Rip van Knippenberg on the New Europe

Joseph M. Knippenberg

August 1, 2007

Call me Rip van Knippenberg. Having spent a good chunk of my youth living in Europe, I only recently enjoyed my first opportunity, after a fourteen-year absence, to visit the new “unified” continent. We introduced our kids to sights we’d loved on previous trips and our relatives to the young prodigies of whose existence they’d only heard from the boasts of proud grandparents. A good—albeit quite expensive—time was had by all.

It took me a while to get over the “convenience” of the new Europe. What happened to those borders with their passport controls and the money changers? Gosh, this time it was almost like traveling in the States! Actually better: more people actually spoke intelligible English in the circles in which I moved.

Still, despite the ease of travel and commerce, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. When the “New Church” (not to be confused with the “Old Church”) hails from the fourteenth century and the smallish town in which my mom grew up lays claim (in a book running about 500 pages—those Austrians can be pretty German when they try hard enough) to a history dating back 1300 years, you know you’re on the other side of the Atlantic. And, despite the fact that English is the new lingua franca (perhaps we should use the term lingua anglia?), and that Harry Potter, IKEA, and McDonald’s are everywhere, that deeply-rooted history strikes me as important, not just in distinguishing Europe from the U.S. of A. but also in making it unlikely that there will be a U.S. of E.

That realization was brought home to me over a conversation—conducted in Dutch, German, and English—in the Stube of a lovely Alpine hotel. We were four Dutchmen (five, if you count my father), two Americans (one, if you don’t count my father), and our Austrian host (a young career Army officer who had married into the family that owned the hotel). My father recounted how, when he learned German, he had to memorize a poem about the Austrian (or, if you will, Tyrolean) patriot Andreas Hofer, who had led a rebellion against Napoleon’s attempt to include Tyrol in an earlier version of a unified Europe. Our host admitted that the poem (the “Andreas Hofer Lied” or “Sandwirth Hofer,” the Tyrolean “national anthem”) brought tears to his eyes. He’s quite willing to cater to people from other countries, and happy that it’s easy for them to spend their money on the goods and services that his family provides, but he’s not, first and foremost, a “good European.”

Our new Dutch friends were also Euroskeptics. When I asked them whether someone could “become Dutch” the way my dad “became American,” by adopting as his own a set of principles, they said “no”: “Dutchness” was for them cultural and historical, not a matter of abstract principles to which anyone could subscribe. In their easy and garrulous bonhomie (“you can tell a Dutchman, but you can’t tell him much”), they conformed to a type with which I’d long been familiar, a type quite different from that of the Germans, Austrians, French, Italians, English, Scots, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians I’ve known.

What, then, is a united Europe? It’s clearly a common market, where goods, services, and people flow easily over political boundaries. But on the ground, among the groundlings who aren’t part of the bureaucratic or business elites, nationhood is still a serious matter. Who wouldn’t cherish such a particularistic legacy of artistic and architectural achievement, of long lives led in and on the land, of habits and tastes developed in response to local gifts and resources? A trivial example: try to find in Salzburg, Austria the array of ethnic restaurants available in, say, Grand Rapids, Michigan. There clearly isn’t a market for that sort of variety, day-in and day-out. But if you’d like a Schnitzel done a dozen different ways or one of a number of distinctive Knödeln (dumplings), you’re in the right place.

But, someone might respond, the united Europe is young. Give it time. Just as the creation of an American national identity wasn’t the work of a few years, so will it take time in Europe.

There is, I think, something to this line of argument: economic interests are powerful, if not irresistible, and modern means of travel and communication make “cosmopolitanism” ever easier.

Still, the differences between the American and European experiences ought to give one pause. For the most part, Americans shared a language, culture, and religion (even taking into account that differences among Protestant denominations loomed larger in the past than they do now). Their distinctive local histories were relatively short-lived. And the ideas they were asked to devote “their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to were powerful, not to say compelling, inspiring, and galvanizing.

By contrast, distinctive national and regional cultures in Europe have deep roots, going back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The shared language is a second language, imported from across the Channel, if not across the Atlantic. People may not, for the most part, take religion too seriously (or seriously enough), but there remains a cultural residue expressed in language, iconography, holidays, and the way people honor their dead, among other things. And it goes without saying that the bureaucrats of the European Union do not resemble the American Founders or Abraham Lincoln, let alone the Sandwirth Andreas Hofer.

In The Politics, Aristotle argues that a city is not constituted “for the sake of an alliance to prevent their suffering injustice from anyone, nor for the purposes of exchange and use of one another,” but rather by a concern for character. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the EU is a subpolitical entity, facilitating commerce, but not really providing for or creating a political community. It would, further, be a mistake to think that commercial interests by themselves could generate a political community. At best, they are the necessary but not sufficient conditions of such a union. And if they aren’t properly contextualized, they’re more likely to produce individuation than community.

So, for me, the bottom line is that the new Europe works reasonably well as a market, not well as a polity. If Europe is to be more than that, there has to be something higher to which Europeans are to be called. But the only possible candidate—Christendom—is something to which the Eurocrats appear to be allergic. Perhaps, then, it’s just as well that “the people” continue to cherish their local ways, even as they sample those of others on vacation.

I’ll change my mind if and only if in some future World Cup there is a team representing all of Europe, instead of the national sides now in contention. And I’d regard it as a great loss for soccer—excuse me, football—and for Europe, if the national styles expressed in the different teams were homogenized into oblivion, along with all the distinctiveness they represent.

Long live the old Europe!

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.