Umberto Eco: See China, Learn What Europe Must Become

By Umberto Eco

Umberto EcoThis is hardly the best time to be making predictions about the prospects of a united Europe. The divergent positions European countries have taken on the question of the Iraq conflict have shown just how divided the continent is.

The eastern countries’ entry brings in a contrast between old democracies that are prepared to cede at least some of their national sovereignty to the European Union, and younger democracies determined to reinforce their newly formed national governments, even if it means making alliances outside Europe’s boundaries.

The way things are looking, we have on the one hand a European consciousness and identity that really do exist, and on the other a set of circumstances that directly threatens that very unity.

Let us take some of the fundamental principles of the so-called western world: the Greek and Judeo-Christian heritage; the French revolution’s notions of liberty and equality; the foundations of modern science laid down by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Francis Bacon; the capitalist mode of production; the secular state; Roman or common law and the idea of justice achieved through class struggle. These are the achievements, the products of Europe, but they no longer belong to Europe alone. They have been introduced, established and confirmed in the US and Australia, and in many parts of Asia and Africa.

Nowadays, we can talk freely about western civilisation without any sense that we are referring to a specifically European form of civilisation. At the same time, a specific European identity is emerging ever more clearly within the wider category of western civilisation. It is not when we visit other countries in Europe that this is most evident — on such occasions we are more inclined to note how different things are. It is when we come into contact with a non-European culture that our European identity really comes out. There are moments during an evening with friends from different countries when I suddenly sense a shared feeling that makes the behaviour, opinions and tastes of a Frenchman, a Spaniard or a German somehow more familiar than those of people from further afield.

Last December the philosopher and French MP Luc Ferry noted that a war against Germany was now absolutely inconceivable for a Frenchman. Ferry was not saying anything new, but the way he put it was dramatic. After all, precisely these kinds of conflicts and enmities were the norm across Europe for 2,000 years. We are in a historically new situation, unthinkable even 50 years ago. Short holidays or shopping trips regularly take us quite nonchalantly over borders that our fathers would only ever have crossed under arms.

There are any number of reasons why a Frenchman might still feel distinct from a German, but each now has behind him a set of experiences that have marked both countries. Our collective memory as Europeans cannot fail to have informed our thoughts and beliefs. We remember the fall of imperialism and the loss of our respective colonies. We remember dictatorship close at hand. We remember war on our own soil.

Is all this enough to make a truly united Europe? As we see every day, despite the euro and the simple fact that so many countries wish to be part of this community, the answer has to be a definite no. It seems we all wish to be part of a union for which we renounce part of our national autonomy but not all of it. And nations are quite prepared to provoke new disagreements, as their divergent positions on the Iraq war have shown.

But the fact is the unity that Europe cannot find within itself is now being imposed upon it by world events. During the cold war, Europe had just emerged from the second world war and had to live its newly divided life behind the shield of other powers: the US for the West and the USSR for the East. The European countries had to shape their respective foreign policies according to which of the two blocs they belonged to.

The panorama changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet it is only in the past few years that the old knots have really come undone. A key turning point was reached when the limits of American interest in the Balkan question became apparent. Now that their enemy of 50 years had been defeated, the US had noticed that it had another enemy, whose territory was not clearly defined but which was certainly located in the Muslim world.

In the meantime it has become clear that the next great confrontation foreseen by the US will be with China. There is no reason to suppose that this will take the form of a war but it will certainly be an economic and demographic conflict. You only have to visit an American university to see how Asian students are taking more and more of the scholarships and research positions. America’s scientific development will increasingly depend on the importation of brains — not from Europe but from Asia: from India, China and Japan. This means that the US will turn its gaze away from the Atlantic and towards the Pacific.

Already, for years now, major research and production centres have moved to, or emerged on, the Californian coast. In the long term New York will be America’s Florence — still a centre for fashion and culture, but the location for fewer and fewer truly important decisions. The US is on its way to becoming a Pacific rather than an Atlantic country. This has clear implications for Europe: where the Wasps of the 1920s worshipped a Parisian ideal, in future the Americans who matter will be living in places that don’t even get The New York Times (or at least, not until the next day and only at specific outlets).

They will live in places where people know barely anything about Europe, and when they hear about it they won’t understand the point of this exotic continent, much further removed from them than Hawaii or Japan.

With the US turning its attention towards the Middle East and the vast universe of the Pacific, the old continent could find that it no longer matters. In any case, even the most decidedly pro-American among us will have to admit that the US will not be losing sleep over a continent that is clearly not about to submit to the Nazi Panzers or let Cossack horses drink the holy waters of St Peter’s.

It is something along the lines of Hegelian doctrine to say that reality is rational and leads the way and that all things must follow it. Europe, left alone through force of circumstance, must either become European or disintegrate.

The disintegration hypothesis seems unrealistic, but it is worth outlining. Europe could become Balkanised, or go the way of South America. The new world powers (and in future that might mean China instead of the US) will use the small European countries for their own benefit, according to whether it is more convenient for them to have their bases in Poland or Gibraltar — or to launch attacks via the pole from Tallinn or Helsinki. And the more divided Europe is the less competitive the euro becomes on the international markets, so much the better. You can’t blame a superpower for putting its own interests first.

Alternatively, Europe could find the energy to establish itself as a third power between the US and the Far East.

There is only one way for Europe to become that third pole. Having achieved market unity, freedom of movement and a single currency, it must build a pan-European foreign policy backed up by a small European defence force. Will European governments be able to reach agreement on such issues? The philosopher Jürgen Habermas suggests that it would be impossible to achieve this in the immediate future with an enlarged Europe that includes Estonia, Turkey and, perhaps, even some day Russia. But the project could involve the nucleus of countries that founded the EU. If a proposal came out of that nucleus, maybe other countries might gradually fall into line.

This may be a utopian view. But rational analysis reveals that this utopia is now indispensable if the old continent is to survive in the new world order. Europe simply has to establish a common foreign and defence policy. Either that or nothing. Either that or, without wishing to offend anyone, we will become Guatemala.

This is the point of the appeal we, as European citizens, are making to the national governments of the continent where we were born and in which we would like to continue to live and to take pride.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in La Repubblica

The Sunday Times 8 Aug 2004

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