The Breakfast Table

What’s So Special About Europe?

Dear Mary,

Your envisaged European future is in many ways attractive–but the question, as you say, is how we get to the future. If I thought an idea of European citizenship was emerging in the way you hope–essentially as a generational shift in our political culture–I’d be very much reassured. Your cosmopolitan students are an encouraging sign. But how representative are they? When I travel, I tend to meet lots of people who read (or say they read) the Economist. They are a liberal, cosmopolitan, outward-looking, internationally minded, English-speaking, very often American-university-educated lot. Whether they are North American, Latin American, East Asian, South Asian, West European, Central European, African, or whatever, it is easy to suppose that what they have in common is more important than what makes them different. But this is probably an illusion. And even if it isn’t, it has not led me yet to think that we should be drawing up our blueprint for global political union.

What you propose for Europe would be new in world history, wouldn’t it? I can’t think of a state that has managed to sustain a liberal democracy not grounded in a dominant culture or language. Globalization, you might argue, is changing this. I doubt it myself. I don’t see much sign that the nation-state is withering. In some ways, the reverse is true (governments have grown more powerful in relation to their citizens over the past 20 years, not less). If you’re right that globalization will work this profound cultural change, why will it create a specifically European identity? What is “Europe” in this context? When I listen to some Eurovisionaries, I think what they mean by “Europe” is “not-America.” Why should globalization divide the West into these two camps, as opposed to any others or, indeed, as opposed to uniting them? If it does, as I say, so be it. But I don’t see any ineluctable cultural evolution here. And I don’t see any case for having political elites force the pace.

We know that ethnic nationalism is poison. That is what we see in the Balkans. But even liberal, enlightened, multicultural polities seem to need a dominant culture (or language, at least) to bind them together. That is what “Europe” doesn’t have.

Back to Kosovo. I wonder if I was too kind on the NATO military earlier on. I’ve been tracking the oscillations of their story on the convoy. The latest version, just on the wires, is that the pilot attacked three two-and-a-half-ton military trucks that turned out, according to the Serbs, to be dozens of tractors, cars, and other vehicles. “I understand tractors were filmed,” said General Marani, NATO’s spokesman. “Nevertheless what I want to say is that when the pilot attacked the vehicles they were military vehicles. If they then turned out to be tractors, that is a different issue.” Even Reuters, studiously impartial as always, called this “confusing.” That’s one word.