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

III. Understanding British Euroscepticism

That Weller’s personal stance is informed by underlying Euroscepticism is revealed not when he criticizes the European heritage, but when he tries to write positively about it. In doing so, he methodically avoids any and all vocabulary that may have unambiguously positive connotations. He never writes that there is something about Europe we should celebrate, or cherish, or honor, or appreciate, or commend, or applaud, or even just respect. Instead, when Weller is at his most generous he will allow that there is ‘much that warrants salvaging (or some slight variation thereof).

Although Weller never stops to explore this, to say that parts of Europe ‘warrant salvaging’ already carries an implicit ‘idea of Europe’ – as fundamentally a shipwreck, or in any case a failure, a disaster of great proportions. This underlying idea of Europe, along with the language that is used to convey it, can be traced to a culture of Euroscepticism that is specifically British and left-wing.

Euroscepticism in Britain is often mischaracterised as a right-wing prerogative, and Weller seems to fall for that trap himself (‘[t]he Euro-skepticism that […] that ultimately achieved Britain’s exit from the EU in 2020, came, for the most part, from the political right’). In reality, Euroscepticism takes different forms depending on the culture in which it is found, and it can absolutely characterise both right- and left-wing thinking.

In Britain, for example, it has two principal strains, which align precisely with the two sides of that political binary. That of the political right is overt, and mostly targets institutions related to Europe – the European Union, naturally, but by extension also bodies unrelated to it, like the European Court of Human Rights. That of the political left, on the other hand, is considerably more subtle. Its target is ‘Europe’ not as a political body but as an identity, and/or as an object of culture or history that may contribute to the formation of identity in any way.

British left-wing Euroscepticism is subtle because, unlike its right-wing counterpart, it operates almost exclusively by connotation. It doesn’t involve saying anything explicit against Europe but rather discusses it from apparently neutral grounds – if possible even indirectly – while simultaneously employing rigorously and exclusively terms that are directly connoted to immorality, tyranny, racism, oppression, exploitation, bloodshed, and any other thing along these lines.

Weller’s subtextual association of European civilisation to a shipwreck follows a long tradition and a common logic, one which regularly employs the term ‘Europe’ as a connotative signifier for anything from neoliberalism and inequality (an explicit example would be Kate Tempest’s poem, ‘Europe is Lost’) to theft and appropriation (like Diana Darke’s recent architectural history about the influence of Islamic buildings on the Gothic style).

As always, the topic of immigration carries a lot of heft in these discussions, with the paradoxical suggestion that although supporting the European Union means being welcoming to immigrants, actually identifying as European implies an aversion towards immigrants. The grounds for this are, putatively, that ‘European identity’ is a racist code for ‘white identity’. Here is an exemplary quote from a Guardian article: on the topic:

It is particularly odd, when you think about it, that identifying with “Europe” should be thought of as an expression of cosmopolitanism. Europe is not the world and supporting the EU, or thinking of yourself as European, does not make you a “citizen of the world”, let alone a “citizen of nowhere”, as Theresa May famously suggested in 2016. Rather, it makes you a citizen of a particular region – one that happens to be the whitest on earth. In fact, historically, “European” and “white” were largely synonymous – think, for example, of what “European” meant in apartheid South Africa. 

– Hans Kundani

The argument that self-identified ‘Europeans’ have a racist bias against immigration is, of course, predicated on the idea that in the UK an ‘immigrant’ is necessarily a person coming from outside of Europe – while people like me, who joined British society from the outside and who very much identify as European, are assumed not to exist or simply to be irrelevant.

I want to stress that none of the above associations are necessarily wrong in and of themselves. Europe has an awful history of war and imperialism which absolutely warrants critique and, in the appropriate contexts, pejorative connotation. The problem, rather, is that these arguments should exist within a discourse that is pluralistic and not unilateral. A European immigrant who moves to, say, France, will encounter ‘Europe as the object of scathing eurosceptic critiques, but also of a great deal many other things, from light-hearted comedies to popular music.

