Why the Idea of Europe Matters

By Nikhil Verma

What is Europe?
If you honestly think about it, could you pinpoint it out? If yes, where does Europe end or most importantly where does it start? Is Europe an ideology or does the idea of Europe ends with its dynamic borders?
Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden – these ‘Cantons’ laid down the foundation of the modern-day concept of ‘Culture’. You may wonder – How exactly has that evolved?

Well, ‘Cantons’ – the administrative division of states – make up nowadays’ confederation of ‘Switzerland. “Bundesbrief” – the oldest constitutional document of Switzerland documents the alliance of these three ‘Cantons’. In one of these ‘Cantons’, the birth of a prolific intellectual would take place – Jacob Burckhardt was born in the Canton of ‘Basel’ in 1818, he later wrote the 19th century’s masterpiece – ’The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy’. Published in 1860 and then revised in 1867, it was a sensational description of the Italian Renaissance.
Burckhardt’s vision that ‘Renaissance’ was the beginning of the modern world would later be expanded into modern politics, economics and aspects of modern society. His ideas encapsulated the idea of social, political, and cultural transformation in Europe. Burckhardt is thus known as the father of the notion of ‘Culture’ and its developments since the 19th century. Today, the stern look of his portrait on the Swiss franc is reminiscent of the path-breaking work for the cultural history of Europe and modernism.
The focus on the new philosophical movement since the Renaissance included the affirmations of the virtues of liberty and scientific reasoning. The challenge to the authority of Monarchy and the Church during the 17th century was a monumental step towards the creation of today’s Europe. Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Isaac Newton are some of the most prominent examples of Europe’s new focus on progress, education and scepticism. Reverberations of the ‘Revolutions of 1848’, ‘French Revolution’ and ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ make up most of the modern European culture.

Europe’s Boundaries: Cultural or Continental?

Europe’s journey of transformation from a continent of war to a continent of progression has been remarkable. ‘The Great War’ of 1914-18 i.e. ‘the First World War’ dismantled empires and forged way for new ideas. However, the devastation and destruction of Europe during the ‘World War II’ led to the profound transformation of politics and social ethos of Europe. The death of 60 million people affirmed the notions of tolerance, civility and respect in the creation of a new Europe.
The Schuman Declaration of 9th May 1950 was the foundation of a new Europe with focus on integration and denouncement of nationalism. ‘Never Again’ was the backdrop of a new Europe. Europe ushered towards ‘Secularisation’ in terms of class, religion and economic status. The old relations of the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat were incrementally challenged and transformed to address social gap and inequality.
Since then, the European Coal and Steel Community Treaty (1951) and the Treaty of Rome (1957) which led to the creation of a free market state i.e. the European Economic Community (EEC) were stepping stones towards the Maastricht Treaty (1992) which officially gave birth to the European Union, as we know it today.
However, the birth of the European Union also gave birth to scepticism over the concept of Europe: Is it cultural or continental?
While the map of today’s European Union is drastically different from an originally envisioned group of six members states, concerns over the integration of the ‘Balkans’ and ‘Turkey’ is real, despite member states such as Slovenia and Cyprus encircling them geographically. Switzerland, despite being precisely in the centre of Europe, isn’t really ‘Europe’ – divergence over the ratification of the ‘Euro’ as an exclusive currency in member states such as Denmark and Poland is an ‘Achilles Heel’ of ‘Brussels’. This mix-n-match quagmire fragments the idea of Europe and blurs its ideological lines.

Individualism – The Social Ethos of Europe

Europe incapsulates what humanity could achieve in just over 50 years if it actually works for the good. The Europe of today is the largest union of democracies, EU member states represent one-third of all free countries on the planet, Euro is the second most powerful currency, only after the US Dollar.
The ideas of freedom, solidarity, peace, democracy, equality and diversity. Europe is an idea – it has been progressively constructed after multiple revolutions and two world wars. The cohesion of European countries is more cultural rather than economic because of the boundaries of Europe blur with the Atlantic on the west, artic to the north and black sea on the south.
The fundamental unit of measurement in Europe is the individual. Since World War II, Europe has progressively countered collectivism and embraced individualism. The social ethos of Europe is built on liberalism and one of liberalism’s main enduring value is tolerance which ironically has eroded quickly in this decade. Anxiety about social cohesion, political correctness and terrorism have fragmented the social order on lines of religious and ethnic lines, especially since the ‘Economic Crisis of 2008’ and the ongoing ‘Refugee Crisis’.

The main difference between Asian, European and Middle Eastern societies comes down to the socio-cultural hierarchy. Take the case of the Indian Subcontinent – which represents around 2 billion or one-fourth of the world’s population. Indian subcontinent still practices the hierarchical caste system which is based on the idea of impurity and pollution. Despite, no significant ethical difference, the social structure is ridden with malice and limits opportunity or progression through class in the society, in stark contrast to the ethos of ‘The American Dream’.
The Indian caste system is not unique to only Hinduism, the notion of second-grade citizens has transcended throughout the sub-continent. This leads to the systematic oppression of a very large section of population i.e.‘Untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’. Despite the fact that India has been the growth story of this decade – the inequality in its society has grown on a perennial scale. This is one of the exact reasons why India is still home to a large number of modern-day slaves, bonded labours and victims of forced prostitution. These reasons hold the Indian subcontinent captive and dither its prosperity. This is clearly the stark difference between the social ethos of the so-called ‘Third World’ and ‘Europe.’
Tribalism in form of lynchings and mob violence is growing by the day in the subcontinent. The collective identity on the basis of social class, caste and religion have ushered India into a dangerous future. Such instances are unimaginable in Europe due to public legitimacy and moral evaluation. This is clearly Europe’s unspoken strength!

The Europe Of Today

EU flag StrasbourgToday’s Europe is the manifestation of multiple revolutions and identity politics. Liberal and secular democracies make up most of the 28 members states. However, the refugee crisis which subsequently coincides with Europe’s biggest scandal i.e. ‘Brexit’ which has raised questions about the idea of Europe. Slowly but steadily, rise against multiculturalism and cultural diversity can be heard in political undertones in various EU states.
Populism’s sudden rise is the major development of this decade. The surge in unmitigated immigration has opened floodgates to the revival of national sovereignty. However, societal cohesion and cultural diversity are still crucial elements of the idea of Europe. The recognition of respect, equality and individualism are the core of Europe’s progressiveness.
With integration in question, Europe is still wary of its tryst with fascism and reiterates the idea of a social welfare and pluralism. Nonetheless, the questions persist – will Europe learn from its past to face a turbulent future? Will Europe’s enduring values rescue it from a turbulent future or will Europe redefine itself? 

Featured picture: © European Union 2013 – European Parliament. (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license.)

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