The British ‘Idea of Europe’ Is Still a Mess

Shane Weller’s The Idea of Europe, hampered by an unconscious form of Euroscepticism, suggests that British critics are still not ready to listen to their neighbors.

The Idea of Europe: A Critical History
Shane Weller
Cambridge University Press
May 2021

Context is key to an appraisal of Shane Weller’s The Idea of Europe: A Critical History, published this year by the Cambridge University Press. It made its appearance very shortly after the end of the protracted process of Brexit (June 2016 – January 2020), the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union during the global populist surge of the 2010s. While other countries that experienced a ‘populist phase’ have begun to move on, the identity crisis that followed the Brexit vote in Britain remains very much a chronic headache.

Weller’s book, with its sophisticated and meticulously researched overview of what the term ‘Europe’ has signified from Antiquity to the present age, is therefore part of a broader collective attempt to answer a difficult question that has challenged, haunted, entertained, frustrated, exhausted, provoked, stimulated and depressed the modern British electorate for the last half-decade – what does it mean to be European? And on from that, how does a British identity find its place within a broader European framework?

The Idea of Europe was especially interesting and exciting to me because, full disclosure, I am a former European immigrant to the UK who departed that country in response to the Brexit vote. (Today I am living in Berlin.) Having distanced myself from what used to be my adoptive home, and having written about European identity in the meantime, I was looking forward to exploring how perspectives on this topic had progressed in the years since my departure.

Sadly, having finished the book, I am left feeling that there has been very little progress at all. Though Weller’s work succeeds in forwarding a relevant, persuasive critique, it also remains anchored to a limited (and frankly outdated) local perspective, making of this less The Idea of Europe than the British idea of Europe. Most disappointingly, for all of the author’s ability to reveal how former Europeanists lacked the ability and/or the interest to be self-critical, Weller never seems willing to do what he expects of others and question his own assumptions and cultural biases. This is critical history that is never self-critical.

If The Idea of Europe is taken as a barometer reading for the national discourse that engendered it, the conclusion must be that the lessons of Brexit have not been learned. But let us start from the beginning, as there is much to unpack here.

I. A Critique of Euro-Supremacy

Forming the theoretical backbone of Weller’s critical approach are three concepts that he identifies as constants in the discourse on Europe: 1. Euro-universalism, meaning the assumption that the values developed and/or embraced by Europeans are in fact the values of humanity as a whole – basically, ‘what’s good for us is good for everyone’; 2. Eurocentrism, the belief that everything that’s good in Europe originated exclusively within its borders, and that what happens within those borders is the only thing that matters; and 3. Euro-supremacy, the idea that Europe should dominate the other regions of the world in military, cultural, economic, and/or any other terms.

To avoid repetition, I refer to this trichotomy of ideas as ‘Eurocentrism/etc.’ whenever it is necessary to discuss them as a block.

These three concepts offer an excellent springboard for a critique. They are precisely defined, historically recurrent, and much subtler than one might initially believe. Weller provides a solid conceptual framework that illuminates some of the most problematic ideas in the continent’s history (e.g., the racist othering of Asians as servile and of Africans as primitive). With this framework in place, the book explores both the writings of those who established and promoted Eurocentrism/etc. as well as the considerably smaller number of those who questioned and critiqued it. At the heart of the author’s argument lies the idea that the discourse on Europe was never a black and white affair, but an ambiguous, diverse and endlessly contradictory process.

At his absolute best, Weller provides an incisive and impeccably researched critique that all European identitarians must contend with. The argument is not that there have been and are people who thought of Europe in racist and supremacist terms (this is hardly news, alas), but that the ways of thinking we see as reactionary and aggressive are intimately linked with those we usually identify as more progressive and enlightened. In the author’s words, ‘there may be a dialectical relation between the best and the worst,’ so that ‘the idea of Europe itself is in some sense anti-European.’

Weller’s strongest suit is cultural history from the Enlightenment onwards, and a great example of his ability to reveal unseen ideological links is found when he relates that period to a movement usually seen as its absolute antinomy: Nazism. Because the latter has become synonymous with pure, uncomplicated evil, Weller’s claims that ‘Hitler was following in the tradition of so many champions of Europe before him’ will probably raise some hackles.

And yet the argument is persuasively articulated. The Enlightenment did see intellectuals projecting an antagonism with the peoples of Asia and pushing the euro-universalist assumption that ‘European civilization was civilization as such’. As Weller shows throughout his book, it was from these foundations that the race-based ideologies of the 19th and 20th Centuries gradually evolved. For all of its unique radicalism and violence, the Nazi vision of Europe does emerge out of an existing intellectual tradition, and it does carry aspects of the Enlightenment in its DNA.

Weller introduces his extensive analysis with a chapter on pre-Enlightenment history, but here the author is clearly on weaker grounds. His thesis that Eurocentrism/etc. trace their roots directly to Antiquity too often seems based on identifying superficial, even coincidental similarities across a much more restricted selection of sources. For example, Weller points to Aristotle’s opposition, drawn out in the latter’s Politics, between the ‘Asian race’ and the ‘European race’ as a precursor to Eurocentrism/etc.