On the other side of the channel, this diversity of representation simply does not exist. The message that comes from the British political left and right in unison is that outsiders must leave their European identity at the border or else accept being a persona non grata, as evidenced by the fact that, in the build-up to the Brexit referendum, all of the ‘Remain’ arguments (including those underwritten by Weller himself) were always articulated in terms of the self-interested advantages of remaining in the European Union, almost never in terms of a sense of belonging or cultural affinity. It was always ‘let’s stick together because this is the best deal we can get’, and never ‘let’s stick together because we are a family’.

Incidentally, I should probably point out that my argument here is limited to Euroscepticism as it is found in British culture; were we to also examine the ways it is found in left-wing political activism, the material to examine would become overwhelming very quickly, from the figureheads to the alliances, to the publications, to the hard left being every bit as overtly eurosceptic as the hard right – but that is another story.

The Idea of Europe dedicates a great deal of words to deconstructing the ways that previous notions about Europe were informed by national stereotypes. Thus, Victor Hugo’s Europeanism was Francocentric, Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s was Germanocentric, and so on. The irony, of course, is that The Idea of Europe itself represents an example of what is very clearly a Britannocentric approach to the topic. Not only does it uncritically embrace a cliché and a language that can be traced to an obvious national background, but it also adopts (and insists on) a perspective in which concerns and ideas that cannot be immediately reduced to those of (a particular idea of) British identity are either conveniently ignored or dismissed as illegitimate.

For example, Weller writes in his conclusion: ‘In the slow and inconceivably challenging movement toward […] world civilization, with its concomitant idea of humanity, the idea of Europe has in effect to fall away’. What is truly notable about this statement – aside from the fact that someone who campaigned to remain in the European Union is telling us that deep down he wants to see Europe cease to exist entirely – is that it so clearly informed, again, by a strictly national preoccupation.

Because British identity is so decisively defined in relation to its imperial history, and because the idea of a European identity in its own right is taboo in left-wing British discourse, Weller ends up framing his book as a recognizably (and reassuringly) British meditation, one which simply swaps out the word ‘Empire’ and replaces it with ‘Europe’. When he says that ‘the idea of Europe has to fall away’, he is really talking about the recent and necessary dissolution of the British Empire, and no doubt his argument can be expected to resonate with British readers. It is unlikely to mean much to other Europeans.

This is especially though not exclusively true of Eastern Europeans, whose history largely involved being the victims – and not the perpetrators – of imperialism and colonialism (including, as was the case for the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, imperialism from outside of Europe). Because Weller seems to think of Europe as essentially a bigger version of the British Empire, the historical responsibility it has to contend with relates to ‘its long history of imperialism, colonialism, racism, and genocide, of cultural stereotyping and cultural supremacism.’ But except for Russia, this responsibility is almost entirely Western European, and to expect people who experienced genocide in their own lifetimes to identify themselves as its culprits is especially insensitive and insulting.

It is also yet another case of Weller not listening to his own lessons, as he so often attacks writers whose idea of Europe was shorthand for Western Europe exclusively. The chapter ‘Other Europes’ represents the author’s attempt to counter this bias, and it is as commendable in intent as it is limited in execution – Weller only considers 20th Century thinkers, which doesn’t exactly balance things out when his sweeping gaze over the rest of the continent starts more than 2,500 years ago. It certainly doesn’t address the author’s insistence that the historical heritage of Western Europe must be characterised as the heritage of all Europe indiscriminately.

Since The Idea of Europe does such a good job at dissecting how previous writers failed to examine their old ‘idea’ self-critically, it is simply astounding that the author never seems willing to question his own assumptions. Instead, he blithely repeats every single mistake of his predecessors, updating the form and sanitising the language but recycling the problematic substance. Weller writes: ‘Even when the emphasis is placed squarely on diversity, the difficulty of thinking beyond one’s own cultural identifications is formidable’. So it is, and thanks for demonstrating.

IV. Still an Island

As The Idea of Europe reaches the final chapter, in which a proposal is delineated for a new, more progressive version of this idea’, one gets a sense of Weller’s noble aspirations. This was, presumably, a book intended to circulate internationally among European intellectuals, sparking a cross-border discussion that would challenge stereotypes and foster inclusion.

