European culture: Is there such a thing?

We are not one united people and the EU cannot legislate us into such - so what of 'European culture'?

Is European culture like a game of dominoes?
Alexandra Swann
On 26 August 2012 07:53

Between the national furore over our naked prince and the shocking reports that two foreign nationals who have served in the British Army have been threatened with deportation for minor offences, it has been a rather mixed news week.

The case of 32 year old Sapper Hiri, formerly of Botswana, is particularly troubling; having served in the British Army for four years with an ‘exemplary record’, he is facing deportation because of a speeding offence despite almost certain prosecution in his home country for serving in the British Army.

What sort of legal system, devoid of common sense and decency, do we now have when convicted murderers and rapists cannot be deported due to very fluid notions of “human rights” yet we will evict men who have risked their lives for our country on the grounds of a speeding ticket?

Do we want to be a country with a culture of respecting and appreciating our armed forces or one which willingly accepts the sacrifice that serving in armed combat entails only to evict the former serviceman with such callous disregard? 

It is on the notion of culture that I am writing this column and, unsurprisingly, the idea of a “culture” of the European Union in particular. 

This week a particularly interesting article was published in a German newspaper, an interview with André Glucksmann on both this very topic and the future of the European Union.

Glucksmann, one of the 20th Century’s great anti-totalitarian thinkers, states in no uncertain terms his understanding of exactly why the idea of a European federal state is a distant and undesirable dream and it relates back to this idea of culture; there is simply no such thing as a culture or community of Europe.

The values often cited as shared European values tend to be vague notions of tolerance, freedom and self responsibility, concepts so broad as to render them meaningless in the traditional sense of “culture”.

Glucksmann believes that in its pursuit of ever greater integration the EU is chasing after a utopia which will never exist due to basic differences across national states in terms of religion, language and morals. He considers the very existence of the EU as a “defensive reaction to horror”, a community that exists “not for good but against evil”, a mistaken attempt to avoid war at all costs that has effectively removed the freedom and self-responsibility of EU citizens in its attempt to protect them.

He rightly notes that in areas from energy to foreign policy individual countries are pursuing their own interests; member states are no longer willing and able to form a united front against external threats and Europe’s challenges in the globalised world.

Unsurprisingly, given that Juergen Habermas is not only one of philosophy’s true greats but an open advocate of a deeply integrated EU - legislatively, fiscally, morally - Glucksmann mentions Habermas in his interview and it is this point I find of greatest interest.

Whereas Glucksmann considers globalization a cause of global chaos, especially given the current lack of a global police force due to diminishing relative power of the US, and believes that Europe should react to threats posed by Russia, China and militant Islamism in an offensive fashion, Habermas is an optimist cosmopolitan.

Unlike Habermas, Glucksmann takes a realistic, skeptical even, view of humanity and recognises that the EU cannot legislate its people into being “better” citizens; he believes that if Europe wishes to remain on the world stage it must once again be on the offensive, an attitude ironically that the EU was supposed to abolish forever.

Yet Habermas, ever the optimist, rejects this hostile notion and believes that well-intentioned cosmopolitanism can unite everyone in global (EU) citizenship. But who is right? Should Europe be on the offensive or can we unite in a fully integrated, cultural union as suggested by Habermas and a worrying number of European politicians?

I would say that regardless of one’s views on the current European Union model, the latter is, as Glucksmann rightly suggests, an impossibility. The problem that Europe has, one of the many reasons that further integration or fully fledged federalism are both intrinsically undesirable and almost definitely doomed to failure, goes back to this irritating (for federalists) problem that Europe does not have a demos or a culture.

We are not one united people and the EU cannot legislate us into such; despite Habermas’ optimistic ideals that legislative union may lead to the perfectibility of man, engendering the altruism necessary for “well-intentioned cosmopolitanism”, one truism we cannot ignore is the fallibility of man. 

In order to achieve the sort of coordination of financial, economic and social policies in member countries that Habermas desires, a further serious transfer of sovereignty to European institutions would be unavoidable and huge redistributions of wealth across national borders almost certain.

We accept this between areas within the UK but without the shared culture and allegiance of nationality I very much doubt that citizens across the wealthier countries of Europe would be quite so inclined to such altruistic transfers. Although as a Spencerian pacifist I shudder at the suggestion that Europe unites as a hostile body against global threats, the alternative proposal seems utopian at best, dangerous at worst.

Next week the new term starts in the European Parliament and it is going to be a testing, difficult and divisive time for the countries and citizens of the European Union. Few can predict with any gravitas quite what this year holds, but I wish I shared Habermas’ optimism. 

Alexandra Swann works in the European Parliament and tweets at @AlexandraLSwann

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