Europe, the great republic?
Associate since 1991
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June 16, 2009
LONDON - Not a moment too soon, the Europeans since the parliamentary elections ten days ago have been going through a bout of naval gazing and introspection. What is the European parliament for, when every country has its own legislatures both national and local? Why did so few of the electorate vote, less than ever before? Why did the East Europeans, only recently liberated from the yolk of dictatorship which denied them the vote, vote less than anyone else (with a couple of exceptions)? Why are the British talking as if membership of the Union is a yoke around their necks? In short, what is Europe?
Writing in 1751 Voltaire described Europe as "a kind of great republic, divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if it is divided into several confessions. They all have the same principles of public law and politics unknown in other parts of the world".
In a way that Charlemagne, Voltaire, William Penn and Gladstone, the early advocates of European unity, could only dream, a united Europe has become a reality with half a billion members.
War, time and time again, has interrupted the pursuit of that objective. Continued civil war across the continent, across the centuries, has pitted the French against Germans, British against French, Czechs against Poles, Spaniards against Spaniards, Gentiles against Jews, reaching its dreadful climax in the Second World War. Of all the continents, over the millennium, Europe has been the most warlike.
As Jan Morris has written of the Second World War in her 'Fifty Years of Europe', "Great cities lay in ruin, bridges were broken, roads and railways were in chaos. Conquerors from East and West flew their ensigns above the seats of old authority, and proud populations would do almost anything for a packet of cigarettes or some nylon stockings. Europe was in shock, powerless, discredited and degraded".
Many, if not most, of that generation wondered in 1945 if they'd ever see Europe again in any state of grace or glory, much less unified.
The fact that the urge to bury the hatchet and forge common institutions has come so far in such a short time against such a backdrop is the 20th century's greatest achievement. Likewise the creation of the Euro, the common currency, has taken Europe another mighty step towards the kind of unity that prohibits war. (Following the Declaration of Independence it took the USA nearly 90 years to establish a fully mature common currency - Europe has travelled the same course in 40 years.
This astonishing progression begs the question: what is the glue that holds it all together? After all, what is Europe geographically?
It is no more than a peninsular protruding from the land mass of Asia. Culturally it has always been a potage of languages, peoples and traditions. Indeed it is religion, neither politics nor economic interests, that through the ages made Europe one, held it together through its vicissitudes (many of religious origin) and provided the common morality and common identity that makes the European Union possible today.
Broadcasting to a defeated Germany, the poet T.S. Elliot reminded his audience that despite the war and "the closing of Europe's mental frontiers because of an excess of nationalism, it is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe- until recently - have been rooted. An individual European may not believe the Christian faith is true; and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will depend on the Christian heritage for its meaning".
Of course, one can ask what the cults of finance, sports, television, pop culture and eroticism have to do with a Christian heritage. Nevertheless, despite all, the fact is through changing fashions, through wars big and small, the idea of a Europe that persists is essentially Christian. On its own, economic self-interest would never have created the European Union and monetary union. Political, economic, social and monetary union have been driven all along by men and women who were essentially idealistic and visionary.
From Jean Monnet, to Helmut Schmidt, Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Helmut Kohl, the founders and creators of the Union and the Euro, the urge to remove the causes of belligerency and to form institutions that would further the development of a common democracy have been a central purpose of their lives.
Europe is not first and foremost a political concept nor a financial convenience. It is an ideal. This will never be complete. We will work at it all our lives, as will future generations.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
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