A ‘united’ Europe is and was a myth

Hippocrates around 400 BC was quite clear in his take on ‘Europeanness’. In his work On Airs, Waters, and Places he put the diversity of Europe’s people down to environment. Away from lower lying and fertile land where quieter and more civilised populations dwelt, the climate becomes more variable, the weather more extreme, the geography more rough; “Such as inhabit a country which is mountainous, rugged, elevated, and well watered, and where the changes of the seasons are very great, are likely to have great variety of shapes among them, and to be naturally of an enterprising and warlike disposition.”

What is clear at least from his lines is that there was no sense of Europeanness, except perhaps in simple opposition to being either Asiatic or Scythian. Those who knocked around the continent were a very diverse lot. For long years ‘Europe’ would remain defined as a land mass, of uncertain northward extent, of vague eastern bounds, occupied by a disparate and disunited mass of distinct peoples, some of whom were very angry. 

Much the same can be said of the continent today.

I am chairman of a project to set up a Brexit Museum. A museum that attempts to tell that story must, of course, include an explanation of the European Union. Before it can deliver on that, it must also explain other matters. It needs to set out what free trade is, and protectionism. It might usefully explain the occasions where British history has been intertwined with its continental neighbours, and when and how those various connections broke. It ought to introduce Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus, the Saxon penny and the Viking longboat, and a host of other fragments of the kaleidoscope of our past from the Hanse to the House of Hanover.

It must contextualise, because both the EU process and the Brexit response are set on the complex tramlines of deeper history. History explains both Jean Monnet and Sir Bill Cash.

That route of exploration across psychological depths includes revisiting the boundaries of Europeanness. Defining “Europe” is a complex and controversial question, especially once you bring migration into the equation – into, across and out of the continent. Whence for instance we see Australia now appearing in the Eurovision Song Contest: but is Quebec disqualified by mere proximity to the United States, and if so why was Celine Dion allowed to represent Switzerland in 1988? Such are the identity conundrums of our times.

In strict geographic terms of course, the boundaries have been roughly settled since the time of Herodotus, give or take a bit of steppe here and there, down to de Gaulle’s “from the Atlantic to the Urals” and assuming we turn a blind eye to the passports held in a number of OCTs. But “Europe” itself has also been a term that integrationist politicians have been attempting to sequester for themselves. It began when they failed to form a majority of delegates to the Council of Europe in 1949 (they’ve had to settle with appropriating the institution’s flag, anthem, building, and human rights code).

For those in the EU institutions, “Europe” is both shorthand for their collective enterprise, but also a state of mind – pending the ongoing (and very protracted) business of trying to encourage the blank bits on the map to join. It’s turned out a bit like Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without a Country, but in reverse. Some EU insiders have offered more precise interpretations based on policy and the ambition behind them. To quote a recent EPP tweet, “Europe is not a market, it is the will to live together.”

Well, sorry to disappoint but despite the Treaty of Rome it is still neither: Europe is a chunk of planet surface on which sits several different political models of coexisting. Even just looking at the trade aspect, there’s the EU, the EEA, EFTA, the UK’s FTA, the Customs Union with Turkey, the DCFTA with the Ukraine, the CEFTA arrangement where EU applicant countries are parked, and for those not in the EU a variety of other trade deals between themselves – not forgetting Russia’s own Customs Union arrangement, EACU. As for the “will to live together”, Brexit demonstrates the shallowness of that definition. It is exacerbated now by the creation of a new alliance of 16 major European radical and Eurosceptic national parties, seeking to break Euro-establishment assumptions as to how exactly that living together should be done.

Europe has never been politically united. The limits of past ideologies and empires remain welts on the psyche, and as folding lines on the map. Some are physical pencil marks like Hadrian’s Wall; others stereotypically social like the willingness to follow laws to the letter or stop at red lights; or climactic like a penchant for beer or vodka rather than wine; or again cultural, linguistical or religious. One of the strongest arguments against building a ‘united Europe’ and keeping everything intergovernmental has been its diversity and the lack of a “demos”. Conversely, one of the strongest arguments for following a very well-defined federal model from the outset turns out to be the same. Constructing a European state by a route that ignores both of those approaches, deliberately refusing to discuss the end state objectives, has generated the EU of today, along with all of its rolling crises.

A retrospective of Brexit will be an important learning and research tool for British researchers. However, exploring the overgrown forest path the EU has itself been taking may prove to be more helpful to citizens in the EU27, as they grapple with their own obscure political future. A paradox of the Museum of Brexit may be that it ends up serving most those who still remain.

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