Europe, Idea of

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In classical times Europe was above all a geographical and mythological notion, the word referring to one of the three known continentsAsia and Africa (or Libya) being the other two. In the famous story of "the rape of Europa," the daughter of Phoenix, king of Phoenicians, was kidnapped and abducted by the Greek god Zeus, who in the guise of a white bull brought her to the island of Crete. In the Middle Ages, Europe was identified with Western Christianity or the commonwealth of Christians. This commonwealth, however, was considered to include only the western part of the Continent, thereby excluding the Eastern Church. The term Europe was commonly replaced by Christianity, although as early as the ninth century Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, was honored as "the king, father of Europe" (rex, pater Europae ).

In the early modern period Europe was increasingly compared with the other continents and considered the most civilized part of the world. After the "discovery" of America, world maps usually depicted Europe as an empress surrounded with various symbols of power. The idea of Europe had been secularized by the Enlightenment, and the term was used without its former religious connotations. This was the first time in history when the urban elites thought of themselves as Europeans and proclaimed in Parisian salons that, in the words of the conservative Englishman Edmund Burke, "no European can think himself as a foreigner in any part of the continent."

The American Revolution and the new U.S. Constitution were models for many Europeans wanting to establish "the United States of Europe." In the nineteenth century, however, when waves of nationalism swept across Europe, the idea of a federal European state was not powerful enough to seize the people of the Continent. Having shed his illusions in World War I, an inhabitant of the lost Austro-Hungarian Empire, Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, sought in the 1920s to raise a Pan-European movement based on the Continental superpowers, excluding Britain as "an Atlantic empire." In Coudenhove-Kalergi's view, Europe had to unite because the East (that is, Russia) wanted to conquer it, and the West (the United States) aimed to buy it. It was only the two world wars of the twentieth century, though, that finally forced the nations of Europe to pursue more peaceful cooperation.

European Identity

The feeling of togetherness and solidarity among European nations and peoples has tended to increase in periods of perceived external threat. As early as the classical period, the Greeks regarded the inhabitants of Asia Minor as barbars or "mumblers," people who could not speak clearly and were therefore considered irrational. Later the term barbarians also referred to non-Christian people. At various times Persians, Muslims, Mongols, Turks, and Russians have all been treated as barbarians and enemies of Europe; the dichotomy between "Us" and "the Other" has been very persistent in European history. There is little wonder that the question has sometimes been raised whether European identity and solidarity among European people in fact depends on a picture of an enemy.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the European Union (EU) has eagerly pursued more peaceful definitions of a common European identity. The discussion of the idea of Europe and European identity started at the very time that European integration was finally beginning to move forward. In the 1940s Federico Chabod, an Italian historian, wrote the first book on the idea of Europe, rooting it in classical Greece but also emphasizing the Enlightenment as the cornerstone of a common European identity. Since the middle of the twentieth century, European identity has usually been seen as built on three pillars dating from the classical period: Greek reason and rational thinking, Roman law and order, and Christian faith and religion. Other factors have since been added to the list, among them the scientific revolution and the idea of progress typical in the Enlightenment period.

Some critical voices, however, have increasingly considered these kinds of factors too abstract to animate the Europeans. Thus Anthony D. Smith, a British professor of political science, has repeatedly asked whether the attempts to build such an identity are actually efforts to impose western European values and ideas on the eastern and northern peripheries of the Continent. It is a moot point whether Europe really has a common history and memories to be shared; such sharing is crucial if one is to engage emotionally with an identity.

European Regions

It is obvious that the different regions of Europe have different histories and therefore also different memories. The idea of a German-ruled central Europe (Mitteleuropa ) had been elaborated already by the beginning of the twentieth century. After the collapse of the Third Reich, eastern central Europe came under Soviet hegemony and was referred to as Eastern Europe. In the 1970s and 1980s the idea of a culturally constructed Mitteleuropa was revived by dissidents, such as the Czechs Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, who were living under Soviet-dominated socialist rule. After the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the idea of a "third way" between consumer capitalism and socialist planned economy lost much of its former meaning.

Besides the division between East and West, there are also other demarcation lines in Europe. When the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor of the European Union, was founded in 1957, the six founding states (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany) were mostly Christian countries of central Europe. Later many southern and northern states with different historical traditions, religions, and political and social systems joined what became the European Union (EU). The Nordic countries, for example, have emphasized "the northern dimension" in the politics of the EU, while one of the organization's fundamental and ongoing issues has been the question of Britain's role in the "common European family."

In accordance with its famous slogan "Unity in Diversity," the European Union has sought to accommodate various value systems. Moreover, since the enlargement it will undertake further enlargement, when the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus as well as a number of former Eastern European (socialist) countries will join the EU. The question of European identity and the legitimization of the union will probably become even more crucial for the EU in the near future. However, the idea of Europe has in fact always been contested and in a state of transition.

Political Integration and European Citizenship

Since the 1990s there has been growing discussion of whether European integration should be above all political and cultural and not just an economic matter. In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty established a formal European citizenship, but this has had few practical consequences in the politics of the union. Some European thinkers, including the British-based Gerard Delanty and the German Jürgen Habermas, have emphasized the need to build a common political forum, a European demos, where all the inhabitants of the Continent could take part in decision-making processes. In the present situation many minority groups, such as immigrants, have only a few political rights in the EU. In addition to the issues of ethnicity and religion, many European women have felt that European society has developed in accordance with patriarchal cultural roots and thus marginalized women's roles in society.

Habermas and Delanty have sought a new political identity for all the inhabitants of the Continent. Instead of a mythic common European history and common traditions that can never be shared by all inhabitants of the Continent, this identity could be a genuine force in building up a truly democratic European Union. It remains to be seen whether the bureaucrats in the salons of Brussels will take up this challenge. By giving European citizenship real political value, the EU could perhaps create a unionin the Enlightenment visionwhere "no European could think himself a foreigner" any more.

See also Africa, Idea of ; America ; Barbarism and Civilization ; Colonialism ; Cultural History ; Education: Europe ; Empire and Imperialism: Europe ; Eurocentrism ; Migration: Migration in World History ; Nationalism ; Other, The, European Views of .


Delanty, Gerard. Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Guerrina, Roberta. Europe: History, Ideas, and Ideologies. London: Arnold, 2002.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Mikkeli, Heikki. Europe as an Idea and an Identity. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Shore, Cris. Building Europe: The Cultural Politics of European Integration. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Smith, Anthony D. Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1995.

Heikki Mikkeli

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Europe, Idea of

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