Hélène Glykantzi-Ahrweiler
European Community as an Idea: The Historical Dimension

From “The idea of European Community in History”, ed. National and Capodistrian University of Athens, Greek Ministry of education and religious affairs, Athens 2003

BEFORE EVERY APPROACH to our subject, it is incumbent upon us to ask an initial question (which will certainly remain unanswered): Who is creator of Europe? (Of course, always within the boundaries of the continent that we today call Europe and which some wanted to call Iapetia, after the Titan Iapetos.) Is it the states and those who govern them? Is it the peoples and their leaders? Is it certain visionaries? Is it the geography or is it perhaps the history, thanks to the ideas and values, as well as the interests, it serves and substantiates?

It is patently obvious that all these factors played and play a role, each in its own time and its own way, in parallel with or in opposition to others. It is patently obvious that, virtually to this day, Europe, either as a myth or a dream or an idea, has always been a paramount issue.

From the Father of the Gods, Zeus, to the intellectuals, and from the intellectuals and philosophers to the political visionaries, Europe as a political unity or as an expression of a single civilization, has at various times concerned the upper echelons of European societies, to the exclusion of the peoples, by and large indifferent, and of so-called public opinion, invariably hostile, which readily aligned only with the geographical conception of the continent. And this with significant fluctuations and oscillations, depending on the period, relating to the eastern frontiers of Europe (which was considered the continuation of Asia). I should say characteristically, and somewhat schematically, that this situation prevails more or less to this day, even though historical circumstances and advances in political science dictate other approaches, both with regard to the easternmost reaches of Europe and the public opinion that voices the conceptions of the popular classes.

What I mean is, and as I believe is generally accepted today, that Europe is a cultural manifestation which expresses a way of government (democracy) and a way of life (liberty), things that differentiate it from the other continents: from despotic Asia during Antiquity, from threatening Islam during the Middle Ages, from Ottoman expansionism during more recent times, and from its egoistically hegemonic daughter — America — in the present era.

Certainly the peoples, or let us say better, the populations of Europe, were conscious of their cultural propinquity, verging on kinship, when faced by hostile external adversaries. It is thus characteristic that the term Europe (which then meant Hellas) appears in Herodotus on account of the Trojan War, and that in school textbooks the victories against the Persians in the battles of Marathon and Salamis are considered as signifying the beginning of the European cultural experience. I remind you, as an aside, that when British schoolchildren in Victorian times were asked to name the most important victories of the British army, they unabashedly started with Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis. And I add further that when the Byzantines, in Palaeologan times, were defending their European territories from the marauding incursions of the Turks, they named the then invaders 'Persians' and 'Achaemenids' (even though the Ottomans and other Turkomans had no affinity whatsoever to the Persian dynasty). I mention this only to underline the fact that these Byzantines were defending Europe from the Asian threat and cultural alienation, just as their distant ancestors had done centuries before them. And the British schoolchildren, in appropriating the ancient Greek feats as their own heritage, were faithful to the maxim of their national poet Shelley: We are all Greeks, as our laws, manners and institutions show.

So, European consciousness is initially an aggregation to confront external enemies, which is transformed progressively, in times of peace, into a mutual acquaintance of the continent's populations. Then they exchange commodities, habits and ideas, and each consequently widens its space of action. It is indisputable that this constitution of the peoples of Europe (of whatever Europe, always partial because the constitution never covered the continent's geographical extent in its entirety) is possible thanks to unifying forces mainly of cultural character, which are adopted gradually by more and more European peoples and populations. The radiance of the Hellenic spirit, thanks to the feats of Alexander the Great in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the resultant prevailing of koine Greek throughout the then civilized world (truly the first international language), which made self-evident Isocrates' seemingly strange claim that 'The Greek is not of the nation but of the intellect'; the subsequent spread of the Christian message of salvation, thanks to the diffusion of koine Greek (I remind you that the entire Christian codex is written in Greek: the Gospels, excepting that of Matthew, the Acts and Epistles of the Apostles, and The Revelation, as are the acta of the six Ecumenical Councils at which the Trinitarian doctrine was elaborated) — and this despite the concurrent spread of Latin, which was based on Roman expansionism, just as the spread of Greek had previously been based on Alexander's. These phenomena constitute, without doubt, the cultural infrastructure of the European process.

