The winner of the war: a European identity based on values

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MEPs vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is an opportunity to reflect on the foundations of a European identity, says the author. [AP]

For years, the European Union has faced visible threats to its cohesion: Brexit, populist anti-European rhetoric, violations of democratic principles and corruption in the former socialist countries, the growing economic gap between the members, the different reactions to the refugee crisis and to climate change. The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to unite Europeans. “War is the father of everything,” said black philosopher Heraclitus. Father, I wonder, of a new united Europe?

In 480 BCE, the Persian invasion brought the warring Greek states together and made the Greeks feel a sense of belonging for the first time. The Megarians who died in the Persian Wars proclaim from their graves through the verses of Simonides: “Wanting to bring to Greece and Megara the day of freedom, we have accepted the fate of death. The epigram does not name a specific enemy; it is addressed to whoever threatens the freedom of all Greece in the future. It is no coincidence that we find the first definition of identity in Herodotus, in connection with this war. It depicts the Athenians refusing to yield to Persian power, because their Greek identity (in Hellenikon) prevents them from doing so: “We have the same blood, the same language, common places of worship of the gods, common sacrifices, similar customs” . However, the Pan-Hellenic alliance proved to be temporary. European solidarity in the face of Russian aggression may also prove to be temporary. It is a negative sign that the agreement on energy policy is partial and seems unstable.

The brutal attack on the Putin regime in Ukraine is an opportunity to reflect on the foundations of a European identity. We speak of “European civilization”, even if all the inhabitants of Europe have never spoken the same language, practiced the same religion or accepted the same system of law. Europeans have never lived through history together; they have never won or lost a war together. Europe also lacks the symbolic acts and rituals that usually forge an identity, such as common historical anniversaries. Only the International Charlemagne Prize reminds us that Charlemagne was in his day considered Europae pater – the father of a Europe as divided as today.

What will enable Europeans inside and outside the EU to develop a distinct identity is not the belief in the superiority of a “common European civilisation”, but the belief in the superiority of shared values

A common characteristic of collective identities is the belief in the superiority of a community’s culture. This idea, sometimes promoted by European (conservative) politicians, has been rightly criticized. There is no homogeneous European culture with which Greeks and Bosnian Muslims, Norwegians and third-generation Turks in Germany, French Muslims and Lapps, Russian Jews and Indians in London can identify. What has always characterized Europe is cultural, linguistic and religious diversity. European identity cannot be built on the myth of a common cultural memory based exclusively on Greco-Roman antiquity and Christianity, and eliminating the memory of a cultural diversity that includes not only the timeless and universal values ​​of classical antiquity but also the glory of Arab culture in medieval Spain, the culture of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and the heritage of the Ottoman Empire. A European identity built on myths and selective memories has fragile foundations. The illusion of economic superiority is just as fragile. We have seen that any economic crisis undermines European cohesion.

A solid base can be formed by the common values ​​created by the active participation and struggles of European citizens: self-determination, democracy, ecological sensitivities, respect for human rights, tolerance of diversity, freedom of expression, the peaceful settlement of disputes through negotiation and arbitration, the independence of the judiciary, the meritocratic advancement of knowledge. What will enable Europeans inside and outside the EU to develop a distinct identity is not the belief in the superiority of a “common European civilisation”, but the belief in the superiority of shared values. The great surprises of the war in Ukraine include the self-sacrifice of Ukrainians in the defense of such values, but also the willingness of the majority of European citizens to accept certain hardships precisely because they believe in these values. European citizens are showing more maturity than some of their political leaders.


Angelos Chaniotis is Professor of Ancient History and Classics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

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