The unfortunate truth is that this work is much more likely to exert its influence within national borders. Its most direct effect will be to reinforce the cultural stereotypes that make the British left so prevalently Eurosceptic, and therefore so hostile to immigrants who identify as European. This hostility may be inadvertent, perhaps even well-meaning, but all the same, it is real enough that – in combination with the more overt xenophobia coming from the right – it ended up with me leaving the country, unable to feel truly part of any community.

Even choosing to overlook the book’s decidedly non-inclusive register, is there anything in Weller’s final proposal that, to borrow the author’s terms, warrants salvaging? I am not sure that there is. The Idea of Europe is largely about showing that past ideas about the region were grounded on vanity and delusion rather than history, and Weller gives us no reason to believe his own idea, as progressive and desirable as it may sound, is any different in this sense. He borrows from Tzvetan Todorov to identify ‘the European values of rationality, justice, democracy, individual freedom, secularism, and tolerance’, but by the author’s own admission none of these things are exclusively or inherently European (with the possible, contentious exception of secularism), so why relate them to an idea of Europe at all?

As Weller struggles to make his proposal conform to those values, he stumbles from one truism to another. ‘Europe should not believe uncritically in its own myths’, he declares. ‘[A]n awareness of imperfection needs to accompany each and every attempt to achieve improvements both at the level of the individual and at that of society’. We should pursue ‘a failingly better idea of Europe, […] one that never rests happy with itself, and that never accepts any notion of itself in terms of an opposition to a non-European other’. This is all well and good, but what does this have to do with Europe specifically? Which part of Weller’s argument could not be lifted and applied in the same identical terms to a potential ‘idea of America’ for example, or to an ‘idea of India’?

In assessing the value of Weller’s critique, it is impossible to overlook the many ways The Idea of Europe implicates itself in the processes it is trying to describe. The antiquated Francocentric and Germanocentric views of past writers are reflected in Weller’s contemporary Britannocentric approach. The tendency to reduce the entire continent’s cultural make-up to Western Europe is first dismantled and then re-proposed in an updated form. The elitism of lofty Enlightenment intellectuals now takes the form of Weller’s distinctly academic style and approach. And the call to arms to resist simple binaries (e.g., civilization versus barbarism) sounds more than a little odd, when the essence of the book’s entire ‘critical’ approach is to divide the history of the European idea between proponents of Eurocentrism/etc. on one side and its critics on the other while shutting down any interpretations that do not conform to this dichotomy: ‘Those histories of the idea of Europe that do not reflect upon the highly problematic nature of Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, and Euro-universalism are fundamentally non-critical.’ 

Weller ends his book with a sentence that I rearrange here very slightly: Europe […] must seek to listen as intently as it possibly can to the voices […] of those whom it has for so long identified as non-European, […] for there is so much to be learned from them.

It seems the first step might be for British critics to start listening to the voices of their immediate neighbors as well. But neither Weller, nor The Idea of Europe, nor the post-Brexit United Kingdom has any time for that.

Works Cited

Darke, Diana. Stealing from the Saracens. Hurst. August 2020.

Gruneberg, Michael and Wright, Nick. “Why communists back Brexit“. The Guardian. 3 January 2019.

Houellebecq , Michel. Serotonin. ‎ DuMont Buchverlag GmbH. January 2019

Klapisch, Cédric. L’Auberge Espagnole. 17 May 2002.

Kundnani, Hans. “Europe’s reputation as a cosmopolitan haven has been exposed as a mirage”. The Guardian. 12 September 2021.

Rentoul, John. “The thing about Jeremy Corbyn is that he really is a Eurosceptic”. The Independent. 20 October 2018.

Saez, Damien. “Mon Européenne“. YouTube. posted 29 November 2018.

Tallarita, Andrea. “‘Adults in the Room‘ lays bare a European failure. It is not the Greek crisis.” 1 September 2021.

Tallarita, Andrea. “One Thousand Years of Dialogue: the Historical Foundations of European Identity”. Medium. 25 August 2020.

Tempest, Kate. “Europe Is Lost“. YouTube. posted 25 October 2018.

Tuck, Richard. The Left Case for Brexit: Reflections on the Current Crisis. Polity. March 2020.

Zaretsky, Robert. “Michel Houellebecq Hated Europe Before You Did”. Foreign Policy. 5 January 2019.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.