Only when it is in peril is the idea of Europe so in­spir­ing

The London Magazine - - FINTAN O’TOOLE -

Most ideas prove them­selves by work­ing well. The idea of Europe, on the other hand, seems to be most pow­er­ful when it’s go­ing dis­as­trously wrong. Over the course of mod­ern his­tory, it ap­pears that Europe be­comes an ur­gent busi­ness only when it is threat­ened with dis­in­te­gra­tion. When things are OK, Europe bores us to tears. It is 28 shades of grey. But plunge Europe into ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis and it sud­denly seems to mat­ter. This is the great para­dox of the idea: it grips the imag­i­na­tion only when it is in a dire state. The odd way in which the threat of Brexit makes the no­tion of Europe in­ter­est­ing again is ac­tu­ally quite fa­mil­iar.

Europe has al­ways drawn en­ergy from the prox­im­ity of catas­tro­phe. The first mod­ern con­cep­tion of Europe – that of a Chris­tian com­mon­wealth of holy king­doms – took hold be­cause the Turks were at the gates of Vi­enna and the tri­umph of Is­lam in Europe seemed a real pos­si­bil­ity. The re­li­gious wars in which Catholic and Protes­tant pow­ers tore each other apart were ended by ap­peal­ing to that same idea of Euro­pean Chris­ten­dom.

Later, the En­light­en­ment con­cep­tions of a Euro­pean cul­ture based on sci­ence, rea­son and hu­man rights be­came most vividly ur­gent when it col­lapsed face down in the mud of Flan­ders. And the Euro­pean Union emerged from the ul­ti­mate degra­da­tion of the Euro­pean En­light­en­ment ideal at Auschwitz. Threaten or de­stroy the idea of Europe and it be­comes sud­denly po­tent. Take it for granted and it at­ro­phies.

In its 58 years, the EU has worked best when it has been, in the broad­est sense, neg­a­tive. It has stopped things hap­pen­ing. It stopped Ger­many de­stroy­ing it­self, and Europe, yet again. It stopped cen­tral and eastern Europe

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