To summarize: koine Greek, Christianity and the Latin language constitute the cultural foundation-stones of the emergent European reality, which, however, in the first centuries, was still far away from preparing the consciousness of a future pan-European convergence.

The dividing line that begins from the depths of the Adriatic and reaches down as far as Libya, the Great Syrtis, the grosso-modo, and defines to the East the Greek-assimilated world and to the West the Latin-generated, was to be fixed with the Schism between Catholic Rome and Orthodox Constantinople. It was continued, after the Fall of Byzantium, as the limit of Ottoman expansionism (the Turkish coffee that ends at Ljubljana) against Christian Western Europe and, I shall say —with a dose of exaggeration — was perpetuated until today by the Communist zone of influence and the consequent tragic events in neighbouring Yugoslavia.

Without doubt the European space is opening gradually to the people who are in the domain of powers that govern an increasingly greater part of the continent. For Antiquity the climax of this opening was the Roman Empire. 'Every land trodden and passable and every sea navigable belong to Rome.' This famous phrase of Diodorus Siculus is the definition of a globalism which, even though its limits embrace the whole of the Mediterranean (that is the African and Asian coasts together with the European), is essentially pan-European, since the Roman Empire is the power that incorporated almost the whole of the then inhabited continent within its dominion. It united under its aegis the Europe of cultural creativity and of prosperity, leaving outside the obscure and unsettled part of the continent, as Strabo writes, referring of course to the northern lands of Europe, the home of amber and of the Hyperborean Maidens, which remained beyond the ambit of Rome.

It is, therefore, logical that Rome is the model for every later effort to unify European countries, mainly because of the right of Roman citizenship, which was granted (by Caracalla) to the inhabitants of the vast imperium, and, of course, the legislative code as well as the road and communication infrastructure, which organized the society of and brought into contact peoples with different traditions and mores.

The internationalization of the Latin language, together with the intellectual-spiritual internationalization of koine Greek, constituted —to use a neologism— the 'software' of the first policy of imperial European convergence, that is of the Roman Empire, throughout its historical life.

The Roman Empire was succeeded and continued organically by Byzantium, which is none other than the Empire of the Roman East, the Christianized and Hellenized New Rome, Romania, from which stems the Romiosyne of yesterday and today.

This thousand-year-long empire of Medieval Hellenism is the first European empire that is based on the fundamental principles of the European process: I shall enumerate them exactly as they were enumerated by Paul Valéry, in 1922, when, he published his study entitled 'So who is a European?’.

According to Valéry, a European is whoever has been influenced by the ancient Greek spirit, whoever has received the legislative and administrative organizational experience of the Romans, and whoever embraces the Christian-Judaic spirituality. And Valéry continues, wherever the names Aristotle and Plato, Virgil and Caesar and Cicero, Moses and Apostle Paul are considered important, there is Europe.

Athens-Rome-Jerusalem, to put it concisely, are the foundations of Europe. So, quite rightly, the successor to Rome, the Byzantine Empire, whose official language was Greek, with all this entails in appreciating ancient Greek Letters and Philosophy, and which was the first to believe in the Christ the Lord (Despotis Christos), as Cosmas Indicopleustes tells us, is the first European empire (and not only in geographical terms). Moreover, at one time it enjoyed the economic hegemony too, for as we learn again from Cosmas Indicopleustes — that humble yet well-travelled monk of the reign of Justinian: 'in its coin [the famous konstantinato], all nations trade and are governed'. Lopez characterized the Byzantine coin as the Medieval dollar: his article was published before the circulation of the euro!

