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Cultural Europe – The Untold Tale

Submitted by on 06 Oct 2011 – 15:51

The EUThomas Pedersen, PhD, Associate Professor, Aarhus University

For understandable reasons to do with recent European history, EU-politicians and European thinkers have been hesitant to address the issue of Europe´s cultural message.

Characteristically, when left-of-centre intellectuals such as Habermas make a plea for a united Europe with a common identity they talk in terms of a Europe of rights and values; a normative Europe in Ian Manners´ terms.

Likewise, if one examines the polls carried out by Eurobarometer in recent years to examine the extent to which there is such a thing as a European identity, one is struck by the fact that some questions are not asked at all. For instance, one has not asked European citizens to what extent they feel an attachment to “cultural Europe”, to a certain number of key treasures in European cultural heritage. And yet, will a supranational union with a common currency survive without some kind of emotional glue to underpin the sacrifices that have to be made on the part of individual states?

There has been a tendency to look to the future, particularly on the part of German politicians. That even a left-wing voice like Habermas shies away from talking culture is illustrative. Political science theory reflects this. The fashionable theory of constructivism effectively does away with durable cultural factors, arguing that everything is changeable. There is no essence. Similarly, there is a tendency in EU-policy to indulge in fuites en avants (flights forward) as in the case of enlargement policy, which has in a sense become a substitute for real foreign policy. But what happens once the EU hits the limits of enlargement and can no longer use conditionality to exercise power? One day the EU will wake up and realize that the show is over. That the union is on its own. That will be the day of reckoning.

The EU must realize that it cannot run after every rabbit in the field. The Arab Spring does not make things easier. It adds to the ring of expectant democracies or semi-democracies, which may or may not make a claim to a status as candidate countries. Not only is there a need for greater focus in EU-politics; there is also a need to address some really tough questions. For one thing it is time to convene a convention on the borders of Europe. Obviously, opening the debate about Europe´s borders will be like opening Pandora´s box. But better to open it than for it to explode.

The precise composition of such a convention is a matter for discussion. But one problem that it could address is the definition of what I have called Europe´s constitutional culture, that is the essence of Europeanness or “Europe´s cultural creed”. Politicians may well regard such a proposal as a waste of time. But it is possible that in time they will come to be thankful for being able to refer eager applicants to a wise-mens´ report.

My own research into the question of European identity, obviously complex and preliminary, revealed that while internal diversity in the EU is very considerable and probably underestimated, external cohesion and distinction is equally conspicuous. The essence of Europeanness, to do with qualitative individualism and the importance of democratic dialogue and existential doubt, is increasingly a rare plant in today´s world.

To give but a few examples the Chinese have no word for individuality. In recent years the Chinese have evidently tried to draw attention to their soft power. Yet their harmony-oriented vision of consensus is at variance with the recent demands for freedom in the Arab world. Japanese culture, while clearly in flux, remains heavily constrained by group-attachments. American culture is much more fundamentalist than the European. There is no ministry of culture in the USA, and scholars report a steep decline in student interest and knowledge about classical culture, including the classics of cultural individualism. And Muslim citizens, notwithstanding their renewed support for democracy, have little place for the doubt that remains the hallmark of European philosophical debate.

This leaves Europe as the defender of the best in the Western tradition. Yet, due to size and complexity, there is a very real risk that the EU will over time end up as a reactive force, only able to act pro-actively in areas such as humanitarian aid policy. In other words, a Switzerland writ large.

If one defines culture in broader terms, as a way of life, one detects a problematic discrepancy between political organization and cultural convergence within the EU. While cultural convergence in EU-27 is very limited, the political system of the EU is now highly centralized with key institutions making one-size-for-all decisions with often severe consequences. The current debt crisis should be seen in this light. It clearly has a cultural dimension. The fact that the crisis is not confined to only one Mediterranean state, but hits all Mediterranean countries suggests that what is really in crisis is a specific way of life and not – at least not only – a specific state apparatus.

To take but the most obvious example, working routines reflect deep-seated cultural habits, which cannot be changed overnight. If one looks at social issues, one similarly observes deep cleavages within EU-Europe. In this dimension more East-West than North-South. And it is not always self-evident that the East should bow to the demands from the West.