Group of young adults, photographed from above, on various painted tarmac surface, at sunrise.

Our true European home

With Brexit settled, Britain must seek to engage with its unalterably European cultural heritage and identity

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I recently indulged in some time travel. Nothing too grandiose or far away. Just a brief excursion into the near past. My anachronistic excursion was a short book: Stephen Green’s The European Identity. Green’s book was published in October 2015. David Cameron had finally won a general election, and Britain was moving inexorably towards that roll-of-the-dice referendum. The European Identity is an articulate and confident case for Britain within Europe. A little more Green and a little less Cameron might have stabilised some teetering voters. But despite the book’s merits and Green’s undeniable perspicacity, the slim volume is an antediluvian read.

There is an air of unreality to reading a text from before the referendum. Its call to strengthen Britain’s place in Europe reads like future-historical fiction. It has a dreamlike resemblance to The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers’s 1903 masterpiece novel of yachting and espionage, which both correctly predicted the threat of bellicose Wilhelmine militarism and charmingly suggested that a catastrophic war with Germany might be avoided by a well-resourced and vigilant Royal Navy.

Green belongs to what seemed a more solid world than the one we currently inhabit. He is the quintessence of the modern British establishment: a former group chief executive of HSBC raised to the peerage as Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint, a Trade minister in the Cameron-Clegg coalition and a Church of England priest.

That establishment confidence in Britain’s European future crumpled upon contact with the electorate is not simply a political mystery to be divined. The root problem may have been more cultural than political. The European identity lately on offer — whether hawked by Remain politicians, officially promulgated by the European Union itself, or apologetically mumbled by many of the “anti-EU, pro-Europe” camp — has been thin gruel.

One example of the prevailing view is an essay of the supremely cultured Italian novelist Umberto Eco titled Un nuovo trattato di Nimega (2019), published in English as “We are European” (2020). As the Italian title suggests, Eco’s vision is not as historically flattening as is sometimes the case: he presents the negotiations around the 1678-9 Treaties of Nijmegen, a general peace among the European powers, as “one of the first examples of European cooperation and accord”. Unhappily, this remains largely a framing device: the real watershed for him can only be 1945.

Eco says that from 1945 “Europeans began to feel they belonged not only to the same continent but also to the same community”. This is understandable. For people in Western Europe, 1945 cannot help but be a date charged with almost providential significance. For some British europeanists of an old Liberal bent it also symbolises the apogee of the British Empire: a comforting fairytale is told whereby Britain spent its imperial treasure and hegemony on the defeat of Nazi Germany, and in saving Europe became a founding member of a new European order.

This Liberal view of Europe ends up looking something like the old theological via negativa. Europe is not Fascism. Europe is not nineteenth-century empire. Europe is neither hunger nor deprivation. Europe is not Communist, nor is it America. Europe is, above all, not war.

Eco is a Liberal moraliser. This is, in itself, no bad thing. He abhors rising xenophobia and racism; the febrile populisms of Le Pen and Putin lurk implicitly in the dark recesses of his European imagination. His explicit denunciation of anti-semitism is salutary. Yet Eco languidly sermonises: “the problem that now concerns a reconciled Europe, one which can optimistically celebrate the triumph of the Nijmegen treaties, is the need to sign a new virtual treaty against intolerance.” Again, a via negativa, and a hopelessly vague one at that: European values are the exclusion of extreme intolerances. Which is, I suppose, fair enough. It is hardly a foundation solid enough for the construction of a civilisation.

Eco calls on young Europeans to “draw up” a “kind of frontier” excluding views and acts intolerable in a tolerant society. He appeals to Aristotelian phronesis — practical wisdom — as the measure of doing so. But he offers no yardstick. There is no cultural, moral, or spiritual bedrock to this European edifice.

Eco is, of course, a cultured man. He clearly has a moral vision

Eco is, of course, a cultured man. He clearly has a moral vision. And it is hard to read novels as sublime as (the underrated) Baudolino or The Name of the Rose without catching a refraction of the spiritual. Eco is a titan of European culture, but his essay peters out. An effort to articulate a purely liberal European identity ends up lacking definite form or tangible substance.