Byzantium is thus the first European political power. It embraces Eastern Europe (which was converted to Christianity thanks to the Empire's Church) in its full extent, mainly after the conversion of the Slavic peoples, the Rus included. In the same period, the western part of the erstwhile mighty Roman Empire, is fragmented into barbarian kingdoms and principalities that were founded in its lands as remnants of the Roman authority, or (mainly I would say) as political formations representative of the newly arrived populations in Europe (diverse tribes, Frankish, Gothic, Germanic, Saxon, and so on). So, Western Europe, in contrast to contemporary Eastern, finds its unity solely under the religious authority of the Pope, of the Catholic Church.

It is characteristic that the attempted political unification of the West, according to Byzantine models, was to begin with the decision by none other than the Pope to crown in Rome, on Christmas Day 800, Charlemagne as emperor, an act which cast doubts on Constantinople as unique heir to the legacy of Rome. To put it another way, in my opinion —and I am ready to analyse it in more detail if necessary— the coronation of Charlemagne marks not the unification but the fission of Europe. The Roman imperial legacy, which, as I have stressed, constitutes a reference point for the European political process, was split into an Empire of Romans (this was the official name of Byzantium) and a Holy Roman Empire (this was the name of the political formation that was the Carolingian realm). Hence forth, the fates and the interests of Eastern and Western Europe were divided almost finally and clashed politically, militarily, economically and spiritually (I refer to the expansionist wars of the Normans against Byzantium; the Crusades, particularly the Fourth, and the dramatic consequences with the Sack of Constantinople in 1204; I refer to the Schism between the Churches in 1054, and of course to the economic exploitation that Byzantium suffered from the obdurate maritime mercantile republics of Italy —Venice, Genoa, Pisa—, not to mention the persecutions to which Byzantine territories were subjected by self-seeking Western allies, such as the Catalans in the fourteenth century). The Fall of Byzantium into the hands of the Turks, in 1453, and the Ottoman advance into Balkan lands that had accepted Byzantine civilization, led the Europeans in the West to close ranks round their Catholic rulers, leaving Orthodox Eastern Europe, excepting Russia, to the mercy of the Turks in the long centuries of bondage.

This is the age in which the term Europe is identified only with the free Christian countries, particularly in Western Europe which had then widened its Lebensraum with the discovery of the New World, of America (1492), thus displacing the weight of its destiny from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. This is the age in which Greek erudition is grafted onto free Europe, thanks precisely to the refugee intellectuals from Constantinople and the enslaved empire, who sought haven in Italy and France. The names Bessarion, Gazis, Trapezountios, Janus Laskaris, among others, spring to mind, personalities whose work enriched the intellectual foundations of Europe but who were lost for Orthodoxy and Hellenism.

The age ushered in, known by the term Renaissance, is none other than a return, a nostos, to the spirit of Graeco-Roman Antiquity, a spirit which is moribund in its birthplace, that is enslaved Hellas. So it is time for us to ask, whom did Francis Bacon address and what exactly did he mean when he uttered the famous phrase: 'We Europeans', in 1623, when the idea of the Respublica Christiana —which was the unifying force of Latin, Catholic and Carolingian Europe— had collapsed under the convulsions of the Protestant Reformation, which shook the trunk of Western Christendom.

Machiavelli was to doubt the role of the Church in the government of the State (for which he was considered distant precursor of the separation of Church and State), and the intellectuals of the age, mainly with the dawn of the sixteenth century, were to turn towards Greek Antiquity and the rationalist worldview. This new Weltanschauung is expressed aesthetically, symbolically and intellectually by allusions to Graeco-Roman Antiquity. In the new modus vivendi Odysseus (Ulysses), Helen of Troy, Prometheus and Achilles, become role models of life and action. The European discovers the delights of the body (it is telling that all words concerning love are of Greek derivation). Antiquarianism dominated throughout Europe, which was then building libraries and museums. This is the age of the so-called Republic of Letters, which replaced the Christian Republic and which led progressively to the Age of Enlightenment and to the liberation of peoples, mainly after the revolutionary movements. So I say that Bacon's 'We Europeans' expresses the solidarity between the intellectuals of the age, some-thing which I do not think the popular classes then shared, regarding the concept of Europe.

