Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

Unpicking Europe’s cult of culture

Europe may not have a unifying musical or literary canon but there is more to cultural identity than good books and fine art, according to human rights lawyer CONOR GEARTY

A community without a shared culture is inevitably on a journey to oblivion, Theresa May’s citizens of nowhere heading for the cliff edge. So what is European culture?

If we cannot answer that question effectively we risk the great gains of recent months being dissipated by inter-state feuding and a return to bureaucracy-bashing. Is Beethoven’s Ninth, beloved of organisers of European summits, really the best we can do? Surely not as long as Europe contains all those other – er – non-Germanic bits, with their very different versions of what counts as patriotic music: just look at Eurovision.

Long may it remain so – Esperanto music is as likely to catch on as the Esperanto language has. If not music, then sport perhaps? Hardly – its rationale is intense competition with each other rather than as one against the world. Books then? Nope, we are back to the Beethoven problem and, anyway, good literature defies national boundaries much less larger, supranational ones. The one serious contender from our past is not such a pleasant one; our Judeo-Christian shared tradition sounds (in a Europe where vanishing numbers go to church) too much like a rather sinister way of saying something much simpler, and nastier: Muslims don’t belong.

If none of the usual contenders work or ought to work, what on earth can we credibly say makes up our shared sense of who we are and what we stand for, that bundle of assumptions about ourselves that we call, for shorthand, our culture? The answer is complicated because not only are we trying to identify a trans-national culture (already difficult) but also because no culture is ever delivered fully-formed to a society on demand; rather it is hewn out of events, struggle and conflict – a carving that captures the essence of a thing but whose beauty is only made possible because it has emerged from something large, amorphous and previously unknowable.

Viewed in this way we can see that in fact Europe has had many successive cultures, each different but progressively more interesting, richer. In its first phase the European Union’s independent identity was so thin as to be non-existent. It wasn’t called this then of course but rather hid its laurels behind bushes of dullness: Euratom; the Coal and Steel Community; the Common Market. The job in hand was to protect the cultural values of others – European nations (including but going beyond the original EU six) and the United States – against the threat posed by the Soviet bloc’s radical different view of the world.

The same had been true of the Council of Europe with its European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, established a few years before its fellow European initiatives had got fully underway.

Like NATO, both regional frameworks were designed as defensive bulwarks against aggression across a myriad of fronts – and shields don’t do culture, they do protection for the culture of others. The same low-key approach to culture and identity persisted into the 1960s: a mere ‘common market’ is hardly something to write plays about or, even when at its best, to compose hymns of praise to celebrate.

This era of cultural emptiness drew to a close when a European culture began properly to emerge in the early 1990s. The circumstances that had underpinned the initial establishment of Europe after the war began to fall away. First to go was, of course, the Soviet empire, and with its startling collapse came unexpected opportunities for growth to the East.

Since only the German Democratic Republic could be easily assimilated to an already existing member state, what was to be done with the rest? Bring them in for sure but to what exactly, and on what basis? Maastricht began to answer this question in 1993: the European Economic Community became a European Community and even more grandly recast itself as a European Union.

But Europe’s newly asserted greatness was of necessity different – rooted not in kings and prime ministers, nor in this or that music or sport, but rather in abstract ideas such as the rule of law and respect for human rights. Its values embracing, among others, dignity, solidarity, equality and justice appeared in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000. As for those new entrants from the East, well these newbies would need to pass exams in (European) decency before they were allowed climb aboard, first into the Strasbourg system and then, if all went well, into the EU itself. And similar ethical hoops were raised through which the former colonies needed to jump before their relationship with the EU could be allowed to flourish. This Europe was to be that unprecedented thing in global affairs, a moral world-power.

And so, in the last decade of the last Millennium, began a new era for sure, but not one of impressive goodness (as had been hoped) but rather of European cultural hypocrisy. The supplicants were tested strictly against ‘our values’ in a way that the original members themselves never were. Foreign states with whom we really wanted to trade found they could skip through the ethical conditions imposed on other, less favoured nations. When a decade later the economic and financial crises struck, brutal policies could be imposed on the feckless

Latins and their northern equivalents in Ireland without the supposed centrality of human rights to EU practices ever being allowed to get in the way. Just like new entrant states, immigrants could be made to prove themselves ‘good Europeans’ in often humiliating ways, showing they didn’t mind a bit of nudity at the beach or demonstrating they were far more relaxed about gay rights than locals were required to be or than their own religious faith suggested. During this period of perhaps a decade-and-a-half, the most defining feature of modern Europe was its devotion to double standards, not something around which a proud culture can easily grow. And because Europe didn’t have any kind of musical or literary canon of its own, no Ibsen could emerge to critique the project in a way that spoke to the continent as a whole: all the geniuses were engaged with their own patch on the quilt, not the quilt itself.