A plausible and attractive European identity requires the acknowledgement — and active cultivation — of deeper historical roots. It goes without saying that this cannot simply be reactionary nostalgia. Nobody in their right mind should want to return to pre-1945 standards of living, or reckon the developments of European identity since the war as unmoored from what came before. The likes of Jean Monnet and Alcide de Gasperi, to say nothing of de Gaulle or Churchill, were themselves creatures of an older Europe.

The post-war European renaissance was a conscious attempt at resuscitating a cosmopolitanism which had been snuffed out by the First World War. Between the wars, there was already what Joseph Roth called “a yearning, a nostalgia for European solidarity, a solidarity of European culture”. Roth lamented in Die Wahrheit in December 1934 — note the author was an Austro-Galician Jew, writing for a German-language newspaper in the now Czech capital Prague — that “European consciousness […] had been on the wane for years ever since the awakening of national identity”. 

For Roth, “A man who loves his ‘nation’, his ‘fatherland’ above all else, renounces European solidarity.” Roth is mourning his vanished Habsburg homeland. We need not quite so bitterly oppose Europe and national identity. But Roth is onto something. There had been a more cosmopolitan Europe. Even when Edwardian Britain had basked in the noonday of Empire, the bon viveur Edward VII had charmed the republicans of Paris, summoned Herbert Asquith to kiss hands at Biarritz in 1908, and habitually took the waters at Bohemian Marienbad.

Cosmopolitan Europe was not, then, limited to the patchwork Crownlands of the ancient Habsburg empire. Indeed, the consciously European identity which preceded the First World War had been forward-looking, and almost childishly optimistic.

During the nineteenth century, the railways inexorably spread their tendrils across the face of Europe. As Orlando Figes puts it in The Europeans, they “also powered the international circulation of European music, literature and art”. The educated and aspirational middle classes in Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna could read the same novels, listen to the same operas, and buy reproductions of the same artworks.

The moderately well-off European today can cheaply travel by road, rail or air to the great cities of Europe. A weekend in Milan or Munich is had with relative ease. This can encourage a sense of identity with a wider European civilisation. Yet Europe is now culturally porous — perhaps fatally so — due to two interconnected threats. 

The first is the English language. Young Europeans overwhelmingly communicate with one another in English. This is in some ways a good thing. French was a comparable lingua franca of earlier European cosmopolitanisms. More insidious is the Internet. Simply put, it is American. Television, film, music, news, political commentary, and social contagions of every variety are now all mass-imported from the United States. Nothing short of a basically Gaullist cultural policy, across Europe and in each European nation, has much hope of stemming this tide. 

Those who wish to cultivate a deeper European identity can go further back than the nineteenth century: an interconnected European civilisation is no more the creature of that period’s haute bourgeoisie than the invention of post-1945 liberals. 

Fernand Braudel’s Out of Italy paints a vivid picture of how, between 1450 and 1650, “dazzling, multicoloured Italy” shone its light across Europe and how Italy’s pan-European influence was more than the export of renaissance and baroque art, architecture and literature with which we are familiar.

Braudel stresses that the Italians of this period — disunited as they were politically, frequently the subjects of European great powers — exercised a sophisticated web of influence across the continent. Italian merchants and bankers connected the European continent. Italian entrepreneurs had followed the Spaniards as they reconquered the last Moorish redoubts in southern Iberia. When Columbus had sniffed around Lisbon looking for somebody to back his voyages, he had been employed by the Centurione, Spinola and di Negro firms of Genoa. 

Italian humanist learning also spread swiftly. It was at once a national and a pan-European phenomenon: Enea Silvio Piccolomini and Nicholas of Cusa in Germany; Lefèvre d’Etaples was a visitor to Florence, Padua, Rome and Venice; Pico della Mirandola in France from 1485-1488. From England, the priest John Colet and physician Thomas Linacre went to study in Italy. The Urbinese Polydore Vergil was the great Italian scholar who set up shop in Henrician England. By the sixteenth century, there was a great web of scholars, aristocrats and princes across Europe who wrote to one another (or attempted to do so) in Ciceronian Latin. 