For ordinary folk in our continent, Europe begins to become a tangible reality thanks to the charts and maps that became more widely diffused from the early sixteenth century onwards. The dictates of fashion made maps/ globes not only an indispensable instrument of the administration and of the military and political leadership and strategy, but also an essential item of furnishing, almost on a par with paintings or tapestries, in every respectable affluent home. But these maps, for example of Martin Waldseemuller (1511) and Mercator (1554), present a single Europe, without divisive state frontiers, which are in any case unstable and shifting, and they are vague in marking its eastern limits (in Russia), limits which, according to general consensus, were somewhere on the River Don, its estuaries in Lake Tanais, that is the Cimmerian Bosporos, a point which the ancient geographers also reasonably considered as the easternmost limit of Europe. The publication of the map was followed immediately by the compilation of a geographical atlas of Europe. In the atlas, each country is differentiated in the description, a trend that introduces a new branch of the then embryonic discipline of geography: chorography, which focuses on the anthropological data of each region.

Echo of this movement are surely the paintings of folk inspiration that start to circulate in Europe and which present, in a single picture, each European people depicted in its national-local costume and accompanied by a caption outlining its chief characteristics. I should note right away that the sartorial variations as well as the frequently unflattering comments given for each people indicate that the popular classes are far away from perceiving Europe as a single cultural space, despite its geographical unity and even though contemporary historiography incorporates the European dimension in national-ethnic histories. (In the mid-seventeenth century, Nicolo Contarini, for instance, places the history of Venice in the context of the European history of the period.) At that time too, works entitled 'History of Europe' begin to be written. We can also say that from the sixteenth century Europe appears as a single foe in the political events of the age. And it is also interesting that allegorical representations of Europe with the bull begin to be promulgated, as well as symbolic personifications of the continent as a mature lady clad in an ample, opulent chiton inscribed with the names of the European states. The unity of the continent becomes embedded in the consciousness of all peoples of Western Europe, but without creating in all the need for political unification. This need will emerge as an imperative petition of peace, after the almost incessant atrocities suffered by the continent. And this notwithstanding the notable efforts to consolidate a sustainable peace, which would be the first attempt to create super-state institutions of control and security. Thus the need to establish peace (a need which became generally felt with the dramatic events of the religious discord in the early sixteenth century) led some enlightened men to work on the organization of a recognized super-state authority which could impose peace, by force if needs be. I cite indicatively the plan of Maximilian de Bethune in 1620, and especially that which made provision for redrawing the borders of the small European states, under the auspices of the European powers, something which was to be ratified by every national assembly and would guarantee a standing general European parliament. Depending on the issues being dealt with, its seat would be Danzig, Nuremberg, Vienna, Constanza and Poland, while a permanent European Council would meet periodically in the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Spain. Aim of this organization would be to secure peace and freedom of commercial transactions, as well as to counter a united Europe to the Ottoman Empire.

Comparable was the plan of Emeric de Cruce (1623), which guaranteed freedom of movement, religious tolerance, the end of monetary instability, and of course the peace that would make Europe and the whole world 'a commonwealth'. In the general assembly of this ideal state, the decision of the majority would be binding on all. Seat of this state would be Venice, a country that was neutral but which, thanks to its geographical position between East and West, participated in the entire European achievement and had an organized, cosmopolitan society. I hardly need say that these efforts remained on paper, with no future, and that the stereotype popular imputations of one people by another continued, and indeed as intercourse between them increased. Moreover, as the literary output of the age shows (17th-18th centuries), such inimical views were propagated even in intellectual circles.

