The Blog

Can Europe Ever Make Peace With Itself?

A thousand years ago, Europeans clubbed together in search of a common mission to defeat an enemy. And in doing so, through their Crusades, through war and conflict, they began forging an identity against an Other that would bind them together as one. This would sharpen a frontier they called Christendom, and sow the seeds of what would begin to define an idea of Europe that would not come into full fruition until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. From across what would become Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and, of course, France, tribes put aside their separation of language, geography, custom and ritual, and used a common enemy to bind their unity. Christendom would be defined against Islam. Indeed, as the Belgian Henri Pirenne once pointed out, 'Charlemagne without Muhammad would have been inconceivable'; Europe without an Other wouldn't have existed.

Today, a millennium on, under the strain of a refugee crisis, a rising far-right, attacks from Islamic extremism and a political Union on the brink of re-negotiation, Europe is once again challenged to define itself. But this time, the totem pole around which Europeans gather is not Christendom. It is the secular values given to us by the cultural descendants of Charlemagne himself - the values of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the pre-Christian, Greco-Roman pillars of democracy and citizenship upon which Europe is built. And after centuries of war between themselves, after centuries of in-house power struggles and conflicts of hegemonic colonialisation and territorial empire, Europe is again finding itself having to club together. Europeans are again being forced to recognise that what we share is ultimately more important than what divides us.

The attacks in Paris hold a particular resonance; partly because Paris feels so close, geographically; it is local and round the corner; it is in Western Europe's backyard and not in some far off land that disappears when the television is turned off. Furthermore, it feels familiar, culturally. People walk and shop and drink and eat as we all do, freely, across the continent. We see ourselves in them; we know the streets; we shop in the shops; we have friends and family who eat in the cafés. But perhaps most significantly, Paris feels foundational. Historically, it has a central place in what Europe stands for. A shot at Paris is a shot at one of the many hearts of Europe. Paris, no, France itself, like Greece and Rome, in so many ways has been a bastion of European ideals, a battlefield over which Europe's values have been won or lost. From the Frankish victory over the Moors in 732, to the Liberation of Paris in 1944, from the French Revolution in 1789, to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951, France has played a central role in defining boarders and shaping the values we hold so dear. And as a result, for some, action is required to show European solidarity. And that action, whatever it is, will no doubt perpetuate and inspire a cycle of revenge and opposition that has been and will continue to be.

But perhaps, bizarrely, that is part of the point. Because conspicuous opposition might be part of the internal solution for a Europe on the verge of division; it may help remedy a Europe that is buckling under internal strains that it finds itself facing. After all, peace has rarely been part of the story. On the contrary, much of what has come to define 'Europeanness' has been born out of conflict and struggle. The very idea of Europe itself has been forged in the fires of opposition and tussle with an Other. Whether it be the Battle of Tours or the Crusades of the Middle-Ages, or the Reconquista or the Siege of Vienna, European identity has been marked by violence and massacre. Even the values of freedom and equality themselves were internally born out of a Reign of Terror, and the very notion of political union born out of genocide. Indeed, there can be no escaping the ferocity and destruction involved in the processes of a European ideal. So Europe's answer to Paris is not necessarily about winning. It is about continuing a narrative of who we are versus who we are not. The European Union states we are 'united in diversity', upholding a notion that at this end of the vast peninsula that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Bering Sea, no matter who one is or where they come from, no matter what one looks like or what they believe, whether one is a Jew or a Muslim, a Christian or a Hindu, an atheist or a Jain, on European soil we are all free and equal, as Europeans. We overcome division because we share something that transcends difference. And it is what we share together that defines who we are. But it forces some difficult questions about ourselves, for example whether or not conflict is actually an integral part of how we define ourselves? Do we need to seek, create and maintain Otherness to help us stay united? Is violence and bloodshed a necessary part of how we define who we are? Ghandi once said that strength does not come from physical capacity, but comes from an indomitable will. What we have to ask ourselves is: what is the cost of Europe's indomitable will? And are we happy with that cost? And how much are we really prepared to pay to uphold we want to consider European?