebs of atavism, of a story that presumes to be above them. The European demos was not founded on peoples but on citizens and states. The next step will be to recognise the full, founding power of citizens. Europe’s patriotism is not one of freedoms, nor one of conflict between the different groups of “we”; if it were, the only line of exclusion would be drawn by the person who wants to regress to civil war, the self-destruction of Europe.

The European identity thus defines a peculiar relationship with the “other”. This makes the debate on borders – understood in relation to internal frontiers as well as geographic limits – decisive. Europe cannot be a fortified “white world” that reacts in paranoid fashion to anything that seems to be different. With regard to the exterior, it must be permeable enough both to project itself and to permit itself to be inseminated; with regard to its interior, it must accept that globalisation is happening in all directions and that Europe too is at once recipient and motor of the process. This means not fleeing from contact or from conflict but transforming them into shared policies and institutions.

True, there is a danger in believing that Europe’s pacification means that plenitude has been achieved and Europe’s potential historically realised. This fantasy, if accepted, would confirm the prejudice of Europeans’ inability to take responsibility for themselves – corroborating the views of Americans like Robert Kagan who see Europe as a post-heroic paradise that cannot recognise, far less confront, the problems of the world.

Europe knows, precisely because its only general requirement is rejection of self-destruction and its results, that unity is not a value in itself. The value is pluralism. Europe’s identity is not a fact prior to some common project inscribed on the skin of the history of Europeans but (as Etienne Balibar says) “a quality of collective action” continually being shaped in the course of the complex evolution of European society.

In the European space of freely-associated states, we see the emergence of a potential system of political articulation, one capable of overcoming the physical and spiritual divisions that accompany what is national: the system of cities, of the diversity of cultures brought into relationship on the basis of the protocols of urbanity, of modernity. The city overflows borders and makes it possible to weave a fabric that prevails from within over all national packaging, thanks to the viral power of what is urban. Only the city can save us from multiculturalist errors.

From regression to renewal

The identity against civil war as a minimalist identity, pared down to the essential, one that does not attempt to befuddle the consciousness of citizens. It is etched into the modern European awareness that war is something to be avoided. United States neo-conservatives see this as a weakness or sign of impotence. It may be, in part; but the taboo against war, constructed upon images of extermination, is a key component of the European identity.

In the past, Europeans engaged in a classical form of imperialism: that of conquest and occupation of territories. The experience has left gaping wounds and a bitter aftertaste. Today, for Europe, negotiation and agreement are frontline instruments. The Americans, by contrast, have been engaging in a modern, return-ticket kind of imperialism: they act and then leave, they are present to destroy and absent when it is time for construction.

Europe’s strength now is in what I call “viral power” (although others prefer the more prissy formulation of “soft power”): the ability to make contagious those ideas and customs that give shape to a certain way of being in the world.

In the network society the viral capacity of countries or regional groups is decisive, so much so that I believe that it is possible to divide societies into two types. The first has the viral power that can transcend its borders, in terms of life, information, money, industry, inventiveness and ideas (exogenous viral power, or cosmopolitan power); the second has a self-destructive form of viral power perhaps because of an inability to generate viruses that are expansive and universal (so that the miasmas remain in the family, as endogenous – or national – viral power).

Europe should use the tremendous potential of its exogenous viral power as an antidote, both against ethnic multiculturalism and against any order that is founded in fantasies of the end of history.

A European demos

The preamble of the European constitution – not exactly a memorable text – refers to the terrible disagreements that have led to this coming together: “Believing that Europe, reunited after bitter experiences, intends to continue along this path of civilisation, progress and prosperity … ”

An identity is not imposed, but is formed, is developed and is extended: the taboo against civil strife was followed in Europe by a rejection of political totalitarianism and moral authoritarianism. Such an identity would continue to assert itself as the everyday experience of the citizens took on a European dimension in addition to local and national ones – a necessary condition for the consolidation of a European demos.

But European identity will always be open to other countries that share the same standards of coexistence and communication. Hence Europe does not have closed borders. This means Turkey, of course, and why not Israel and Palestine some day?

It might be argued that as long as European identity is so minimalist, national identities will be assured of a long life. People need to feel they belong and want to have strong community feeling but are not aware that every identity represents a certain loss of freedom, which is ever greater with each turn of the identity screw. The European identity cannot be – in the experience of the citizens – an identity that is of the same order as national identities, and neither need it be incompatible with them. The feeling against civil war is stronger than the mythical national stories that are constructed upon the abuse of power, selective memory and outright deception. Spain knows something of this: being against civil war is the shared value that has made a relatively peaceful transition possible.

An identity against civil war is something like a renewal of the promises of the social contract now that modern experience has reached its limits, in totalitarianism and weapons of mass destruction. The European social model is not far removed from the bases of this identity. It was constructed in the post-war years to buttress a rejection of civil war and it requires updating and reforms. To destroy it would be a kind of self-destruction of Europe, a regression to civil war.

This essay was translated by Julie Wark

Further Links

The EU Constitution (pdf)
Reader-friendly EU Constitution
A brief history of the EU
Yes Campaign
No Campaign
EU website
European Voice
E! Sharp

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