A whole century was to pass before new plans for sustainable peace appear, such as that of Abbe de Saint-Pierre, which was presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This proposes the founding of a society of the Nations of Europe, which would guarantee for the continent's inhabitants equal opportunities of acquiring wealth, which would assist artistic exchanges and commercial transactions, as well as communication between various regions, securing the just distribution of the sources of wealth and means of production, from one end of the continent to the other. For the implementation of his plan, Abbe de Saint-Pierre (1782) asks of those in power simply common sense, in order to serve the common weal. Needless to say, it was common sense that was lacking most of all from the leaders of the then sorely tried Europe. Without doubt the Abbé de Saint-Pierre's plan was to be the tinder that kindled imitators and continuers. Apart from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I put Victor Hugo in a conspicuous position, who is rightly considered the most important bard of European unity and, what is more, in the difficult years of the nineteenth century, that is the years stamped by the Napoleonic Wars as well as by the struggles of the subject peoples of Europe for independence.

In his familiar triumphal and exuberant tone, Victor Hugo prophesies the end of European internecine strife, when a European senate shall settle, with justice and solidarity as guide, the disputes between Europeans, those whom Hugo dubs 'his compatriots', following the creation of the United Nations of Europe, modelled on the first democracy, that is America. In 1849, Hugo was to conclude his speech to the Parliament of Emeriti, by saying that the peoples of Europe who are free and independent should now know that they are all brothers. But Europe had to be plunged into the bloodbath of the First World War in order for Coudenhove-Kallergi to speak of 'Paneuropa' in 1923, the flower of its youth had to be decimated in the protracted hostilities of the Second World War, its people had to know the hell created by men for men —I speak of Auschwitz and Gulag— for Europe to come to its senses and leave behind the bellicose fratricidal frenzy. For Europe to bow to its cultural achievement, European civilization, that which served and should always serve, with its scientific and cultural achievement, humanism and humanity. Humanism (the word appears already in Roman times), a European creation; it was time for Europe to become again a wellspring of humanism, according to the primordial archetypes of respect for the other and of democracy. I note, by the way, that the term 'United States of Europe' was coined in France, by Vesinet, in 1847. From 1848 it becomes a commonplace; thanks to the visionary of Europe, Victor Hugo, something which splits the French National Assembly (the Right with Montalembert rejects this idea, whereas the Left accepts it enthusiastically). The same term, 'Etats Unis d'Europe', will by used by E. Herriot much later, in 1925, who declares to the French National Assembly that their realization is his persistent desire. Briand was to declare the same in his speech to the Community of Nations, in 1929, and of course the term was to be repeated later by the protagonists and inspirers of our own Europe.

The ancient Greek values of equal rights of birth (isogonia), before the law (isonomia), in the body politic (isopoliteia) and to freedom of speech (isegoria), underpin the virtue of today's Europe, the democracy that is established through dialogue, justice and respect for human rights. Mnemonically, I would say that our Europe comes of age when it strives to achieve these eight equalities: of birthright, legal rights, political rights, free speech, democracy, dialogue, justice and dignity. And Europe is perhaps now in a position to demand these equalities, so that the European Community, which began as an economic and trading union, can proceed to the political formation that will make the common civilization of its peoples viable and vital. The civilization that has roots in Greece, the great-grandmother of Europe, as Victor Hugo says, whose branches embrace the memory of Europe, Italy (again according to Hugo), to end up at its daughter, France. France, which according to Fernand Braudel, for all her colonial expansion, knew but one true empire: the cultural and artistic. But the great historian and mentor of us all forgot that the creation of the European Community (the Union of today) meant the end not only of the totalitarian regimes and ideologies, but also of all manner of empire, in the sense bequeathed to us by the history of Europe. I mean mainly, of course, the multinational political entities with broad territorial base, the last example of which was perhaps the Soviet expansion into Central Europe and the Balkans. I mean, ultimately, Europe, a traditional form of empire. To put it a different way, the European Union inaugurates in History a multi-ethnic - multi-state unity of equals that is not the result of the conquering successes of one of its members. Thus we can say that the European Union is, in contrast to traditional empires, an entity that is multinational and geographically continuous, which is the outcome not of war but of the endeavour to cement a sustainable peace, in the body of the continent so tyrannized by turmoil. It is therefore logical for us to consider, henceforth, every clash that might arise in the bosom of this Europe as a civil war with fratricidal conflict. (The term civil refers here not to the biological or ethnic kinship but to something much more important: the coexistence, the common popular desire and political will of the contributors, the common cultural experience that underlies the community of ways of life, cultural equality and mutual respect between all the peoples that make up the continent of Europe.)

