Europe united by memories of faded glory

Nations: A key psychological link among EU members, from Britain to Bulgaria, is a shared nostalgia for great days long gone.

October 19, 2003|By THE ECONOMIST

Pascal Lamy, a European commissioner from France, recently mused publicly about why some members of the European Union are more awkward to deal with than others. "We have to recognize," he said, "that there are some countries which remember that they were once great world powers and which believe that this was not an accident - that they still have special qualities that deserve recognition: France, Britain, Spain, Poland."

At the mention of Poland, there was a snort of derision from a Hungarian in the audience. But the real quarrel with Lamy's list is not that it is too long, but too short. The remarkable thing about the European Union is how many of its 15 - soon to be 25 - members once had a crack at world, or at least continental, power. A shared sense that they have seen greater days is a big psychological link among EU members.

France has its memories of Napoleon; Britain and Spain had their empires. But faded grandeur is a characteristic of smaller countries, too. When Arnold Schwarzenegger won the Californian governorship, Anneliese Rohrer, an Austrian journalist, wrote in the International Herald Tribune that their compatriot's success had inspired Austrians and "stirred memories of the times when there was an emperor and an empire; when the country was a force to be reckoned with." Similar sentiments could be echoed by many countries around Europe. The Netherlands, Portugal and Belgium might be small-to-middling European countries today, but within living memory the Dutch controlled Indonesia, the Portuguese ruled over large chunks of Africa and the Belgians ran the Congo, a country the size of Western Europe.

Colonialism is not nowadays something to boast about. But many European countries reach further back in history for their period as a world power. The Greeks take pride in having been the cradle of Western civilization. The Italians aspire to be heirs to imperial Rome. Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th century was a power to rival Russia. Even Denmark, the epitome of a modest European country with modest views and ambitions, whose chief sources of pride seem to be the quality of its social services, the royal family and the occasional victory on the football field, has folk memories. Danish fans like to turn up at football matches in Viking helmets, revealing a certain shy pride in their ancestors' history of rape and pillage.

Historical baggage

After the Union expands from 15 to 25 members next year, it might be tempting to assume that the new members will not carry the same sort of historical baggage. When did Malta dominate the world? Or Latvia? But the fact that eight of these countries have only recently shrugged off years of Communism has in some ways made them even more conscious of their decline. Hungarians know that their country was once three times its current size, until it was dismembered after the first World War.

The Poles and Lithuanians recall medieval times, when their joint empire stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. And just wait for the Turks, who can recall an Ottoman Empire that once neared the gates of Vienna.

The relationship between awareness of national decline and a desire to be in the European Union is complicated and varies from country to country. Germany's bid for world power ended in disaster and disgrace. For modern Germans, Europe represents an effort to transcend traditional realpolitik. So the EU is associated more with peace and prosperity than with power projection.

The French sometimes complain that "the Germans just want Europe to be a big Switzerland." They, by contrast, want the European Union to be a big France. As the Iraq war has shown, the French are a long way from abandoning the idea that their country can still play a glorious role on the world stage. But since modern France cannot aspire to be a superpower alone, the French elite has sought to build up the EU as a surrogate. Much of the panic discernible in Paris about the future of Europe stems from a growing realization that an enlarged union of 25 countries can no longer be so easily molded to serve the interests of France.

The dilemma of the French is sharpened by the fact that they have no Plan B: no alternative to the union as an instrument of national greatness. By contrast, Britain's problem with the EU has stemmed from an acute awareness of an alternative way of compensating for national decline, using the network of cultural and linguistic ties left by empire. When Britain joined the EU in 1973 (just before an acute economic crisis at home, which accentuated feelings of national decline), many felt the British had finally chosen "Europe" over the old imperial connections.

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