The problem is that both ‘races’ here are being described pejoratively, to emphasize instead the virtue of the Greeks – a classic example of ancient tribalistic vanity. Weller dances around this fact by writing that Aristotle was ‘identifying as Hellenic what would come to be seen as European’, but the projection seems convenient, as there is little (even geographically) in the Classical philosopher’s concepts that correspond to later ideas of Europe.

Weller’s deductions seem even more contorted when it comes to Ancient Rome. He writes, ‘[t]he idea of (Roman) Europe is very clearly that of an empire which is superior to all other civilizations’. This seems like a flagrant case of putting the cart before the horse – it was Rome itself, not Europe at large, that was consistently portrayed as ‘an empire superior to all other civilizations’. Weller builds his case by pointing to various Roman representations of Asian or North African peoples as barbaric, but he overlooks the fact that very similar if not identical tropes were being consistently deployed against Rome’s European neighbors, starting from the Celts. It’s hard to see how any of this was a form of Eurocentrism/etc. in the much more specific sense we encounter later in the book.

The remainder of the overview of pre-Enlightenment history is also very limited – it glosses entirely over the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, the Byzantine Empire, and Poland’s Golden Age, to name but a few cultural matrices of enormous importance in European history. This latter criticism, however, is ultimately of little consequence. As soon as Weller moves on to his historical bread and butter in Chapter 2, the substance of his critique becomes very powerful indeed, and this is a merit of the book that its shortcomings do not diminish.

II. Academic Form and Political Neutrality

A quick digression: I recently reviewed another book relevant to European affairs, Yanis VaroufakisAdults in the Room (2017). I noted in my conclusion that the contemporary discourse surrounding Europe suffers from a bimodal malaise: it can only explicate itself in the rhetorical mode of sensationalist, angry populism, or else in that of heady academic textbooks for the super-educated.

With that in mind, it was entirely unsurprising to find that The Idea of Europe – a book written by an academic and published by the Cambridge University Press – should fall squarely in the latter of those two categories. It is as extensively researched as it is challenging for the layman. Part of this challenge lies in the fact that the book presumes a considerable level of familiarity with the many historical periods, movements, events, and people it references. If the author introduces the highly atypical views of poet Giacomo Leopardi, for instance, don’t expect him to contextualise them within the latter’s idiosyncratic, contrarian philosophical views.

But to a great extent, the difficulty has to do with the book’s style. Like so many academic texts, it seems to aspire to an algid ideal of objectivity and neutrality, and in the process ends up sounding very dull. Weller studiously avoids giving his prose anything like a distinctive voice, much less an entertaining one. In an effort to be as impersonal as possible, he will eschew natural sentence openers like ‘I think that…’ in favor of ponderous, passive turns of phrase (‘To this, one might respond…’).

Tangentially, I can’t help but highlight the irony that even though the primary challenge in The Idea of Europe is given by the style, a classic marker of that same style is a constant over-emphasis on the challenges at hand. Weller certainly loves to indulge in that – almost any time that something he writes sounds vaguely conclusive, he feels obliged to remind us that ‘[t]he reality is far more complex’, or ‘[t]hat is far from being the whole story’. I found these reminders more tiring than useful, as there was little in the book that really seemed abstruse.

Now, the choice of such a recognizably academic style would not be an issue – and might not even be worth mentioning – if it did not relate directly to a particular discursive problem that Weller is first in line to recognize:

This failure to find a way of making the idea of Europe something that could appeal to more than a cosmopolitan cultural elite […] was, and in many respects remains, among the principal challenges for those who believe in the need for a widely shared sense of European identity. The narrowly high-cultural idea of Europe excludes the majority of Europeans, and leaves the terrain open to those with a nationalist agenda. 

I am not sure if Weller has any idea just how tone-deaf these arguments sound when they are made in the most elitist rhetorical form in existence short of symbolic poetry. I suspect that were someone to raise the issue with him, he might reply that even if The Idea of Europe discusses Europeanism and nationalism, the book itself takes no stance on these topics – that it is only an objective, impassioned presentation of the facts, and therefore itself not responsible for ‘leaving the terrain open to those with a nationalist agenda’.

Unfortunately, this is exactly why the academic register is so problematic in this context. With its impersonal voice, its erasure of the first person, and its conceits of neutrality and objectivity, it lets writers entertain the delusion that they are above politics, or at least politically neutral. Of course, though, there is no such thing as being politically neutral – and what inevitably happens is that the author’s political bias ends up emerging in the book’s language. This is what happens in The Idea of Europe, and exactly where the book is most disappointing.

Weller’s own ‘idea of Europe’, as it reveals itself through the cracks of his academic (non-)persona, is just a throwback to a British eurosceptic cliché. Furthermore, it is one that is liable to almost every criticism the author deploys in his book – exclusion of the other, self-centrism, and a critical lack of self-awareness. It is to the nature of this cliché that we must now turn our attention.