One day (quite some time ago) I was sitting at my desk in the Estonian Supreme Court when the Chief Justice walked up to me. He said that as Estonia would most likely join the European Union, I should start thinking about how to develop a training programme for judges about how to cope with European law. To make a long story very short, we did just that. During the first presentation of the first course, a very intelligent Swedish lecturer asked the question, “so, just what is Europe?” Good question. I am afraid that the answer was not very clear back then and is still not very clear today.
BTW, you might ask the same question about the US. There we get an answer or series of answers that date back to the revolution. The early US was mainly a security alliance against Great Britain, which was a rather dangerous external threat. Many years later, as that threat subsided, secession by the southern states challenged the notion that anything actually did hold the states together. And then came a truly horrific civil war. As leader of the union Abraham Lincoln faced a dual challenge. He had to put down the rebellion by force. Ok. After five years of bloody fighting this “to do” item was checked off on the agenda. But that was not enough to save the union. It was equally important that Lincoln re-formulate what would hold the states together after the war. Not just force, but something positive. I would argue that as the architect of the war and president of the union, only Lincoln could do this. And he did.
According to Lincoln, the US is a nation that is “dedicated to a proposition …”. Hmmm … not many people paid attention to that phrase at the time, but the idea stuck and I would argue is the best way of understanding the US today. The US is a reflection of a principle in action rather than an agglomeration of people with similar racial or ethnic roots. This “dedication” gives the US its great mythical storyline that it is open to people from anywhere. Is it true? That doesn’t matter. It is a work in progress rather than an accomplished deed.
So what about Europe? Its initial union was also a response to threats, both internal and external. No more European wars! And no communism imposed from the east! But these threats seem less frightening now than they were thirty years ago. So what holds Europe together now? Using Lincoln’s phrase do we dare to ask, “what is Europe dedicated to?”
The Economist offers a short video that elaborates why answering this question is challenging. The main point of the video is that the descriptor “Eastern Europe” should be scrapped. I agree. But the larger point is that Europe itself is a shifting field of alliances and affinities. It is complex. This contrasts with the US storyline which places a strong emphasis on simplification. So what holds a complex system together?
Well, we shall see. But in the meantime, I think this complexity makes European politics (to the extent that this exists it all) rather difficult. And we see that this is not good in times of crisis, as we have now with the euro. But one idea inspires still. Despite our current problems, it is still relatively easy to say what Europe is not. Just look at Belarus.