Enda O’Doherty : Does Europe Exist?

The Dublin Review of Books


The Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, in a chapter she contributed to a book published in 1992, stated with some confidence her view that there was no such thing as European culture. There was certainly, she wrote, Italian and German music, and Florentine and Venetian painting, “but there is no European music and no European painting”.
It is true that the history of art and culture was not really Heller’s field, but it would seem that those who, in the same year as she wrote her essay, framed the Maastricht Treaty, signalling the transition from European Community to European Union, at least partially agreed with her. The treaty was the first time the community had taken for itself significant powers in the cultural field. European cultures (note the plural), the relevant article stated, were to be understood as requiring “respect” – by which one understands freedom from too much supranational interference (“The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity …”). At the same time however, the Community was to be entrusted with the task of “[b]ringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.optical illusion 11

As with most negotiated texts, there is a compromise lurking here, or possibly a contradiction. First, cultures are to be understood as national (and grudgingly, just a little bit regional); they are even perhaps what define nations, the particular set of practices and inheritances which the Dutch, or the Germans, or the Portuguese have by virtue of their nationality, the thing that they have and no other nation has –that Dutch, that Portuguese thing. And yet it seems, according to Maastricht, that there is also a common cultural heritage which belongs equally to the Dutch and the Germans and the Portuguese. But what is this heritage? Is it something made up of a little bit of everywhere sort of tacked together (“the Europe of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe” perhaps, to which statesmen like to pay obeisance in their speeches before quickly passing on to more important matters)? Or could it be something more mysterious, something actually European?

In all probability the form of words used in Article 128 (now Article 151) of the Maastricht Treaty arose from a conflict between national, or nationalist, sensitivity, some mildly separatist or regionalist traditions and supranational idealism, or, if you like, Brussels overreaching. In the current balance of power in the union the first tends to be stronger than any of the others. When the French talk of culture they mean Racine, while the Italians mean Petrarch and Dante. They may also of course be “convinced Europeans”, in which case they will wish to share Racine, or Petrarch and Dante, with all their neighbours. Of a putative European culture they will ask “How much of ours will get in?”

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