The second falling away of the old post-1945 European structure marked the beginning of the third phase of European culture, the one which we are now in, and which committed Europeans must hope has some decent mileage left in it: the era of Euro-pride. This starts with the decline of the United States, a decade after the USSR’s collapse but real enough nevertheless.

The pivotal event from the perspective of the growth of European culture was the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration leading the way in the ‘War on Terror’, with a cowed United Nations falling in behind the White House with its own draconian sanctions-system against those declared (often on secret evidence and always without any decent process) to be deserving of punishment as international terrorists. When the EU Commission toed this UN/US line, the European courts pushed back, finding in these new counter-terrorist systems such egregious failings in human rights protection that they could have no place in a European legal order. Hypocrisy no longer ruled the day.

Then, in quick order, came Trump and Brexit. With the election of the former, and confirmed since then almost daily by the president’s conduct in office, the final shreds of the US cover offered Europe since 1945 have been dragged away. Brexit hurt Europe just as deeply, a family member for whom a succession of special arrangements had been made nevertheless storming out of the house, screaming abuse. And calling on others to join them in demolishing the whole place – whatever the better behaved elements in the Tory administration might pretend, the Brexiteers desperately needed Europe to fail so as to justify their decision as far-sighted rather than the blind stupidity it appeared to its opponents. Trump had no such pretence – he cheered Marine Le Pen and the other fascists on. Putin leered from the sidelines, destabilising as much as he could and relishing the divided Europe that he has desired for so long. 2016 and 2017 were clearly going to be make or break for the whole project.

A cultural identity is not something that you need when times are good, when protections abound and comfort produces that high level of complacency that is subversive of the solidarity needed to forge community self-awareness. Neither does identity come from above, dictated by a Valery Giscard D’Estaing or a gathering of leaders at a Lisbon or Maastricht summit. It grows from below, and in adversity. After decades of certainty, the idea of Europe was looking destruction in the face, and in refusing that fate its supporters have finally begun to fill the term with meaning.

The straws in the wind were the survival of Italy within the euro, notwithstanding the resignation of Matteo Renzi after defeat in a quixotically called referendum and, at around the same time, the Austrians continued insistence on having a 72-year-old Green president rather than the as-usual young, white and plausible Far Right alternative. Then, in 2017, the noisy Dutch self-publicist Geert Wilders did far worse in his country than many had anticipated. The big test of France produced a strong pro-Europe vote, and the German election looks set fair to be a contest between two Europeans rather than involving a plausible candidate intent on the destruction of Brussels.

Elections don’t make culture but they can reflect important changes in the importance attached to particular cultural assumptions. These do not have to take shape solely as good books or fine art or wonderful music. Culture can also be about a shared commitment to an abstract ideal, and can be reflected too in a strong belief in making that vision real, in closing the gap between it as a stated ethic and the reality of its realisation on the ground. Far from chaining itself to a religious or nationalistic past, European culture of today embraces a distinctive approach to respect for human rights, one that is rooted in tolerance and broadmindedness, which embraces the old-fashioned idea of individual human dignity with the post-modern one of ‘to each their own way’.

Chasms of hypocrisy of course remain. Religious belief must not be forced out of the civic space by secular aggression disguised as humanism. The welcome given to refugees must be forthcoming from all of Europe and not just from occasional enlightened patches. The mockery made of human rights by the stringent viciousness of austerity must be exposed. This can all be done but without forgoing European loyalty as a result; Charles Dickens is not the less English for exposing English malpractice. So we should love Europe while critiquing it too, and here traditional cultural vehicles do have a role: let’s have an opera on the gruesome Burqa ban (scandalously uphold by the European judges), and have the various austerity Troikas set to music as they do their work. And a David Hare kind of play on Brexit (provisionally called OH NO! THE GERMAN CAR-MAKERS CARE LESS THAN WE THOUGHT) – though maybe only a discordant ultra-modern piece of music could do justice to that particular shambles. Certainly a team of Brecht/Weill quality would be needed to capture the mystery that is Angela Merkel. And so on. A Europe that is growing stronger and more patriotic under the pressure of adversity is now ready for these insurgent odes to joy.

Conor Gearty is Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE and a barrister at Matrix Chambers. His most recent book is On Fantasy Island. Britain, Europe and Human Rights

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.