This res publica litterarum was a direct ancestor of modern Europeanism. Ruminating on this pan-European humanist movement, which aimed to reanimate the language and learning of antiquity, we can recognise (with caution) with T.S. Eliot that “the bloodstream of European literature is Latin and Greek”. 

Eliot argued that the literary classic which shaped the European cultural imagination was Virgil, “the classic of all Europe”. In his essay “What is a Classic?”, he suggests that Virgil reflects “the unique position in our own history of the Roman Empire”, and that Virgil is to Rome as Rome is to Europe. That is, both the living centre and definite symbol of European civilisation. 

From medieval monasticism, through renaissance scholarship into nineteenth-century classicism, Britain’s relationship to Europe was shaped by the Latin and Greek literary and cultural canon; a tradition which vivified local literatures, and was itself alive across Europe. As late as the 1950s, C.S. Lewis was writing Latin letters to an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria, much as Thomas More or Philip Sidney might write to contemporary continental interlocutors. 

There is a danger here that European identity begins to look wholly autochthonous. European identity cannot be too firmly rooted in the soil. Eliot would immediately concede that Virgil pales before the influence of the Christian church, itself an extra-European institution. 

The most fateful event in European history might be the dream St Paul had in Asia Minor, in the first century, which convinced him that God wanted him to cross the Aegean Sea and preach the Gospel in European Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). Nothing has shaped European culture quite so much as this religion from non-European shores. John Paul II and Benedict XVI each excoriated the European Union for resisting calls to recognise Europe’s Christian heritage in the Union’s formularies. Here Eco’s via negativa of European values just won’t do.

… nothing has anchored Britain in Europe quite so much as its Christian heritage

Closer to home, nothing has anchored Britain in Europe quite so much as its Christian heritage. The Christianisation of these islands was a European project: missionaries from Rome and Ireland evangelised England; England subsequently converted tracts of the Germanic world. The Scottish Reformation was tied to Geneva; England’s more eclectically to Germany and Strasbourg, too. The Catholic mission to reclaim Britain was pan-European: Jesuits such as Edmund Campion were equally at home in Rome, Prague and Oxford.

After all, one idea of Europe sees it simply as that northern shore of the Roman Christian ecumene which did not subsequently become part of an Islamic world stretching from Seville to Samarkand. Europe and the Muslim world have, of course, been overlapping spheres: southern Spain and the Balkans can testify to that. 

Neither has Europe ever been solely Christian. The continent has been home to Jewish communities since antiquity, in Al-Andalus and medieval Provence, across early modern Eastern Europe. Maimonides, Rashi, and Spinoza belong in the European pantheon. Who could imagine modern European literature without Kafka or Zweig? Europe must at least try to retain a living connection to its Christian past. Benedict XVI spoke of Christians as a “creative minority” in a future Europe. Those promoting a European identity in Britain, and on the continent, should consider how to incorporate this minority into their vision.

In the 1950s, Albert Camus diagnosed post-war Europe’s pressing problem as the creation of new elites. He skewered Francoist calls for “an aristocratic Europe” not on the grounds that this was elitist, but because Spain then exhibited “the aristocracy of a gang” and “the cruel lordship of mediocrity”. Camus saw bourgeois Europe as possessed of a death-wish, wallowing in nihilism. He prescribed a values-driven cadre of European intellectuals and writers to “leaven the mix”.

We might likewise hope for the resurrection of a European res publica litterarum: an intentional community of creatives and a reading public whose transnational horizons resist Americanisation. Such a community would tap into the great traditions of Christian Europe, the continent’s religious minorities, and the long sweep of Europe’s rich cultural history.

Our country needs to come to terms with its unalterably European identity. But Britain cannot relate to an anaemic Europe which refuses to peer beyond 1945, enslaved to the provincialism of the contemporary. Britons must engage with their share in the European heritage, and their own “taproot in Eden”. 

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