It has been said, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, that tottering Europe made its first hesitant steps towards its institutional unification before the indifferent eyes of the peoples who compose it. It has also been said, certainly an overstatement, that the only cohesive force of Europe is the serving of its economic interests, even though no one, since the successful circulation of the single currency, has tried to define the distinctive traits of the economic cohesion and policy of Europe, within the tumultuous historical process of globalization. Last, it has been said, and certainly justifiably, that Europe is its history and geography. So, the multiplicity and complexity of the historical experience obstructs any approach to Europe before the always partial viewpoint is defined. They are speaking now of Europe in the plural, they have written about zones of golden and of white Europe (that is of the sun and the snow), they are exploring meticulously fundamental myths in order to detect the primeval character of the Europeans. Last, architectural habits and popular artistic manifestations as well as the practicalities of everyday life have been scrutinized, in order to arrive at the almost general conclusion that (and here I copy almost verbatim, the study by the Council of Europe, presented by the Commission of Emilio Colombo) Europe is a common cultural space which for all the multifaceted and multidimensional contribution of whatever Europeans, has common roots and recognizable expressions which permit us to speak of a single European civilization.

So it was written, a little hurriedly, to illustrate the cultural cohesion of the Europeans, that Europe is a common Museum, a common Library, a common aesthetic and a common emotive reference point. The counter-argument to all these ascertainments is not difficult to understand, if we remember the European states outside Europe, which have exactly the same bounties. Let us say only that Europe and its existential hypostasis cannot be defined or fitted into cognitive frameworks and schemes easily. Nevertheless, it is characteristic that all those who have grappled bonafide with defining Europe have as compulsory reference point the most ancient events and rites that first saw light in the space that marks, geographically and historically, the beginning of Europe. I mean Greece. That is why the entry of Greece into the European Community was greeted as a symbol that would enable Europeans to relate to the diachronic continuity of the European cultural achievement and to extricate themselves from the economic and technocratic confines of the institution. Of course, not all these hopes were realized, for the Euro-optimism of the European intellectuals has since undergone something of a recession. Today, almost significatively, Greece assumes the Presidency of Europe at another moment of fatigue and pessimism: these are fed by the technocratic complexity of the Brussels Treaty as well as by the inability of Europe to respond to the humanitarian and cultural obligations that the dramatic events dictate (such as in former Yugoslavia, to speak only of the European domain). Within this new climate of European uncertainty, Greece, primarily Greece, can remind us of the excellence of the cultural roots of Europe and work for the consolidation of it in the united pan-European domain, after the collapse of the totalitarian regimes.

And through this will come true the apocryphal phrase attributed to Jean Monnet: 'If I were to begin again, I would begin from civilization'. We say succinctly that for Europe to get on its feet and come to manhood, it must begin from the beginning, that is, it must begin not from the economy but (I say this symbolically, of course) from Hellas.

It is, therefore, little wonder that we are worried when we hear that in the European Constitution, now being drafted, Culture is the great absentee. It seems that the very word is absent all together.

[back to top]